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Full House: A Guide to Surviving Multigenerational Living

Three generations under one roof brings more of everything: bodies, stress—but also love

By Robyn Griggs Lawrence | June 6, 2012

After a tough day at the church where she works as pastor, Amy Yoder McGloughlin comes home and confides in her mother-in-law, Judy, who has lived with her family in a five-bedroom home in Philadelphia for nine years. Amy turns to Judy regularly for advice, support and child care for her son, Will, 11, and daughter, Reba, 8. Judy cooks dinner for the family every Thursday and pushes Amy and her husband, Charlie, out the door for a date night every now and then. Amy can’t imagine how the family would function without her.
 
“Between my husband and me, we have a mortgage-size student loan debt every month, so Judy’s financial contribution really helps,” Amy says. “But there’s so much more than just financial benefit. We’re doing the ‘village’ thing—my kids are getting a better sense of what it means to be a family.”
 
The McGloughlins gave up some privacy when Judy moved in—“Charlie can’t sit around the living room in his boxers,” McGloughlin says—but they’re more than happy to share their home and everything in it. “Our house gets so much use that I have a hard time keeping the living room floor from having crud on it—and that’s okay,” Amy says. “This is something so much bigger than that. It’s practicing our values.”
 
Three Generations Under One Roof

The McGloughlins are part of a new normal, one in which 17 percent of the population—or about 54 million Americans—now live in multigenerational households. Once more common among Asian, Latino and other immigrant families, these types of arrangements are growing among all races and socio-economic groups. In fact, the number has almost doubled since 1980, according to Pew Research.
 
With so many people living together under one roof, housing trends are changing, too. Half the architects polled in a recent American Institute of Architects survey said that an increasing number of clients are looking for multigenerational housing, and 37 percent of Realtors in a national Coldwell Banker survey reported more buyers looking for homes that accommodate multiple generations.
 
“Multigenerational living has been increasing since the economy took a hit,” says Donna Butts, executive director of the intergenerational advocacy group Generations United (GU). “People have lost their homes or can’t save enough to purchase, or they’re living longer but have run out of resources. Families are struggling to work and provide child care; people are having a hard time breaking into the job market; and graduates need to be subsidized while they’re trying to make a dent in their student loans.”
 
In a 2011 Harris Interactive poll for GU, 72 percent of people living in multigenerational households noted that at least one family member was benefiting financially, 75 percent said it made it easier to care for relatives, and 82 percent reported enhanced family bonds. “We’re coming to realize that we need each other and that we’re very interconnected," says Butts. "This is a trend that will continue.”
 
This is a hot topic among educators and scholars. Two of them, John Graham and Sharon Niederhaus, interviewed more than 100 families living in multigenerational households for their book Together Again: A Guide to Successful Multi-Generational Living, and agree about the positive aspects of this kind of living arrangement.

“The old and faithful interdependence of extended family relationships is re-emerging as the cultural norm,” they write. Graham, a business professor at the University of California, Irvine, says that as all major institutions are changing under the weight of demographic shifts, “extended families—not government, not business—will save the day for us.”
 
Honest Communication Is Key            
 
Of course, no one’s saying it’s easy to live with your parents or children—let alone both. In the GU survey, 78 percent of respondents acknowledged that the arrangements contributed to household stress. Caring for older adults, not to mention sharing a bathroom with someone whose last address was a frat house can be trying, to say the least. Issues of privacy, independence, resource sharing and responsibility must be tackled head-on—ideally in advance of living together.
 
“The biggest factor in successful arrangements is communication,” says Butts, who advises people to have frequent family meetings where frank, open dialogue is encouraged. “You need to sit down before someone moves in and talk about expectations and parameters, including how you’ll divide up food, utilities and responsibilities. Another important question to ask is whether the situation is permanent or temporary.”
 
House rules on everything from dinnertime to overnight guests need to be stated clearly, and established routines should be respected, says parenting and relationship expert Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily. If dinner’s always been at 6 p.m. and it’s your house, that shouldn’t change. And, she adds, “if you have moral issues with opposite-sex sleepovers, you can make a rule against them.”
 
Money Is Always an Issue
 
The most common stressor when generations move in together is financial, Butts says. Splitting up the utility bill can be easy enough, but negotiations between parents and young adults can get dicey. If a child is moving back in while saving money toward a house, for example, everyone should be clear on goals and a timeline. “A young adult may think saving $100 a month is enough,” notes Butts, “but her parents may think otherwise.”
 
There are no hard and fast rules for financial arrangements, but families do need to establish guidelines that work for them. “Some parents take money, even a token amount, because it makes the adult child feel better when contributing to the family’s well-being,” Newman says. “Having to pay something—whatever to a landlord or just the electric bill—also encourages responsibility and money management. The latter is especially true if the adult child earns very little or has a part-time job.” No one should expect or get a free ride, she adds, but “you don’t want to let money dictate the relationship. You shouldn’t get hung up on someone not paying his $50 that month.”
 
The Importance of Private Spaces
 
When architect Jay Keller’s mother-in-law, Mercy Adefuin, could no longer get around on her own in her longtime Chicago suburb, Keller and his wife, Grace, invited her to live with them in the city. Initially she was reluctant because she feared she’d become dependent. But when Keller offered to design her an accessory unit with her own entrance and kitchen, Adefuin accepted. “My mother-in-law had a whole house before and was independent,” says Keller. “We didn’t want her to lose that. Now she can still cook and entertain her friends.”
 
Giving everyone access to both private and shared spaces is the cornerstone of harmonious family life, but purchasing a bigger house, building an extra unit or even modifying a home can be expensive and difficult. Zoning laws and municipal codes often prohibit accessory units, or “granny flats,” although Graham and Niederhaus predict that more municipalities will follow the lead of Seattle, Santa Cruz and Portland, Oregon, which have streamlined the permit process to encourage multigenerational housing. “We need to make it easier for people to establish these kinds of households because it’s a key issue of our time,” Graham says.
 
Often families have to make tight living conditions work by dividing rooms and establishing ironclad bathroom rotation schedules. Everyone in the household should have some personal space to claim. And when the house gets crowded, a neighborhood coffee shop or community center can provide a getaway spot. “Proximity with privacy is the key to success,” Niederhaus says. “Even just giving someone a two-burner stove and a mini refrigerator can go a long way.”
 
Be Flexible—and Laugh a Lot
 
Dividing up and assigning chores is a necessary part of keeping the wheels greased, Newman says. She suggests making a list of everything that needs to be done and letting everyone choose. “Strangely, it usually works out,” she says. “Not everyone likes to cook, and not everyone wants to do laundry.”
 
Perhaps the most dangerous pitfall, Newman warns, is falling back into patterns that no longer serve the relationship. Her advice: Refrain from interfering in one another’s private lives and respect each other as you would any roommate. Mom shouldn’t be cleaning up after her adult son—or prying into his dating life. “You’re getting to know your children as adults and your parents as people. You don’t want to fracture that family tie with conflicts that could be worked out. Remember,” she urges, “you’re building a lifelong relationship.”
 
Boulder-based Robyn Griggs Lawrence writes and speaks about healthy homes and wabi-sabi, the Japanese art of simplicity and imperfection.
 

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