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Immigrants, Long Covid and Multigenerational Living: A Family's Story

A glance into a multigenerational household filled with learning, growth and love opportunities

By Sophie Okolo

Whenever I hear multigenerational, I often forget that my immigrant family embodies the meaning. Even in our previous home in Nigeria, our grandmother was a frequent visitor in our household. The grandkids also spent many summers living in her home in the countryside, where we knew aunts, uncles, cousins and some family members who even lived there at specific periods.

Three siblings smiling at home. Next Avenue, long covid
The Okolo siblings  |  Credit: Sophie Okolo

So when my family immigrated to the U.S. almost 20 years ago, it was the same affair, despite the challenges of living in a new country, culture shock and our triumphs and trials. But the coronavirus pandemic affected our lives, especially how my family cared for my sister after her diagnosis of long-haul COVID.

Our home for the last 20 years has included my grandmother, my parents, and my siblings.

Our home for the last 20 years has included my grandmother, my parents, and my siblings, a household of three generations consisting of Millennials, Boomers, and Post-War. It creates a unique dynamic because of how each generation, but more importantly, each person, sees the world.

And when you include culture into the mix, it further creates an interesting interaction. For example, my grandmother doesn't trust a washing machine and prefers to wash clothes by hand (and by herself, I may add) because she believes the clothes are cleaner.

My mother likes washing dishes by hand for the same reason, and my siblings and I prefer to use the dishwasher or washing machine because it's easier, especially if the quantity is large. But I admit that when I moved to the East Coast in 2019, I often handwashed dishes.

The Pandemic Erased Our Family Labels

While these could be labeled generational or cultural, the COVID-19 pandemic erased those labels and showed my family what truly binds us: our humanity.

It happened right after celebrating my grandmother's 91st birthday in the Spring of 2021. My sister started feeling ill a few days later with symptoms like fever, chills, cough and shortness of breath. She soon tested positive for COVID-19 and isolated herself from the family.


But, as the days passed, she wasn't getting any better. Her symptoms persisted over time, and she was later diagnosed with long COVID. 

What happened next was encouraging. It would be easy to brush over the fact by saying this is what our family does, but things are more complicated.

But like the loneliness of chronic illness, growing older without community can harm one's health and mental well-being.

Research shows that each family is unique in its characteristics, having several helpful and unhelpful cofunctions. 

Specifically, an immigrant family comes with its symbiosis, and ours is no different. For instance, we don't often think of the grandchildren being caregivers for their grandparents.

But according to the National Alliance and AARP, adult grandchildren make up almost 10% of those family members providing care to older adults.

Hence, while this is new to many in the U.S, grandchildren caring for grandparents is common in some cultures, just like in our family, where we care for our grandmother.

How COVID Changed Caregiving in My Home

But having long COVID changed the roles of caregiving in my home. Everyone was supportive, from providing her meals to a daily checkup because her condition worsened. My mother, who works as a pharmacist, supported her medication management; my grandmother, a former social worker in Nigeria, helped in the best way; and my brother went above and beyond in day-to-day tasks. 

It was a bit of a role reversal for the family, particularly for my mother and grandmother. However, my whole family helped her to navigate the complex world of health care because of her long COVID complications.

When we mention the benefits of multigenerational living, I now have a realistic picture of what it is. It takes virtues like patience, persistence, kindness, and ultimately love.

In healthy contexts, the benefits include, but are not limited to, more convenient and higher quality care for children or adults, improved financial situation, and the ability for a family member to pursue education or training. 

And I've seen these benefits in my family before and after my sister's battle with long COVID. To illustrate, our grandmother prefers living with us rather than living in a retirement community.

Thankfully, she's independent, and we don't have to make a difficult decision about 24-hour home care or a retirement community. 

The gift we gave each other during my sister's illness: community and sometimes of laughter and love to get through hard days.

But like the loneliness of chronic illness, growing older without community can harm one's health and mental well-being, just as reports showed the declining mental health of nursing home residents during COVID. 

Research shows that poor mental health can negatively impact physical health, leading to an increased risk of some conditions like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.

So while there are pros and cons of living with a loved one, as a family, we were grateful that our grandmother was living with us because she could at least see us every day. 

And that was the gift we gave each other during my sister's illness: the gift of community and sometimes of laughter and love to get through hard days. 

Eileen Button, the author of "The Waiting Place," states in her book, "While waiting for a loved one to get well (or to die), we fail to appreciate the days — even those filled with sickness and medications – we have with one another." And that summarizes my family's experience with long COVID.

Today my sister still suffers from long COVID, and she continues to manage and recover from it. And while we all have the freedom to move out or live with family, which some of us have chosen to do, we still understand and appreciate our multigenerational household: a time for learning, giving and gratitude.

Sophie Okolo is a Forbes Contributor, Columbia University Age Boom Academy Fellow, and TEDMED Research Scholar. She is the founder and host of Global Health Aging, a creative consultancy and award-nominated resource featuring diverse opinions, news stories, and innovative research about longevity and healthy aging. Read More
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