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Intergenerational Households: We Can Make This Work

Tips for overcoming the common challenges of extended families in ways that are kind, courteous, civil and respectful

By Juliet Mitchell and Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Looking back over our collective history, intergenerational households are not new. Examples exist in Biblical stories: Adam and Eve had Cain and Abel. Noah, his wife, their sons, and sons' wives all boarded the ark together.

There have been periods in history, especially American history, where autonomy and independent living was the goal of most young people reaching the age of 18 years. Many a child would say, "When I'm 18, I'm outta here!" Many a parent would say, "When you turn 18, or finish high school, you're on your own!"

A grandmother eating snacks with her grandchildren. Next Avenue, intergenerational households
Credit: Photo by Alex Green

College, military, or work and get your own place — those options were the order of the day. As the world changed, being out on your own and having your own place became a rite of passage and a mark of "maturity."

Many aging adults need daily care and support, and they want to receive that care and support from loving family members.

We began to frown upon living with your parents. God forbid a man should be discovered living at home with his mother. I've heard many women say, "Girl, you don't want to date him. He's living in his momma's basement," followed by a snicker.

Multigenerational Households Are More Common

Now here we are in 2022 with a resurgence in intergenerational households. According to the Generations United 2021 Family Matters report, in America, intergenerational living quadrupled from 2011 to 2021, a 271% increase.

Further, the trend is not likely to decrease anytime soon. There are several factors contributing to this phenomenon. Based on my "informal research," these are the top three:

  • Lack of affordable housing based on family size
  • Aging adults
  • Lack of affordable child care

Notice that these top three contributors to the increase in intergenerational households are, in some way, related to economics, i.e., affordability. Many aging adults need daily care and support, and they want to receive that care and support from loving family members.

Very few choose to go into a care facility, even if their needs require around-the-clock-care, and even if they can afford the best facilities. They want to be in their own homes among family members.

If they were wary before COVID-19, they are downright scared now. We all know the impact that COVID-19 had on older adults, especially those in nursing homes and care facilities.

Sandwich Generation Gave Way to Triple-Deckers

Flip to the other end of the spectrum: Unemployment, under-employment and inadequate wages have made it nearly impossible for young people to move out, to be in their own apartment or purchase a home. They face the choice of either having five roommates or living with their parents.

Over the past year, several friends and relatives have raised the issue of intergenerational households and the challenge of such living arrangements. Several years ago, baby boomers were called the sandwich generation — still raising children and caring for aging parents.

Now, we have a triple-decker: As World War II and postwar cohorts, boomers, GenXers, Millennials and Gen Zers cohabitate, adults are now raising children, caring for aging parents and grandparents. That's a lot to deal with. I've heard stories.

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This could be a book all by itself, but for the sake of this limited space, I'm approaching this from an etiquette perspective. What are some of the common challenges of intergenerational living and how do we overcome those challenges in ways that are kind, courteous, civil and respectful? In other words, "What's the etiquette thing to do?"

"It's hard for adults to live together because everyone has their own way of doing things."

I went to the source, the people who are in intergenerational living situations right now, including me, and this is what they (we) have to offer.

How Do We Make It Work?

The bottom line came from one of the young people I spoke with. She said, "It's hard for adults to live together because everyone has their own way of doing things." We are often critical and judgmental of others and believe our way is the best way.

Here are some tips to make the arrangement work:

  • Create a financial agreement and pay your share when it is due. Don't be going out to dinner and getting personal care services if you have not paid your share of the bills.
  • If you mess up, clean up. By the way, cleaning the kitchen goes beyond washing the dishes.
  • If you are not working and you are in good health, then your job is to contribute to the household in other ways — wash a few more dishes, vacuum or do other chores without being asked.
  • Family first. Be as helpful and available to your family as you are to your friends. You might be inconvenienced at times, but that's life. If grandpa has a doctor's appointment, take him. If dad's car breaks down, offer to take him to work. If your daughter needs a sitter for a job interview, offer to help.
  • Speaking of sitters, older adults (parents and grandparents) are not built-in babysitters.
  • Whoever is watching the program first is in charge of the remote control until that program is over. If the person is not working, sorry, you don't get to control the remote control all your waking hours.
  • If you do laundry, finish it. You can't just leave your laundry in the washer or dryer all the time.
  • Have you heard the expression "talking under your breath"? Don't do that.
  • If you use someone else's vehicle, gas it up, clean it up and treat it as if it's your own — maybe better.

Meet Regularly to Iron Out Inevitable Conflicts

You may have heard my motto: Put your best foot forward and claim your seat at the table. When you are at the table, you are better positioned for success. Well, y'all, if you want to have a successful intergenerational living arrangement, then bring the family to the table. 

Literally come to the table for regular family meetings. Set some guidelines for how you will engage and interact — first agree that there will be no yelling, screaming, fussing or cussing.

Consider a family counselor or mediator. Better still, use the circle approach. Agree to use respectful language, listen, share, agree on a plan and a way to move forward together. 

Families can live together in a healthy and respectful way — a way that shows respect for self, respect for others and respect for the household. Will there be breakdowns, upset and grievances? Of course, that's being human. Extend grace and recommit.

Put your best foot forward and claim your seat at the table!

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.

Juliet Mitchell is a certified etiquette trainer and business coach. She holds a Masters degree in human development from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and is licensed by the Emily Post Business Etiquette Institute. Read More
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