It sounds like the tagline for a sci-fi movie: Can baby boomers, Gen X and Millennials learn to live in peace and harmony? For millions of people, this scenario isn't fiction. It's reality. Many families are sharing housing and trying out multi-generational living.
The recession that began around the beginning of 2008 may have fueled it, but many think that the move toward multi-generational households was bound to happen.
Sharing a home is just one of the smart housing choices for grandparents, but it is one that makes sense on many levels.
Why Give It a Try
Families decide to share housing for three basic reasons: child care, elder care and money. Of course, moving into one home for the purpose of simplifying child care or elder care also has a financial component. Both types of care can be prohibitively expensive. But considerable money can also be saved on mortgage or rent, household furnishings and utilities. In addition, households can sometimes share vehicles, reducing another major budget item. In a more global sense, shared housing is a better use of resources than single-family housing.
Another factor that pushes some toward creating a multi-generational household is love of family. Truth be told, however, without other factors, family love would seldom be strong enough to spark such a move. Still, once moved in that direction by other factors, many families do find that their ties are strengthened.
Autonomy or Isolation?
With so many common-sense arguments for living in a multi-generational home, why don't more families give it a try? The reasons are many and complex, with a desire for independence topping the list. In the United States especially, the ideal for the better part of a century has been for nuclear families to live separately and enjoy independence and autonomy.
Proponents of multi-generational living say that the independence can equate to isolation, especially for the older generations.
Have a Financial Contract
Multi-generational living can save money, but it can also lead to disagreements. Many family disputes revolve around money, and that possibility is greater when the generations share housing.
If one generation is paying more than another, the ones paying more may feel entitled to the role of decision-makers. On the other hand, an agreement to share all expenses equally can give rise to many petty disputes. Are expenses divided by individual or by family unit? Should children be weighted equally with adults when dividing expenses? What expenses should be considered separately from household expenses? The issues are seemingly endless.
The best solution is to make a detailed agreement about how expenses will be shared but to also accept the reality that some inequity is inevitable. The parties involved should be willing to accept small instances of financial inequality in the interests of saving considerable sums of money.
Part of the agreement should be to revisit the terms periodically to see if adjustments should be made. Unexpected developments may also call for changes. If, for example, a young adult grandchild decides to move out, the financial equation may need to be re-calibrated.
The other major type of conflict might be termed territorial. Sharing housing works best if each person has some area where they can retreat with the expectation of privacy. Second entrances and second kitchens also promote a feeling of having one's own space. Unfortunately, many housing codes and neighborhood covenants forbid these amenities, in the interest of preventing multi-family housing. In order to carve out a separate area for the older occupants, some families utilize granny flats or accessory apartments, but these are prohibited in some areas, too.
Besides literal territorial struggles, families may clash over more abstract territorial questions. Who's in control? The triggering issue can be as small as dirty dishes or as big as disciplining the children. Experts advise anticipating as many of these conflicts as possible and developing strategies for dealing with them. Open communication is key, as is letting go of conflicts after they have been resolved.
Easier child care and elder care are reasons to create multi-generational households, but they can also be sources of conflict. Grandparents who expected to provide some child care sometimes resent being regarded as built-in babysitters. And young family members sometimes underestimate the amount of attention that an older family member will require.
The two situations have one significant difference. Child care duties typically become easier as the children get older, whereas elder care typically becomes more difficult as the individual ages. For that reason, the household should have plans in place for the time when elder care becomes too burdensome. The solution could be as simple as visits from a home health care aide.
Usually families that are considering sharing housing have a place in mind. Often one branch of the family has a house that, if not too big, is at least big enough for the clan. Failing that solution, sometimes the property is large enough to add on to the house or to add an accessory unit. Sometimes families agree to pool their resources to purchase a new home.
Usually it is wise for families exploring multi-generational housing to take the least drastic path until it becomes apparent whether the experiment is working work. Utilizing existing housing rather than moving or sinking money into modifications may be prudent. Excess furniture and household goods can be put in storage rather than being disposed of. Although some would say that such halfway measures indicate a lack of commitment to the experiment, they can keep individuals from being trapped in an unworkable situation.
Especially for Grandparents
Differences between the generations can also spawn conflict. The phrase generation gap wasn't coined idly. Is there a grandparent alive who hasn't disagreed with a decision made by an adult child, especially where grandchildren are concerned? But grandparents living in a multi-generational home must be extra careful to be supportive. Parents are often insecure about their parenting skills around the older generation, and the smallest comment from a grandparent could have serious repercussions. And if you are one of those grandparents who has difficulty with boundaries? It would best not to consider multi-generational living at all.
If you are intrigued by the idea of a shared household, take a look at some books on the subject. You can start by reading reviews of and Together Again, books which draw upon the experiences of those who have actually tried multi-generational living.