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Making the Multi-Generational Household Work


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As Rabbi Meyer Waxman discusses elsewhere in this issue, more elderly parents are being forced, by circumstances, to move in with their adult children, as are more young adults who find themselves compelled to move back into their parents’ home. More adults have become part of the sandwich generation, as members of the six million American households today that span three or even four generations.

More than 70 years ago, this living arrangement was not uncommon, and was even considered to be something of an American ideal. Think of the multi-generational household that was depicted so nostalgically in the classic TV series, “The Waltons.” But after World War II, multi-generational living fell out of favor. In 1940, about a quarter of the US population lived in such households, but by 1980, just 12% did. Not coincidentally, this period saw the rapid growth of nuclear-families living in suburban homes, and the creation of huge retirement communities in the Sunbelt states. At the same time, the proportion of newly arrived immigrants, who commonly adopt multi-generational living arrangements during the initial stage of their life in a new country, declined as a share of the total US population.

A necessity instead of a choice

Today, most families adopt multi-generational living arrangements out of necessity rather than choice. When elderly parents can no longer live safely alone, loving family members may be unwilling to entrust their care to nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Young adult children find themselves with no choice but to move back into their parents’ home due to the breakup of a marriage or the loss of a job. Some young adults and their families move in with their parents voluntarily, because they prefer the conveniences that a properly structured multi-generation household can offer, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Most multi-generational households are created on the fly in reaction to an unexpected crisis. In such cases, the head of the multi-generational household must face two fundamental questions. First, what changes must be made immediately to make the living arrangements for everyone as convenient as possible in the short term? Second, are they willing to make the permanent changes in their home and lifestyle that will be necessary to make the new living arrangements practical over a more extended period of time?

More simply put, it is one thing to put up your father-in-law on your living room couch for a few nights, or to ask one of your kids to double up with a sibling while grandma takes over their bedroom for a few weeks. But the natural friction from such extended, close interactions, under makeshift arrangements, will eventually start to wear on everyone.

No single formula for success

There is no set formula for making multi-generational households work, because no two situations are exactly alike. Sometimes the problems may be insurmountable. The head of the household and all of the family members involved need to go in with their eyes open and recognize that if the arrangement is to work, significant adjustments and compromises will be needed on all sides.

The first question to ask is often the most difficult – are the physical living arrangements available suitable to meet the minimum needs of everyone in the household? If not, what alternatives are available? How much time and money will it take to implement them? How will the household function before these solutions are in place?

For example, take the case of an elderly parent who can’t climb stairs, who had been living in an elevator apartment building in Florida, and who now needs to be brought back to New York to be taken care of by their adult child who lives in a walk-up apartment. To make such an arrangement feasible, the adult child may have to ask their parent to sell their Florida apartment in order to provide the down payment for a new home in New York that would be more suitable for the entire extended family. Alternatively, if the adult child owns their own home, they may have the option of refinancing their mortgage to pay for the construction of an extra bedroom or bathroom or other renovations (such as installing a wheelchair lift) needed to make the living arrangements more practical over the long term. Before making a final decision, the adult child should also consider whether the cost of the necessary alterations would ultimately be cheaper than placing their parent in a long term care facility.

Performing the mitzvah of caring for an elderly parent personally is laudable, but don’t try to be a hero. If you are not physically capable of caring for your parent properly, you should not be ashamed to bring in outside help in the form of a home attendant or to ask the government or other family members to help pay for it.

Working out the costs

It is also important to recognize that additional living costs will be involved, and to determine in advance who will be responsible for paying for them. Contrary to the cliche, it is not true that two can live as cheaply as one. Another person living in the household will inevitably increase overall food costs, and it is also fair to consider asking that person to contribute something to cover such regular overhead items as utility bills. Reaching a mutually agreeable financial arrangement from the outset will eliminate a potential source of friction in the future, and help both sides accept the new living arrangement as permanently viable.

There are also psychological considerations in making such an arrangement. It is important to help the newly arrived member of the multi-generational household to accept the change and truly feel at home. To accomplish this, invite them to bring as many as possible of their favorite household items when they move in. These include furniture pieces, framed photographs for display, favorite books, and even their silverware and dishes.

Every needs their own space

It is also important to make sure that each person in the multi-generational household can maintain their sense of privacy. Simply put, everyone needs their own space. For example, everyone must understand that grandma’s room cannot be entered without her permission. And if any person wants to be alone, for any reason, at any time, it is important that the new living arrangements make that possible. This may mean providing family members with their own personal TV, music player, laptop computer, or iPad, which can provide all of those functions.

To keep the personal interrelationships fresh and healthy, it is also a good idea to arrange for members of an extended household to take separate vacations on a regular basis. For example, if your adult children have moved back in with you, you can arrange for them to spend one Shabbos each month out of the house, or perhaps you and your spouse will make arrangements to stay at a different family member’s house every now and then.

These are ways to head off personal frictions before they can become a real problem.

Sacrifices and rewards

You also have to be prepared to accept some personal sacrifices, inconveniences and compromises in order to make the new arrangement to work. Anyone inviting their grandchildren to live with them had better put the fine china away, and take all the breakable chachkas off the living room tables, permanently. Relearning how to live with a 5-year-old can be a challenge, especially if you haven’t done it for a few decades.

You will probably have to give up some of the storage space in your closets, and learn to live with the added mess and clutter that inevitably comes from living with another person, especially a younger one. It may be simpler all around to invest in using disposable plates and utensils during the week instead of dishes and silverware, and to hire a cleaning lady to come in as often as necessary to keep the home presentable.

To be sure, there are personal rewards that come with the arrangement as well. There is the convenience of live-in babysitters and someone always being available to help a child with homework. And there is the boon of being able to look forward to getting up every morning to be greeted by your grandchildren.

Most of all, it is important for everyone involved to want to make the new living arrangements succeed, and to be willing to make the necessary adjustments. As anyone who has ever lived in a multi-generational household can tell you, it is always a work in progress.

Yaakov Kornreich currently lives in a multi-generational household with his wife of 41 years, his mother-in-law, and his married daughter’s family, including her husband and two young children, in his home in Brooklyn.

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