Sunday Signal

Gettin’ Up There: The return of multigenerational living

Several generations living under one roof has long been the norm for many cultures around the world. In its best outcome, everyone looks after each other. Finances are consolidated. Children are enriched by the in-house nurturing of their grandparents – elders who are far less likely to experience loneliness and spend their remaining years in a facility with strangers.

Within these United States, that multigenerational dynamic – once a righteously accepted and expected way of life – fell out of fashion many years ago. But it’s making a comeback.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, record numbers of Americans are becoming three- (some even four-) generation households. Between 2000 and 2016, such layered households increased from 42.4 million to 64 million. One in five households are now multigenerational, and the bureau cites key factors for the trend:

  • The Boomer generation – once chomping at the bit to escape its parents – are now choosing to care for them in their own winter years. This is especially so for financially stable sons and daughters.
  • Many young adults are marrying later and/or residing with their parents by choice or economic need.
  • Financial adversities and job loss, particularly for adults and families whacked by the 2008 recession, have made the centralizing of family resources both beneficial and logical.
  • The large number of immigrants here generally preserve the multigenerational way of life common in their nations of origin.
  • Caregiving needs, brought about by increasing numbers of Americans (young and old) with diseases or disabilities, necessitate it. Additionally, many grandparents are becoming caregivers to their grandchildren, owing to their own adult kids being unable or unfit to care for them. (These are referred to as grandfamilies.)

A 2018 AARP report sheds further light, stating that regular income from Social Security, increased longevity and the growing number of single parent families, also lend to the rise in multigenerational households.

While there are many advantages to generations sharing daily life and resources, there are also challenges. Stress, caregiver burnout, loss of intimacy and personal time for “sandwiched” couples/singles and space constraints are among them. To address these issues, policy makers, mental health experts and builders are focusing in on ways to help.

Personally, I love the idea of generations residing together, when it works for all. I’ve felt this way since I was a child listening to dear old stories of how my mother’s three-tiered tribe resided as one in Boyle Heights. The matriarch, my Romanian great-grandmother whom I never met, lived and laughed among her pack into her 90s. Despite her frailties, she was a source of love and sweetness, until a fall at home ended her life.

Ironically, 60 years later, her daughter (my grandmother) became a woman in her 90s who died as a result of a fall, sustained while living alone in a senior facility. I was very close with my grandmother and have long wished she had accepted my request that she come live with my own little family back in the 80s. But she declined, saying she didn’t want the noise of my boys. I still wonder what might have been had she said yes. Perhaps she didn’t want to “be a burden.” Yet to me, such responsibility, and the joy of having her near, would have been my multigenerational honor.

Information from Generations United and AARP contributed to this column. This is also the first of a two-part series on multigenerational living. Diana Sevanian is a retired R.N. and longtime Signal features writer and columnist.

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