Making the Most of Multigenerational Living

Editor's note: This post follows the first in this two-part series, Multigenerational Living on the Rise. These posts are modified from Amy Goyer's article, Multigenerational Living is Rising, and May be to Everyone's Benefit in the September/October 2011 issue of the American Society on Aging's Aging Today.

Asian family group

Those living in multigenerational households admit there are challenges that come with this living arrangement, but most say the benefits outweigh them. Financial reasons are often cited as the primary motivator for multigenerational living, as well as caregiving needs. But many report benefits beyond the practical.

Families living in multigenerational homes have built-in opportunities to build stronger, mutually beneficial intergenerational relationships. Grandparents and other older family members can be central characters in a child's life, instead of supporting players.

If you're living in a multigenerational home that includes children, think about incorporating these things to take full advantage of the inherent intergenerational opportunities:

  • Plan family nights. It's easy to just keep living life every day and the intergenerational interaction doesn't always happen. Plan regular family nights when you play games, have dinner, watch home movies, tell stories.
  • Talk with grandparents about their desires and their limits. If grandparents are living in the home, it may not be clear how much time they want to spend with grandchildren. Talk this through and understand where their boundaries are. They may provide child care and attend school events and other activities with grandchildren. They may want to play a major role in this, or they may want to balance time with the grandkids with their own life and activities. Get clear about this and let the fun begin.
  • Encourage the kids to meet grandparents at their level sometimes. Depending on grandparents' personalities, health and abilities, they may love being around the kids when they are noisy and energetic - the energy of family chaos may feel like good life going on around them. On the other hand, it may be too much for them. Sometimes the children need to tone down a bit to let the interaction happen.
  • Gear up with technology, games, toys and other equipment that will aid smooth intergenerational experiences. Consider interactive video games that all can enjoy and games that match the skills and abilities of all generations in the home.

Michelle Milad, age 43, and originally from New Jersey, her husband, Hany, age 32, and their son Noah, age 5, moved from Egypt to America because of Noah's medical needs. Michelle's 56-year-old Aunt Terry invited them to live with her in her Maryland home. Terry had medical issues, lived alone in a large house and wanted to have an "adopted" grandchild.

More than four years later they are knee-deep in multigenerational living; Michelle often has been a caregiver to Terry. The Milads have talked about moving, but they realize that the move would include Terry, too. At times they feel trapped, and they are supporting their aunt financially and emotionally. But Noah adores Terry. "He motivates her beyond belief, and it's great to have a live-in babysitter," says Michelle. "There are a lot of compromises, and we're an odd mix, but it does seem to work."

I often hear from the middle generation adults who are raising their children in multigenerational homes that the biggest challenge is having their own parents comment on their parenting skills. "Opinions and advice are given freely, and I take it in stride on most days," says Laura Patyk. As I described in my previous post on multigenerational living, Laura and her husband Paul invited Laura's parents to move in with them and their six children in 2003.

But Laura sees that her children are compassionate toward their grandparents and other older people. Plus, her parents have been able to share in their grandchildren's joys, sorrows and life activities. "I think we will see the benefits throughout our kids' lifetimes," says Laura. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Tips for Making the Most of Multigenerational Living

  • Accept that there will be ups and downs. You may have moments of frustration and that's normal. Don't fight it - acknowledge and accept those feelings, and try to talk them through with other family members if it will be productive. At the same time, take inventory of what you feel good about. What is working?
  • Negotiate the compromises. It really is all about compromise, so be sure that no one family member is making all of the concessions. This can happen so quickly and insidiously that not everyone is aware of it, but resentments can build up and sabotage the core of the family and living situation. Try a professional family mediator who is objective if you need to, but one way or another, learn how to negotiate both the big things and the little things so that everyone has a voice.
  • Be very clear about expenses. Finances can be one of the trickiest issues. Create a household budget and decide who pays for what. Some families split all expenses down the middle. In others, one person pays the mortgage and the other pays utilities. If money is short for some, perhaps they can contribute caregiving or house/yard work in lieu of cash. Make a plan, and revisit it periodically to ensure it's working for all.
  • Get away from time to time. There will be times when you long for a different situation. You may feel your personal boundaries are non-existent and yearn for more space of your own. Caregiving responsibilities or refereeing among the generations may wear you out. Keep a list of refreshers that give you a lift and let you spread your wings. Take time to do them - even if it's just 5 minutes to give you a fresh start. Whatever works for you - maybe exercise, a cup of coffee, escape into a book, a yoga class, meditation, gardening, a phone call with a friend or a full-on vacation.

Follow Amy on Twitter @amygoyer and on Facebook AmyGoyer1

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