Multigenerational Living is Rising, and May be to Everyone’s Benefit

By Amy Goyer

Laura and Paul Patyk, both in their mid-40s, have a full house. With six children, any home would be a bit crowded. But in 2003, the Patyks invited Laura’s parents to live with them when her mother became ill with congestive heart failure and a stroke. A few years later, Paul’s father, who had Alzheimers disease, moved in after Paul’s mother passed away, bringing the household’s number to 11.

“Every day is an adventure here,” says Laura, “with never a dull moment.”

Paul added a 1,500-square-foot suite for Laura’s parents. “Dad paid for it with money from their home because he insists on paying their way,” says Laura. They have a kitchen, bedroom, office, handicapped bathroom, family room, screened porch and workshop. It’s the ideal situation for keeping a level of independence and privacy, while still being close. Paul’s father passed away in 2009, but their house remains packed, with 10 people ranging in age from 6 to 84.

Decades ago, the Patyk’s story might not have been unusual. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, in 1900, 57% of Americans ages 65 and older lived in homes with their children, grandchildren or other family members. In the 1930s, when my mother was young, her grandfather lived with her family. But families began to change. The post-WWII period brought the GI bill, more education, and loans to buy homes and start businesses. Many families scattered across the United States.

It was no longer taken for granted that mom and dad would move in with their children and grandchildren when they needed support. And better medical care meant older adults could remain independent for longer, plus Social Security and Medicare kept more elders out of poverty. By 1990, only 17% of those ages 65 and older lived with their families. That downward trend has now reversed, and multigenerational households are on the rise.

Why the Increase?

There are a number of factors that explain the increase in America’s multigenerational households: immigration; the delayed marriage pattern; longer life expectancy; the housing crisis; “boomerang” youth; women entering the workforce; and the effects of the recession.

As America’s race and ethnicity demographics have changed, in part because of increases in immigration since the 1970s, we see more multicultural families with cultural norms of multigenerational living. According to the Pew Research Center, in the United States, 25% of Asians, 23% of African Americans and 22% of Hispanics live in multigenerational homes, in contrast with 13% of whites.

People are marrying at older ages. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1970, men typically married at age 23 and women at age 21. By 2010, those numbers were up to age 28 for men and age 26 for women, increasing the odds that these young adults are remaining in the family home for an additional five years.

The longevity revolution is having an impact; life expectancy rates are extended. The U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that in 2007 the number of older adults who moved in with their adult children was 3.6 million—a 67% increase from 2000 (2.2 million). And factor in the effects of the housing crisis: many families who lost their homes in recent years were forced to combine households. According to S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, prices have fallen 33% since the market began its collapse, worse than the 31% drop in the Great Depression.

A significant number of young adults, ages 18 to 29, are taking longer to assume the full responsibilities of adulthood. This cohort, which isn’t fully independent, often ends up back home with their parents after college, and these “boomerang” youth have been the fastest growing segment of multigenerational households in recent years. A dearth of job opportunities and increased education costs have contributed to this trend.

Women are entering the workforce in ever larger numbers: the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, reports the number of working women has risen from 5 million in 1900 to more than 18 million in 1950, to 66 million in 2009. The projection by 2018 is more than 78 million. As more women work outside the home, their child-rearing role has had to change, with grandparents and other family members often stepping in to fill the gaps in childcare.

The Great Recession has spurred the growth in multigenerational homes. Pew reports that the numbers of people living in multigenerational homes has been on the rise during the economic downturn, with an increase of 2.6 million people between 2007 and 2008. As well, the recession has influenced a record high unemployment rate for young workers ages 16 to 24. As recently as January 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an unemployment rate of more than 18% for that age group—double the overall rate.

Benefits and Challenges

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.

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.

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.”

AARP Family Expert Amy Goyer is an author, speaker, consultant and multigenerational issues expert.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the September/October 2011, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.