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Our fifty-year national experiment with nuclear families (the ideal of two parents, two-and-a-half kids, and the white picket fence) is ending. The old and faithful interdependence of extended family is reemerging as the cultural norm.

– from All in the Family: A Practical Guide to Multigenerational Living, by Sharon Graham Niederhaus, John L. GrahamThere was a time when Grandma lived downstairs.

On weekends, when I was home from school, the smells of Queen Elizabeth cake with its caramelized coconut topping, or chicken soup with peas and onions, wafted up the stairs from her compact in-law suite. She had her own tiny kitchen, a fold-out bed, separate entry, and green shag rug that must have been a tripping hazard, but she managed the space as well as anyone who had survived two World Wars and the Great Depression — with aplomb and tenacity.

Banging on the ceiling when our childish shrieks annoyed, or emerging with kisses and stories when she needed company and conversation, Grandma was a household fixture and we loved her dearly. When I was older — with my own growing family and a house that was getting too small — discussions began with my aging parents about multigenerational living arrangements.

Given our experience with Grandma, we already had a precedent. And we weren’t alone. Cultures around the world have long shared dwellings or land for ease and economy. And while multigenerational households are decreasing in many countries,* they have seen an upswing in North America in recent years.

According to the PEW Research Centre, approximately 18% of Americans lived in multigenerational households in 2012. That’s double the statistics for the 1980s. This increase spiked during the economic crisis of 2007-2009 and has continued its upward trend.

In Canada, the numbers are lower for three generations sharing one roof (2.7% according to Statistics Canada), but higher for two generations of parents with adult children (up from 27% in 1981 to 42% in 2011).** This reflects the challenges facing young adults in a tough job market, along with the lessening stigma of multigenerational living in a country where nuclear families are still the norm.

Whatever the reason for this growth in multigenerational arrangements, it appears to be taking root. Whether you are an adult child looking to include your parents in your growing household, or grandparents seeking the security of shared accommodation, there are pros and cons to consider before joining this shifting demographic.

Benefits and Challenges

The saying “two can live more cheaply as one” applies to families as well as individuals. Maintaining two households is expensive and time consuming, but pooling resources can mean economizing in many different ways.

In a multigenerational home, maintenance and utility costs can be lessened if shared. The same goes for tools and equipment. A shared yard and landscape requires only one lawn mower, while a house with an in-law suite needs only one washing machine and dryer. Locating these in a shared space that’s easily accessible to everyone cuts down on the cost of duplicating household appliances.

Household chores are another area where dividing the work can lesson the load for everyone. In a multi-generational situation, trade-offs often happen naturally. Able-bodied members can do physical work that may be too difficult for those advanced in years, while older family members can contribute their skills, experience, and expertise to keep things running smoothly. Having a role to play provides a sense of security for everyone involved.

But like any sharing arrangement, living together may come with challenges. Shared spaces can mean a shared mess, and boundaries often get muddied if contingencies aren’t considered for differences of opinion. How can you get the best of living together while safeguarding family relationships?

Tips for Successful Multigenerational Living

1. Is the arrangement long- or short-term?

If you are considering sharing a dwelling with your aging parents, odds are you’re looking at a long-term situation. If you are the parent of an adult child with children who wants to get back on his or her feet, you may be facing a different arrangement. Having an open discussion about duration will help you know how much time and money to invest in your living space and where to focus your energies.

2. Create spaces where all family members can have privacy when needed:

If you are adding an in-law suite to a new build, consider separating the dwelling units by a soundproof barrier so noises don’t travel between living areas. Separate entries into the units from the exterior or via a shared mudroom is one way to ensure both households have the space they need to co-exist yet remain independent. If you don’t have the luxury of separate units, try to ensure private areas provide adequate space for downtime and minimal disruption in routines.

3. Discuss and establish boundaries:

Do you want your parents (or children and grandchildren) to knock on your front door before entering? How do you feel about people borrowing things when you’re not at home? Talking over your expectations can help prevent misunderstandings or resentment down the road. These conversations are particularly helpful for spouses who didn’t grow up with the co-habiting parents, and who may not know the unspoken “rules” of the original household.

4. Create a shared chore schedule:

Who will mow the lawn? Who will take out the garbage and recycling? Are there any regular mealtimes or indoor household chores you’d like to share? Having regular meetings to discuss important tasks and labor division helps everyone stay on the same page and contribute where they are most able. Check-ins also keep things running smoothly so one person doesn’t bear the brunt of the work.

5. Consider aging-in-place features:

When adding an in-law suite to a new or existing house, think up front about accessibility. Adding features like bathtub handrails, extra-wide doorframes, and clearances for walkers and wheelchairs means avoiding costly retrofits. Placing the in-law suite on the ground floor wherever possible also means preserving independence by eliminating the difficulties that may come with stairs. Other features include easy-turn taps and door handles, sit-down showers, raised toilets, extra task lighting, and non-slip floors and tubs.

6. Talk about finances:

Will parents or adult children pay rent, invest in the property, or contribute to the household in some way other than financially? Whether or not money is ever exchanged, it’s helpful to discuss the handling of bill payments and other costs so everyone is clear where their responsibilities lie. For parents occupying an in-law suite, a living will is key to ensuring their needs and wishes are met by those who could eventually become their caregivers.

A Final Word

Although my grandmother eventually moved out of my parents’ in-law suite—our house was too rural for her busy social life—my own multigenerational household is still going strong. When my father passed away suddenly last year, several generations were on hand to support my mother through her difficult new reality. One evening, while sitting around the table in her adjoining apartment, she looked at each of us in turn and said with gratitude, “I’m so glad I have you all here with me. I couldn’t have done this alone.”

*Global Perspectives on Multigenerational Households and Intergenerational Relations, ILC Global Alliance, March 2012.
**Sharing a Roof: Multigenerational Homes in Canada, by Nathan Battams, Vanier Institute.

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