All the family under one roof

The multi-generational family is making a comeback.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Tim Spatola hugs his grandson in the apartment he had added on to his daughter's home when she and her husband invited him to move in.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Mr. Spatola sits with his daughter, Mary McCourt, and her six children.

As a new widower, Tim Spatola faced a crucial decision: where to live. His house was too big; a retirement community held little appeal and was also expensive. So when his daughter and son-in-law invited him to move in with them and their six children, he gratefully accepted. He paid for an addition to their house and joined them in June.

"I'm very, very happy with it," says Mr. Spatola of Milton, Mass. "We have an excellent arrangement."

His daughter, Mary McCourt, adds, "He's very independent. It's working well."

Move over, adult children. The multi-generation household is making a comeback as Mom, Dad, kids, and grandparents live under one roof. The number of parents age 65 and older moving in with adult children increased by 62 percent between 2000 and 2007, the Census Bureau reports. Those under 65 who did so grew by 75 percent.

For some families, like Spatola's, the arrangement is a matter of choice. Others are driven together by high housing costs and economic need. In still other cases, caregiving is the motivating factor. Whatever the circumstances, the dynamics can be complex.

"Families have to think very carefully when they're considering an intergenerational household," says Allen Hager, president of Right at Home in Omaha, Neb., a network of agencies providing in-home assistance to seniors. "I've seen a lot of conflict in families. Women are taking on [most] of the household, child-rearing, and senior care."

He urges adult children and their spouses to talk about money, space, time management, and the role of family members. "A lot of times, finances aren't discussed," Mr. Hager says. "That can be sticky. What is [the parent's] financial situation and what will they contribute to the budget? What if they need paid care?"

For the McCourts, Spatola's presence offers mutual benefits. "Since he moved in, he seems to have a little kick in his step and a purpose," Mrs. McCourt says. "He picks up the kids at school and does some food shopping." He also cooks spaghetti and meatballs weekly for the family's dinner.

Spatola adds, "Being here is a plus for the grandchildren. I exert a lot of influence on them."

Giving children time with a grandparent is one reason Nikki Maxwell and her husband encouraged her divorced father to move from Seattle to their house in Los Angeles. A computer programmer in his early 60s, he works from home. "He saw that we needed help – help with the children, help with the finances," Mrs. Maxwell says. "He wanted to get closer to his three grandchildren. He's out there on the bike with them, and he plays with techie toys. I'm indoors cleaning and cooking, and they're at the park. We really value that."

Even so, challenges arise. "It's awkward when you are trying to redefine your relationship with your parent," she says. "We have a lot of control issues. Especially with the financial issues, it's hard to tell where there are strings and where there aren't. He won't lend us money, but he'll give it."

They also face in-law issues. "My dad and my husband buck heads in the kitchen," Maxwell says. "For my husband, it's been a lot of compromise."

Sundi Hayes of suburban Kansas City, Mo., finds similar challenges in sharing a home with her 62-year-old father. "When my husband is frustrated with him and comes to me, I walk a fine line between the two relationships," she says.

Yet she appreciates her father's help with their three children: "We both work outside the home, and Dad is there to care for them before and after school. He also does small things around the house if I ask him to." Still, she adds, "I'm hoping it's not permanent. I would prefer that he live on his own."

Some temporary arrangements do become permanent. When Holly Hansen's mother-in-law needed care, she went to the Hansens' home in Sebastopol, Calif. After her recovery, they invited her to stay.

"This was not a decision made lightly," Mrs. Hansen says. "Mostly, we have not regretted the decision."

Referring to "a few rough patches," she says, "It has probably been the most difficult for Millie. She had to leave her home of 50 years and friends behind to start over in a new community at 92."

Yet rewards abound, too: "Millie and our daughter have a very close relationship," Hansen says. "Millie has made new friends. I never would have thought that this situation would work out, and for many people it may not be the answer, but for us it has been a wonderful experience."

Sometimes even grandchildren become caregivers. For the past five years, Tricia Goyer's grandmother has lived with the Goyers and their three teenagers in Kalispell, Mont. She joined them when she could no longer care for her mobile home.

The couple took out a loan to add on to their house. They pay all the grandmother's expenses beyond the $200 a month she contributes. They also rearranged their schedules to accommodate her. In addition to working full time at home, Mrs. Goyer says, "I care for my teens and my grandmother, which includes doctor's appointments, hair appointments, and lunch out so she doesn't feel she's cooped up all the time. We feel it is our place to care for her."

Whatever multi-generation arrangements a family works out, keeping other relatives informed can be important.

"Distant siblings often have guilt pangs about not being there for Mom and/or Dad," says Kevin Drendel of Batavia, Ill., an attorney who does estate planning. "On the other hand, the siblings who are local often find themselves alone in caring for an elderly parent. Communication is the key."

For McCourt, keeping a busy three-generation household running smoothly involves pragmatism. She says, "You just have to let some things slide, pick your battles, and hope you're doing the right thing."

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