Like most adults, Sara Tree never expected to move back home with her mother. As the parent of grown children herself, she had long prized her independence. But two years ago, after losing her job, she had nowhere to go but her mother's one-bedroom apartment in Santa Barbara, Calif. Although she has been employed since then, her most recent job ended in December.
"My mom has been extraordinary in allowing me to share her space," says Ms. Tree, who asks to be identified by her pen name. "I have no privacy, but I have learned to live with that."
It is a refrain familiar to many who must double up with relatives. As pink slips proliferate and foreclosures multiply, more families are rolling out the welcome mat – sometimes hesitantly – to give shelter and support to relatives in need. The American dream of living under a roof of one's own is being downscaled. Now some displaced residents long simply to have a room of one's own.
According to the 2007 US Census, 3.6 million parents live with adult children, up from 2.3 million in 2000. Almost 3.5 million siblings live with a brother or sister, up from 3 million. And more than 6.5 million people share quarters with other relatives, up from 4.8 million. Their ranks continue to grow.
In the process, families find that these arrangements require liberal amounts of patience, sharing, and compromise.
"At first, families feel the honeymoon stage," says Natalie Caine, founder of Empty Nest Support Services in southern California. "They get to practice true giving. They feel a new sense of purpose, which is enlivening. Then the differences arise. The downside is sharing space."
Closets fill with unfamiliar clothes. Damp towels compete for racks in the bathroom. Refrigerator shelves grow crowded with other people's food. "Space in the kitchen is always the biggest issue," says Amy Goyer, senior vice president of Grandparents.com
For Tree, space limitations require her to sleep in the living room. "I go to bed early and my mother goes to her room to read," she says.
Sometimes they eat dinner together. "I am mostly vegetarian and my mother is anything but, so that is sometimes awkward," Tree says. "I try to buy as much of my own food as possible, but I do not want to be rude and not eat what she has prepared all the time, so I adjust my diet now and then to make her happy."
Keeping everyone happy becomes easier when communication is open, family specialists say. "It's better to talk about things ahead of time if you can, and continue to talk about them on a regular basis," Ms. Goyer says. Issues such as finances, privacy rights, and the length of time relatives will stay are important topics for discussion. Family members also need to agree on who is in control. If there are children, adults must decide who is allowed to discipline.
"Learn the art of communicating, whether that is through Post-its, e-mails, or sit-down chats, or even walking and talking, which can be less threatening," Caine says.
Before relatives move in, a group e-mail or conference call can bring everyone together for a discussion. After they arrive, Goyer says, it's important to hold family conferences. Even seemingly small issues such as a grandparent turning up the TV volume or a teenage grandchild playing loud music can cause tension, Goyer notes. Parents, she finds, often feel stuck in the middle. "They're trying to keep kids happy and grandparents happy."
Other issues arise when siblings share a nest. Last October, Barbara Hagin of Palo Alto, Calif., made room for her sister, a massage therapist who moved from the East Coast. "She expected to be on her feet by the end of the year," Ms. Hagin says. "She has the opportunity to work here and there, but I don't see how it's going to be very easy to pay the rent and bills on her own."
She adds, "Inserting another person in the mix has changed our lifestyle. We do try to include her. It's like having an adoptive, fully grown daughter." (Her sister is 10 years younger.) Yet Hagin finds positive aspects to their shared housing. She and her sister have grown closer. She also praises her husband for his role, saying, "He's terrific. He's very supportive."
So is Hagin. "If I were in her shoes, I would appreciate the same kindness," she says. "I want to be supportive more than anything else." At the same time, she is uncertain how much longer they will be able to support her sister.
"I want her to save her money and be in a strong position to move out," she says. "I want to see her flourish and grow. But I can't conceive of her being ready to leave the nest for at least a few more months."
For Tree, who lightheartedly refers to her living arrangement with her mother as "two hens in a nest," one secret to harmony is simple: "Basically we try not to step on one another's feet by giving space needed to each other."
Many families also find that appreciation helps to minimize challenges. In January, Frances Sales and her 8-year-old daughter moved in with her brother and his family in Lake Worth, Fla. Her husband is in Brazil, awaiting an immigration decision to return legally to the United States. In his absence, she is looking for a job. Before the recession, she worked as a receptionist and a secretary. Now, she says, "I'll do anything – cleaning house, taking care of kids."
Ms. Sales and her daughter share a bedroom. "I usually make dinner and we all eat together," she says. "My brother and sister-in-law, they're great. My brother has two more mouths to feed. I thank God that we get along. I love them very much and thank them for helping me."
Whatever circumstances cause a family to double up, Caine encourages people to enjoy their time together and be flexible. "Mistakes will happen. Things will break. People won't remember to do a chore or call.... Lower your expectations. Put love and family first, not control."
Goyer also takes a positive approach, saying, "Look at it as not that you've lost something, but that you've gained a unique opportunity to get to know each other on a more personal level."