Many families are drawn to the premise of helping their parents or in-laws age in place — but most don’t actually know how to live in a multigenerational home.
The Return of the Multigenerational Household
For most of human history, family members of all ages lived together, and they continue to do so in much of the world. In the U.S., multigenerational living was the norm for generations. Perhaps when you were a child, your parents built or bought a home with separate quarters, and it was simply a given that Grandma would move in.
As families accumulated wealth and each generation sought independence, that tradition waned in the U.S. The rise of home care and high-end senior living communities across the country offered new alternatives for aging parents and their adult children.
Now, the trend of multiple generations living together is back: Boomerang children are returning home. Older adults are living longer and want to age at home. The economy has driven many families together to share resources and space. These days, nearly 1 in 3 care recipients live with a family caregiver, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving.
But most adult children haven’t lived with their parents in many years, aren’t familiar with the challenges their parents face on a daily basis, and have never had firsthand caregiving experience. Similarly, living in their own home allowed older parents to enjoy their independence and privacy to the fullest extent. The shift will be an adjustment for everyone, especially if you all have your own routines, hobbies, and lifestyle preferences.
How To Thrive in a Multigenerational Home
Making a multigenerational home work for everyone requires some upfront planning and communication. Even then, the transition may be challenging. Here are five tips for balancing your needs with that of your parents and perhaps even your children.
1. Establish Realistic Expectations
Family expectations can vary widely, so it’s important to talk through the specifics to prevent tension, disagreements, and even regrets: How long will this living situation last? Is it meant to be temporary or permanent? Are there any circumstances in which this arrangement would have to change?
For example, discuss what would need to happen if your relationship with your spouse became strained, if a child’s needs began taking a backseat to the elder’s, or if you had to quit your job to provide full-time care.
Being surrounded by additional people in close quarters will make it difficult for your parent to achieve the same level of independence and privacy that they had when living on their own. Ensuring that your parent has adequate space can mitigate this problem. Do they have an area where they can enjoy alone time? Is your household’s schedule predictable? In a house that has people constantly coming and going, it can be difficult for your loved one to do the things they enjoy.
It’s also important to get a feel for your parent’s current health status and needs. If your parent has medical issues, research them to see if and how their conditions may progress. Talk with their doctor and other health professionals. Ask yourself if you’ll be able to manage your parents’ chronic illnesses or physical limitations. If they’re experiencing memory loss or cognitive decline, read about common dementia behaviors to be sure you and your family are prepared.
Living together might be suitable right now, but things can change very quickly for seniors. Be honest with yourself about what care you can and can’t provide. You don’t have any obligation or responsibility to agree to more than you can handle.
2. Discuss Finances Upfront
There’s no single right or wrong way to handle finances. Your family needs to decide what will work best for everyone. Money is an emotionally charged subject in most families, so this won't necessarily be easy. Figure out what expenses are involved in this decision, who will be paying for what, and how much it will cost each party. Include siblings in the money talks.
If you're receiving money from your family member, will your siblings agree with this, or will they object or resent it? Will your siblings help pay for the cost of care? Big financial issues often arise between caregivers and their siblings. Having a financial arrangement drawn up by an attorney is advisable.
3. Set Boundaries
Although your parents are getting older and they might need a little more help than they once did, they are still adults. It can be challenging going from being the head of the household to taking on a secondary role in the home and feeling as if they’re being parented by their children.
Will your parent accept your assistance? Will you be thrust back into your old role of son or daughter, with your parent constantly telling you what to do? Will they make you feel as though you never get it right and can never do enough to satisfy their needs?
This new dynamic in your relationship could bring unexpected difficulties. Boundaries should be openly discussed so that animosity doesn’t build between you and your parent.
4. Protect Your Relationship With Your Spouse
Spouses often feel that caregiving comes to dominate day-to-day life, upending long-standing routines and dynamics. For example, social activities you once enjoyed can become difficult when you never know when you might have to switch back into “caregiver mode.” Your marriage might be tested if the lack of privacy and your loved one’s caregiving needs interfere with your time together. After a while, your spouse might start to resent this lifestyle change.
For Lisa, caring for her dad at her home with her husband, John, had a huge impact on her marriage. No more date nights. They could not leave the house together because it would mean Dad, James, was home alone. During the week, Lisa stayed home to care for James and John went to work. On the weekends, John stayed home with James so Lisa could go grocery shopping and get her hair cut.
“My husband would have to take time off so I could go and do stuff to take care of myself,” Lisa says. “And that made me feel guilty, too. I was worried about his job. I shouldn’t have to take care of myself, but you can’t not. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else.”
The presence of an aging parent in the home will naturally encroach on the amount of quality alone time available at home, but there are ways to continue prioritizing your spouse: Go on a date once a week. Set aside 10 to 20 minutes every night to connect about your day.
5. Have a Backup Plan
It is possible to thrive in a multigenerational household, however, it doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes, the caregiving burden becomes too much. Other times, the older parent’s health and happiness are at risk. Proactively discuss your suggestions for a plan and possible solutions.
Sometimes a crisis forces everyone to re-evaluate the living situation. For example, your parent might break a hip and return home from the hospital needing much more assistance than before. Or your parent’s dementia might progress to the point where they require more supervision.
By helping your loved one plan ahead, you can avoid the stress and regret of hasty decisions.
Making the Decision to Move a Parent In
As you can see, the question of whether you should live with an aging parent isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
For a deeper dive into important factors to consider before cohabiting with your older parent, download our eBook.