Creating an intergenerational household

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Eleanor Laise

Barbara Williams’s home is a lively one. Much of the year, there are four generations under one roof. Williams, age 65, shares her five-bedroom home with her husband, daughter, son-in-law and three young grandsons — and her 91-year-old mother visits for several months at a stretch.

While the multigenerational living arrangement may be messy at times, “we had so many reasons to do it,” said Williams, a retired editor of scientific journals.

It not only saves money, she said, but lets her watch her grandkids grow up, allows her to split household chores with her daughter, and reduces the stress of long-distance caregiving for her mother.

“Even though there’s more work to do,” she said, “doing it together makes everything easier.”

Williams and her family are among the growing number of Americans forming multigenerational households — those that include two or more adult generations, or grandparents and grandchildren.

Although many people initially turned to multigenerational living to save money during the Great Recession, the arrangements have become even more popular as baby boomers and their parents age.

A record 60.6 million people, or 19 percent of the U.S. population, lived in such households in 2014, up from 51.5 million in 2009, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis.

Multigenerational living, of course, is nothing new. In 1950, 21 percent of the population lived in multigenerational households, according to Pew Research. But that figure plummeted to a low of 12 percent in 1980.

In the past 50 years or so, Americans “adopted this crazy idea of a nuclear family,” Graham said. But the interdependence of the extended family, he argues, is “the natural way people have always lived.”

Benefits and challenges

“You put more people under one roof, and that’s going to save a lot of money really quickly,” said John Graham, professor emeritus at the University of California Irvine’s business school and co-author of Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living (M. Evans, $17).

But the biggest advantage, he said, “is the interpersonal and social benefit of having family members close by and helping one another out.”

The arrangements can relieve the isolation often suffered by seniors living alone, offer the reassurance of having caregivers close at hand, give grandparents an opportunity to pass down family traditions to their grandchildren, and give parents a helping hand in caring for young children.

Meanwhile, “you’re modeling what the next generation will do with their grandchildren and how they’ll treat you — the parents — when you’re older,” said Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of Under One Roof Again (Lyons Press, $17), a book about multigenerational living.

But even the happiest of multigenerational homes face challenges. Every family member needs to maintain his or her privacy and respect boundaries. Housework and expenses need to be divided in a way that feels fair to everyone. Ownership of the house itself must be structured in a way that doesn’t sabotage a senior’s estate plan.

And any home renovations or new homebuilding projects must comply with local zoning laws — which often restrict the very features most desired by multigenerational families, such as multiple entrances or separate kitchens.

Desirable features

Private space for each family member, multiple entrances, separate kitchens, and plenty of bathrooms to go around: These are high on the list of home features desired by multigenerational households.

Shubber Ali, age 48, bought a six-bedroom house in Novato, Cal., four years ago, anticipating that his 80-year-old mother would soon come to live with him full-time.

He and his wife and two children have rooms at one end of the house, while the rooms set aside for his mother at the other end of the house include a bedroom, bathroom, walk-in closet and sitting area. “It feels like it’s almost its own little condo, but it’s still a part of the house,” Ali said.

Perhaps you already have a home ideally suited for multigenerational living. If not, you’ll need to weigh the costs and benefits of renovating your house, building a “granny flat” in the back yard, buying an existing home, or designing and building a multigenerational dream house.

If you’re adding an in-law suite or making other renovations for an aging parent, consider wider doors and hallways that allow space for wheelchairs and other features designed for aging in place.

Go to the National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification website at for tips on making your home more accessible for people with limited mobility, vision or hearing.

Builders taking notice

If you decide to buy a house, you’ll find a growing number of developers offering homes specifically designed for multigenerational households.

Homebuilder Lennar, for example, introduced its Next Gen house design in 2011. The homes contain a separate suite with at least one bedroom, bathroom, kitchenette, a door to the main house (lockable from both sides), and in most cases, a separate exterior door.

The homes, available in more than 300 communities in 14 states, range in price from about $280,000 to more than $800,000, said Kim Ashbaugh, director of Next Gen brand management at Lennar.

Whether you’re renovating or building a new home from scratch, be prepared for zoning headaches. But as multigenerational living becomes more popular, some states and cities are relaxing laws restricting granny flats.

A new California law, for example, streamlines parking restrictions and other regulations to make it easier for homeowners in the state to build granny flats.

You can find accessory-dwelling rules for many cities across the U.S., along with tips on building your own accessory dwelling, at

Time needed to adjust

Once you’ve unpacked the moving boxes, give the arrangement time to work out. “It will not be ideal immediately,” Newman said. “Adjust and lower your expectations.”

Schedule family dinners at a restaurant every couple of weeks for the first six months, Graham said. There, you can discuss what’s working and what’s not — say, the TV volume, Granddad’s smoking habit, taking out the trash. Holding the conversation in a public place “keeps tempers from flying off the handle,” he said.

Be wary of resuming old parent-child roles, such as nagging your adult daughter to comb her hair or relying on Mom to do the cooking and cleaning. When her oldest son moved back home, Nancy Meyer, age 69, of St. Louis, Mo., said she told him, “I’m tired of doing your laundry. You may do your own.”

They made a deal that he had to keep the shared living spaces clean — and he kept up his end of the bargain, she said. This year, her son moved into his own house after living at home for about 10 years. Now, she said, “I kind of miss him.”

Also, maintain your friendships and social activities. If your elderly parents are living with you, it’s easy to feel guilty about heading out to book club or bridge club, Newman said. “Don’t give up your social life.”

Although there may be plenty of adjustments required along the way, many families find that their commitment to multigenerational living only increases over time.

“It’s not all perfect,” said Williams, the grandmother who shares her home with her children and grandchildren. Dirty dishes on the kitchen counter sometimes trigger family tension. “When you have three little boys, you’re sometimes going to have a mess,” she said.

But “family affection overcomes that kind of stuff. And we’re committed to staying together at this point. We know we’re going to make it work.”

© 2017 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC