Multigenerational Living: A Guide For Success

by Donne Davis on June 2, 2010

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Nine years ago author and grandmother Sharon Niederhaus enrolled in a Master’s program at Stanford University and wrote her thesis on multigenerational living. The following year her brother, John Graham, told Sharon that the Wall Street Journal had just done a cover story on multigenerational living. He proposed co-authoring a book since it was such a hot topic and in 2007 they published Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living.

Multigenerational Living is a Growing Trend

Last year 6.6 million U.S. households had at least three generations of family members living together, according to the census. That’s an increase of 30% since 2000. Fifty years ago it was common for three generations to live together, says Niederhaus. But over the past five decades the American family has shifted to the “nuclear family” with mom, dad, and kids living in isolation, creating the challenge of who will care for the children and the elderly.

“One way to meet both these needs is for families to return to pre-World War II living styles where extended families lived in close proximity to one another,” says Niederhaus. “Grandparents could help raise their grandchildren. Then, later in life, they would be nearby to receive help with their own care, if needed.”

Niederhaus and Graham have written a comprehensive guide to understanding  the benefits, practicalities, and challenges of multigenerational living. They give advice on how to start a conversation with your aging parents about living together, who should be involved, and deciding whether it’s even a possibility.

The authors were motivated to write the book after dealing with their younger brother’s deteriorating health, his long-term care and premature death at the age of 45. Visiting him in the nursing home left them questioning how the sick and elderly are cared for in our society. They thought there must be better, more compassionate ways to care for family without such separation and isolation.

Managing Multigenerational Living

Niederhaus interviewed 100 families across the U.S. to learn how they managed multigenerational living. Their success stories illustrate that proximity and privacy are two key words to think of when you begin the process of deciding what type of housing to use for extended family living. Ideally, they suggest a separate entrance and kitchen for the different generations.

Once you’ve made the decision to live together with family members, there are a variety of ways to accomplish it. The book discusses the different options by giving real-life stories of people living in houses with accessory apartments, duplexes, townhouses next-door, two or more condos in the same building, family compounds, co-housing, and mobile homes.

According to Niederhaus, about one-third of American houses have the space to add an accessory unit. The book includes illustrations of home conversions and stories of families who’ve converted their homes, garages, and basements to accommodate another family member.

Accessibility is another important issue to consider. The book states “so many of us are living in ‘Peter Pan’ housing—built as if no one ever ages. The typical single-family house is designed for people who will never grow old.”

The book identifies four challenges to getting together again with your extended family: financial and legal, building and zoning codes, psychological, and the most interesting, overcoming cultural stigmas. The authors explain that America’s emphasis on independence has stigmatized boomerang kids and grandparents who are living with their kids. “Americans feel incorrectly guilty about the interdependence that will always exist across generations of family members.”

The final chapter of the book includes practical answers to the big question people have when considering living together: how do you keep the peace? Their advice is organized into issues related to getting along: family meetings, communication preferences, relationship issues, privacy, shared responsibilities, accommodating personal preferences, childcare, and family fun.

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