Full(er) house: How to make multigenerational living work for you

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What do Jane the Virgin, Barack Obama, Frasier, Charlie Bucket and the Family Matters family (The Winslows – tuck that away for your next trivia night) have in common? Give up? We’ll tell you … they all live in multigenerational households!

According to the U.S Census Bureau, a multigenerational home is a household that consists of two or more adult generations living under the same roof. Although common throughout modern history and into the early 1950s, the U.S. began to see a decline in multigenerational living as the 1960s approached, a trend that continued into the ‘90s. In recent years, however, we’ve seen record numbers of cohabitation among family members of different generations. 

According to Pew Research Center data, more than 64 million Americans (that’s one in five!) currently live in multigenerational homes. There are several explanations for the uptick. Increasing numbers of twenty-somethings are moving “back home” after experiencing the difficulty of staying financially afloat on an entry level wage once their student loan payments kick in.

Additionally, older Americans are living longer and stretching fixed incomes further amid increasing healthcare costs. Moving in with adult children offers an opportunity to stay active, combat feelings of isolation common in seniors and make the most of their Social Security checks.

The trend toward multigenerational living isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon. Baby Boomers, who claim to feel 20% younger than their actual age, likely won’t go gently to retirement communities and nursing homes, but will inevitably face the challenges that come with aging and living on their own. Moving in with younger family members can be a middle ground between independent living and retirement communities.

The recent economic impact caused by nationwide “shelter in place” orders as a result of the coronavirus may speed up this trend exponentially.

In addition to economic advantages, multigenerational adults who share living spaces can also share childcare responsibilities and household tasks. This lifestyle can create greater bonds between family members. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I wish I’d spent less time with my grandparents growing up”?

Unfortunately, more doesn’t always make for merrier. More people in a house means more mess, more demand for the bathroom in the morning and potentially more shouting about who ate whose leftovers. If you currently live in a multigenerational household, or are thinking about making the change, here are five tips for making it work for everyone.

Prioritize communication
Communicate frequently and clearly. Annoyed by your mother’s unsolicited parenting advice? Want to scream when Grandpa leaves the toilet seat up every time he shuffles out of the bathroom? Talk about it. Be honest and kind, but address the issue directly and respectfully. Small annoyances grow into big resentments when left buried. Ditch the passive aggression for a frank discussion. It may take more time and emotional effort, but it will pay off in the long run for everyone.

Define responsibilities
Be clear about everyone’s responsibilities at the outset. Combining households can bring significant financial savings for everyone, but you still need to have clear, candid conversations about money: Discuss who pays for what, and how much. Some goes for unpaid labor around the house; talk about who cleans what, and on which days. Talk frankly about who babysits whom, and when. AARP provides this helpful list of questions families should ask themselves and each other before moving in together. When expectations are clear and everyone knows their role, daily life rolls along with significantly less friction.

Respect privacy
Adding more people to an existing living situation is bound to create some tension even for the most picture perfect family. Privacy and personal space are essential for a happy home. If you share a particularly small space, perhaps take a walk or sit on a bench at the park down the street for a bit. If you’re up for a weekend project, find a DIY design hack to create some private space. When you feel the walls (and your family’s voices) closing in around you, express your need for a bit of “me time.” Encourage them to do the same and respect when they do. Creating a culture of respect for privacy is key for copacetic cohabitation.

Find shared hobbies and interests
Shared experiences make the best memories. A family movie night with a rotating theme can bring everyone together as they pass the box of tissues during Marley and Me or spit out their popcorn at the most annoying sound in the world. Maybe it’s tending a family garden in the backyard or baking all of Barefoot Contessa’s cookie recipes for a family taste test. Whether it’s food, football, or film, find something you all enjoy and do it together.

Have realistic expectations
Adjustments take time, patience, and trial and error. Chances are, you won’t turn into The Waltons overnight. Your family is capable of changing habits and improving communication. They aren’t capable of turning into completely different people. Living together happily requires hard work and compassion. Celebrate the small victories (Yay! They put their dishes away this morning!) and try not to dwell on the slip ups (but they left them on the counter before bed). Tomorrow is a new day, and a little grace goes a long way.  

If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us any lessons that aren’t “don’t touch your face,” it’s that we’re all connected. Let’s make the most out of personal connections in our own homes (especially since we’re stuck here for a while!) as we face this thing together.