Let’s face it: the American household is changing. For many, the traditional image of the nuclear family, with a mom, a dad, 2.5 kids, and maybe a dog or cat or two, simply no longer applies. In many ways, we’re returning to an older, more traditional household structure, with multiple generations living under the same roof. On the other hand, our changing culture is also expanding the definition of the American family to include bonds of connection that are different blood.
In the not-so-distant past, “adulting” meant growing up, leaving your parents’ house, and establishing a household of your own. To live again as an adult with your parents was considered a kind of failure, or at the very least some sort of temporary setback in your personal development as a productive, functioning adult.
But that’s far from the case today. In fact, according to a recent report from USA Today, an estimated 1 in 6 American adults today lives in a multigenerational household that includes parents or other elder relatives.
This trend is both a matter of necessity and a matter of personal choice. For members of the sandwich generation, the tens of millions of young and middle-aged adults who find themselves caring for both children and aging relatives at the same time, bringing the family together in one home can help make the tremendous challenges of caregiving a bit easier to manage.
At the same time, multigenerational living can also be a tremendous source of emotional support, an issue that’s gained increasing importance in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Rather than the separate generations self-isolating in their own homes, the generations have increasingly come together to ride out the lockdowns with the reassurance that their loved ones are safe, well taken care of, and not facing the pandemic alone.
Studies show that children and parents alike are struggling with the challenges of learning remotely. When there are children at different grade levels in the house, or when parents are also trying to work, whether from home or outside of it, having grandparents or other relatives in the home can help ease these burdens. Having grandma and grandpa on hand can be a great source of help with kids’ at-home lessons!
But this trend didn’t begin with the COVID-19 pandemic and it won’t end with it either. In fact, even before the outbreak, the number of multigenerational households had reached record highs.
The rise — or the return — of the multigenerational household isn’t just logistically practical or emotionally beneficial for families facing lockdowns. It’s also an important strategy for dealing with the realities of a rapidly aging population.
According to a 2013 Pew research report, nearly half of all adults aged 40 and above have a parent over the age of 65. And as the population ages, the prevalence of chronic illness only increases. For many families, multigenerational living helps caregivers support relatives facing chronic illnesses.
This constant access to aging relatives can help family members detect potential changes in their loved one’s functional or cognitive abilities. When it comes to issues such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, the earlier the diagnosis and initiation of treatment, the better able patients are to manage the disease and slow its progression. There have been multiple breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s research that are leading to new treatment options.
It is not only the elderly who have chronic illnesses who might benefit from living in a multigenerational household. Rates of chronic illness among children are on the rise, particularly as the numbers of children on the autism spectrum continue to increase.
Likewise, with many women waiting until later in life to have children, the prevalence of diagnoses such as Down syndrome, which is a significant risk factor for pregnant women over the age of 40, is also on the rise. Unfortunately, because there continues to be a significant amount of fear and stigmatization surrounding the diagnosis, many parents may feel overwhelmed, tempted because of fear to give up their children, when a larger network of emotional and physical caregivers inside the home might well make a profound difference.
When it comes to multigenerational living, money does matter, but the results are mixed. While the sharing of household expenses and the opportunity to save money is often cited as a large benefit of multigenerational living, the truth is that these arrangements do not always provide a cost benefit. Studies show that members of the sandwich generation often find themselves providing financial support to an immediate family member, most often to an adult child, and that this support has had at least some impact on their financial wellbeing.
Financial issues not only take a toll on the household and its members, but they can also impact how the family grows. For example, adoption is a wonderful option for those seeking to add to the family, but, depending on the type of adoption, the costs can be prohibitive. Caregivers who are providing financial support to relatives, or those who bear the bulk of household expenses in a multigenerational family, may find they need assistance in accessing resources to manage the costs of adoption.
The family home is changing. Increasingly, Americans are living in multigenerational households. This can be a profound source of emotional, financial, and practical support in managing the challenges of modern life. But care, planning, and strategy are needed to make it work to its fullest potential for all family members.
Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer from the lovely “city of trees”- Boise, Idaho. Her love of writing pairs with her passion for social activism and search for the truth.