Five years ago, Connie and Fred LaRock of Sutton were empty-nest boomers, happily preoccupied with work, horses, and hobbies. Then their daughter, Jessica Bruno, her husband, and the couple’s toddler son moved back in during a stint of house hunting. In time, Connie’s mother relocated back from Florida into the spare bedroom, followed shortly by Fred’s parents into an in-law unit over the garage.
Sound like a recipe for headaches and hurt feelings? On the contrary, the arrangement worked out so well, none of them ever left.
“It was a no-brainer,” Connie LaRock, now 64, says of her decision to house the entire clan, a journey Jessica chronicles on the blog FourGenerationsOneRoof.com. “When I was a child, I always had a grandparent around. That’s the way I was brought up; it was expected. In this generation, it’s not. [But] the world we live in is pulling us all back to that.”
Multi-generational living is making a comeback, as portrayed on TV shows such as A&E’s short-lived Southie Rules and in Amherst-raised author Katie Hafner’s heart-wrenching memoir Mother Daughter Me, about inviting her elderly mother to move in with her and her teen daughter. According to the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey covering 2009 through 2011, more than 4.3 million US family households — or 1 in 20 both in Massachusetts and nationwide — were made up of three generations. Although the recession likely kick-started this trend, its long-term appeal was apparent to some families even after the economy improved.
“Families may have come together because of [economic] need, but they stay together because they want to,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a D.C.-based nonprofit. “People often look at it as a negative, whereas the families oftentimes look at it as a positive.” In the organization’s 2011 survey, 72 percent of respondents said the arrangement had improved the finances for at least one family member, and 82 percent said it had enhanced bonds and relationships.
“When our country was first being settled, families lived together to survive,” says Butts. “Then society started changing; the American dream became ‘be independent.’ I think people are realizing we do need each other. Living in a multi-generational household is not the right thing for everyone. But it’s proving to be the right thing for more people than we ever thought.” The perfect example? “The White House,” she says. “Michelle Obama’s mother Mrs. [Marian] Robinson moved in after inauguration. She made it possible for them to [handle] their leadership roles and make sure the Obama children did their homework.”
While some may view this housing option as a mark of failure, or even the ultimate nightmare, for many of members of the Sandwich Generation, squeezed between caring for children and their own parents, it can relieve the constant juggling. “A lot of people think we have bitten off more than we can chew,” LaRock observes. But it hasn’t worked out that way at all. “The worry aspect is gone,” she says. “We can be on top of doctor appointments, help with medications.” Similarly, having her 7-year-old grandson in the home full time — as well as twin 13-year-old stepgranddaughters there on weekends and for weeks in the summer — means no travel time for baby-sitting gigs and never missing a fleeting moment of grandchild precociousness.
Jill Guardia, 50, and her husband Rick, 50, moved her mother, Irene Silverman, into their Somerville home 17 years ago, when their son was an infant. “The positives for us is we had a built-in baby sitter,” says Guardia, who works full time in software training. “From my mother’s perspective, we took care of everything; she didn’t have a care in the world. And there’s a strong relationship between my kids and my mom. Having their grandmother here all the time has been special.”
Guardia’s husband, whose father was born in Panama, has been accepting of having a full-time mother-in-law. “In the Latin community, it’s very family oriented,” Guardia says. “The family feeling is definitely bred into his DNA.”
In many cultures, taking care of elders is seen as a natural rite of passage, rather than a burden to be outsourced. According to a 2010 Pew report on social trends, around a quarter of black, Latino, and Asian populations were living in multi-generational households in the United States. By comparison, only 13 percent of whites were in such households.
New housing options nationwide are beginning to reflect this impulse to gather back together: self-contained apartments that can be installed in backyards, families buying adjacent homes, harkening back to the Kennedys’ Hyannis Port compound, and firms like Pierce Lamb Architects in Newton, which specializes in designing new homes and renovating existing ones for the elderly and people with disabilities.
Many clients are drawn to multi-generational living arrangements, says firm principal Deborah Pierce, author of The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities. But the problem is that local zoning laws can often present challenges, such as prohibiting so-called “accessory apartments,” which are those with their own kitchens. “We need to change zoning, so this kind of option is more readily available,” Pierce says.
Considering setting up a multi-generational household? Communication is key. Katie Hafner, 56, and her mother actually met with a therapist, who advised setting clear boundaries “around money, mealtimes, physical and psychological space — even refrigerator space.”
That’s crucial, agrees LaRock, whose construction-savvy husband was able to expand the home to 6,000 square feet, essentially giving each family unit its own wing. For LaRock’s daughter Jessica, 41, the benefit has been getting to know her own grandparents in a new light, seeing them “as real people and like a friend.” Plus, she jokes, there’s an added bonus: Her son gets to enjoy Sunday morning pancakes with his grandpa while she gets to sleep in.
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