Why might you live in a Multi-Generational home?
Depending on how old you are, picture yourself in any of these scenarios.
- You come home from school to a house with no adults in it. Your parents are caught up at work yet again and they couldn’t get a babysitter. You should be doing your homework or studying for that test but instead, you’ve got to cook, clean, or perhaps even look after your younger siblings. While it is good that you have become more responsible, you are constantly tired and missing out on the best days of your youth.
- You finally got through university with that degree you always wanted, your prospects seem promising but you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. The only problem is, your salary is nothing compared to what you have to pay back in student debt. You won’t be able to get your own place, you might even be unable to support yourself let alone your partner and kids if you have them. Even if your partner is also educated and working, the debt you have to pay is going to make it very difficult if not impossible to start out on your own.
- Your kids moved out years ago and it’s just you and your spouse in this empty nest. You two aren’t getting younger and find it increasingly difficult to manage the house on your own. On top of that, you both may have aging parents living elsewhere and you constantly worry about their wellbeing as well as that of your children and their ability to cope in the world.
- You are in the twilight of your life. It’s becoming difficult for you to function independently but you wish to not be a burden on your family. You choose to stay home or move to a facility if needed and as the years go by, you realise you’ve now been retired longer than you’ve worked. Soon, those savings that you thought would keep you afloat till the day you die begin to dwindle and it seems that you aren’t as close to the end of your life as you thought you’d be by now. It’s getting harder to pay the bills and you struggle with the loneliness and isolation that comes from being unable to do what you used to be able to.
These are all very real issues faced by many families in a time where the rising costs of living along with factors like longer life expectancies and increasing debts have made it difficult for people to establish or maintain households of their own. The young aren’t able to “leave the nest” with crippling student debt looming above their heads, the middle-aged may find it difficult to maintain the lifestyle they were once accustomed to, and the elderly more often than not, find themselves outliving their savings. As a result of this pandemic, things such as in-home childcare or daycares and assisted living facilities for the elderly have become increasingly unaffordable, unappealing, and unfeasible. Unless you are among the lucky few to have a sudden windfall of cash, the only feasible way for families to maintain some kind of long-term financial relief would be to share a single home between themselves. Depending on your circumstances, you could find yourself in one of the following situations.
- You have had to move into the home of another family member. You may be alone or bringing along your partner and children with you. Sometimes, other relatives like siblings or grandparents may also move in around the same time.
- You have had to share your home to accommodate other relatives moving in from somewhere else. Some of the people moving in may have lived in the house before such as children who have had to move back while others such as in-laws or grandchildren are less familiar with living with you. At times, you have to make adjustments to the house itself such as making it more accessible if an elderly parent is moving in and you may end up in the role of caregiver for young children or older relatives.
- You, along with other members of your family who all live in separate homes, decide to sell off your individual homes and buy one for everyone to live in.
Regardless of your situation, in the vast majority of these cases, everyone involved stands to receive an immediate financial benefit. Those moving into another house may be in a better position to pay off their debts and focus on building their careers. If they have children, there will be less worry about the cost of childcare as well. The elderly may worry less about outliving their savings, feel less of a burden to their families by contributing to the household expenses, and are less likely to suffer the emotional effects of old age such as loneliness and isolation. For those accommodating other relatives, they may end up having to pay less in household expenses as the responsibility is now shared among more people and there may also be the added peace of mind of no longer having to worry about previously far-away relatives.
This shows that the many people who now choose to live in multi-generational households without having done so prior, do so mainly because of the many financial and practical benefits that come with doing so. However, it is also very easy for friction and misunderstandings to occur if steps are not taken to maintain peace within the now expanded home.
My experience with Multi-Generational living
I was raised in an Asian family and in our culture, children are not expected to move out or “leave the nest.” In fact, they are expected to remain close to home all their lives. Where I’m from, it is fairly common to see people continuing to live in or close to the homes they grew up in. It’s pretty ironic being raised in a culture where the emphasis was placed on academic achievement and skills that would make us more independent, because independence itself was often not allowed. Sometimes, it was even looked down upon. If you were a working young person and people found out you stayed away from home, you could be chastised for not looking after your parents. This was not a question of looking after them financially either. Looking after your parents meant being physically present or at the very least, close by. It did not matter if your family was rich or poor, the fact that you did not live with them was something already questionable in its own right.
Growing up, I lived with my parents and my mum’s mother. My mother also had many siblings who stayed with us off and on for extended periods of time. However, most of our time was spent at my paternal grandmother’s house a short drive away. I spent more time there as a child than I did in my own home. My grandma’s house was filled to the brim with aunts, uncles, cousins and relatives of all descriptions. In its heyday, the house accommodated over twenty full-time occupants spanning five generations all at one time. This was not counting weekends and holidays where other relatives and friends would be in and out, visiting and spending nights. Although this living arrangement stemmed primarily from cultural factors, my family soon began to realise the practical and financial benefits of living in a multi-generational home. My family has been living this way for about sixty years now and in that time, we’ve learned firsthand just what it takes to make the most of living in a multi-generational household.
Tips and Tricks to making Multi-Generational Living work for you
Understanding the circumstances of each person living in the house
Unless you are in the fortunate position of being able to look after all the people living with you or if you are completely dependent on the people you’ve moved in with, every able-bodied person will likely be expected to contribute to the upkeep of the house in some way. By being fully aware of the circumstances of each person or family unit that you are living with, it will be much easier to decide on who is able to do what for the household.
When my grandparents first moved into their house in the late sixties, they were renting it. At the time, it was just my grandparents, dad and his four siblings, and my grandpa’s mother. My grandpa was the sole breadwinner during this period and the family initially relied on his income alone to support them. In the coming years, however, my dad and his siblings also began working but did not leave home. Instead, they contributed a part of their salaries to the rent and were able to use the rest for their own daily needs. My two aunts also got married around this time and their husbands moved in as well. They also contributed to the monthly expenses. The fact that there were more people contributing to the same set of expenses while simultaneously being less and less reliant on my grandfather, allowed him to be able to focus the majority of his earnings to purchase the house before he retired.
My family was very open about how much everyone earned in order to ensure that each person could contribute fairly and within their means. The way this worked for us was that the people who earned more would contribute to the monthly utilities while those who earned a bit less would contribute to less costly expenses such as groceries. To us, this was the best way to create a balance between everyone contributing and remaining independent. Everyone could pay a fair share but could also save up for their own personal needs such as buying a car and starting a family. The key to making this work is to be open and honest about your circumstances with everyone in the house. If possible, it would be best to discuss such matters before the actual move in order to establish an understanding, minimize the possibility of disputes and come up with contingencies in case anyone has a change of circumstance. It is also important to understand that fair does not mean equal. All because someone can afford to pay a certain amount of money each month doesn’t mean that everyone else can as well. People work different jobs that pay differently, they have different amounts in savings and may need to allocate more money to personal needs such as paying their children's tuition fees or medical care for older people. Thus, it is important to be forthcoming with your circumstances in order to be best able to balance between doing your part for the household and putting yourself in a more financially secure position.
While this applies to people in a position to contribute to the household financially, there may be those whose circumstances are such that they may be unable to afford to pitch in for bills and groceries. In some cases, children and the elderly aside, you may find yourself in a position where you may be taking in a relative who is currently not in a position to be earning any money. Sometimes, they are unable to contribute to the expenses for the time being while at other times they may need to rely on the other people in the home to cover their own personal costs. This was a fairly common occurrence in our household especially after the people already living there were more financially stable. My grandma had many relatives who lived in the more rural parts of the country and had to move to the city in order to find work. This was not a very straightforward process as their lack of qualifications meant that they had to undergo long periods of training before they could actually get jobs. More often than not, they had very little savings and sometimes had to depend on the other people in the house to pay for their daily needs. This can be settled in two different ways depending on their circumstances. Those who are unable to work for the time being due to attending courses or training need only agree to pay back the money spent on their welfare when they are able to. For those who are unable to find work at all, it would be best to put them in charge of various household chores. These could include cooking, cleaning, or sending and picking the children up from school. If done right, this would not be a hindrance to anyone involved but may even benefit the household as a whole. As my grandmother had so eloquently put it, “there is nothing wrong with more mouths to feed as long as there are more hands to feed them.” Basically, in terms of contributing to the entire household, it is important to understand why everybody is there in the first place and appreciate the fact that no two people can contribute in the exact same way. If these ground rules are established at the start, the transition from a single household to a larger one would be that much smoother.
Don’t Schedule Fixed Meal Times
Since we’re on the subject of having mouths to feed, one of the most essential aspects of any household is meal time. If you are living with other people whose schedules are likely to not fit with yours, it would not be advisable to have everyone drop whatever they are doing to all sit down for a daily meal. While it is true that sitting down for a meal may be a good way for everyone to bond and get together after a long day, it may sometimes not be the most practical thing to do. Some people may grow to find that whatever time set is incompatible with their schedule or even unreasonable to them and this may lead to misunderstandings. You can’t blame them of course. Nobody likes feeling forced to eat when they’re not hungry or if they have something else to attend to first and everybody hates it when they’re getting ready to tuck into a meal only to see that the food is already being cleared out. The best way to avoid this issue is to let everyone eat at a time when it is best suited to their own individual needs and not expect anyone to commit to a fixed time for lunch or dinner.
In my family, this was a concern mainly during dinner and on weekends when everyone was at home. We handled this in two ways:
- At first, meal times were staggered among the family members. This meant that each “family unit” took turns at the table to have their meals. Normally it would start with the grandparents and great grandparents followed by each couple and their children or any other relatives in whatever order was most convenient on that particular day. Over the years, there were small tweaks such as adding a second table in another part of the house to accommodate more people at a time but on the whole, it was a fairly efficient system where within 90 minutes to two hours, everyone was able to have their fill at a time that suited them best.
- Eventually, when the house grew more crowded and people’s schedules became increasingly more different from one another, it became difficult to stagger meals even amongst smaller groups. So we switched to our second method which was letting everyone help themselves at their convenience. By this time, there were more people in the house and this meant it was easier to prepare larger portions of food. Normally, my relatives would prepare a few dishes and leave them on the table for everyone to take when they pleased in a sort of “buffet” style. Generally everyone ate the same food but certain relatives had separate meals made for them due to religious or medical reasons. Certain portions would also be kept aside or made in advance depending on a person’s schedule so that they may eat after coming home late or pack along with them if they worked nights. On most weekends, everybody pitched in to buy food from outside as it was much easier especially when friends and visiting relatives came over.
If this is also not practical in your household, it may be best for each person to just buy food for themselves or take turns buying food for the rest of the family.
One more thing that may help prevent any mealtime-related drama is to not have any qualms about things such as people eating at odd hours or bringing food to their rooms, children excluded of course. It should not be considered rude to not be able to eat with everyone else or even not eat the same food. All that matters is that everyone has a good meal that they can have at a time that best suits them. Remember that although you share a space and certain responsibilities, you each still have your own lives and routines.
Let Parents Discipline Their Own Kids
Speaking of having your own lives and routines, a big part of most people’s lives is bringing up their children. Not everybody does things the same way and there’s no one right way to ensure that a child behaves. Regardless, when a child misbehaves it should in most cases, be the job of the parent to discipline their child if necessary. Conflicts can occur especially when grandparents or other older relatives might attempt to use their style of parenting on your child. More often than not, their hearts are in the right places but nobody likes it when their style of parenting is undermined especially if it is to the detriment of their kids.
Depending on the dynamics of the people you live with and other factors such as the closeness of your relationship or culture, this may not always be the case. Growing up in an Asian family, I was brought up to see my aunts, uncles, and grandparents as another set of parents and in turn, they treated us children as if we were their own. This meant that if a child misbehaved, any adult in the household was well within their rights to discipline him or her. However, in our household, it was understood that punishments only extended to time-outs or grounding. In hindsight though, I believe that it wasn’t the prospect of being grounded or put in time out that kept us well behaved but the nagging. If we did something wrong at home, an endless stream of nagging and lecturing from all our relatives was soon to follow.
Cultural factors aside, it should not always be the case for other relatives to discipline someone else’s children regardless of how well-meaning your intentions were. If a child misbehaves and refuses to listen, simply tell their parents and let them handle it. This demonstrates respect for each person’s personal boundaries and creates a greater level of trust among the adults in the household. If you are entrusted to look after another person’s kids on a more full-time basis such as when their parents are working, it is always best to first consult with them as to their preferred style of parenting and try your best to emulate that. Never assume you know better unless your advice is sought out. Just because your method worked on your own kids doesn’t mean it will automatically work on theirs.
Have A Life Outside The House
All because you now find yourself in a situation where you now have to share your space and certain responsibilities with a larger group of people, don’t forget that the goal of this living arrangement is to allow each person involved to be able to afford a greater level of independence at a lower financial cost. Try not to let your commitments to the household overshadow the rest of your life and remember that even though you all live together, you do not share the same life. Just like how people’s work and commitments are on different schedules, you should be free to pursue your own hobbies on your own time too. In many ways, this maintains a level of “normalcy” and keeps the peace within the house too. Here’s a small list of things you can do and should not have to give up when you move into a multi-generational household.
- Don’t give up on your old hobbies. Bear in mind, that you are not there to devote your entire being to the household but that you and everyone else there are helping each other benefit financially, emotionally or practically by living together. So, do what you’ve always loved, spend time with friends, or go out on the weekends with the added peace of mind that your kids or elderly parents are home safe and that your enjoyment isn’t as big a strain on your wallet as it once may have been.
- Do things as a “conventional family”. Every now and then, go out for a meal with just your partner and kids or take them for a small holiday at the end of the year. In most cases, moving in with your extended family might be a very drastic shift from what you were previously used to. It may also be overwhelming for the kids in the family to constantly be surrounded by so many different people. By spending time in a more conventional setting, you could create a sense of normalcy and balance more intimate moments with the often bustling and hectic nature of the rest of the house.
- If you’re living with your in-laws, make time for your own family. It’s an especially difficult transition when the people you’ve moved in with or opened your home to aren’t the same people you grew up with or have been familiar with all your life. When you have children especially, it is easy for them to forget about the side of the family they do not spend as much time with. When you have the time, spend time with your parents or siblings who don’t live with you and ensure your kids continue to build a relationship with your side of the family as well.
When everyone is able to maintain an independent lifestyle outside the house and be able to pursue their own individual interests, not only will you minimise the likelihood of misunderstandings but it is also a sign that your decision to live together in the first place has begun to work for everyone involved.
No matter what your reason for staying together, always remember to value your time together and be respectful of each other’s differences. The main lesson I learned from growing up in a multi-generational household was to keep an open mind and to embrace people from a variety of backgrounds. As traditional or culturally motivated our decision to stay together was, the people in the house were all of different races, religions, cultures and even spoke a different language. Despite that, we were still family, and that bond was always present even if it was sometimes difficult to express. Looking back, I still remember the many faces that came and went, those long nights in front of the tv with everyone crowded around it, and the delicious food that we never failed to enjoy. Most of all, I remember the togetherness, how there was always a happy face to see you as you entered and a loving goodbye as you left.
I write this for you in an empty house, spurred on by the precious memories of those carefree days. While I wait for the time when I can visit and enjoy the warmth of my family’s company again, I sincerely hope that this guide has helped whoever reading it to not only manage but to thrive in a multi-generational home.
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