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Nana Upstairs, Grandpa Down the Hall: The Extended Family and Its Future

When Eric and I first wrote a letter to Eric's grandparents, asking them to consider living with us, the response was very mixed. Grandma and Grandpa's generation of friends and family were mostly very pleased and thrilled - given the bad lot of options available to many of them, finding a compatible home with their grandchildren looked pretty good. Most of them had cared for their parents, and so somewhere inside them, this seemed like a normal relationship. Some of my friends were frankly jealous - they'd lost their own grandparents, and wished for something like what we were going to have.

But most people our age and our parents' age were very discouraging - they warned us that this would be "too much" that we would have no privacy, that the relationship would be too difficult.

In fact, it did have some difficulties - particularly the end of life issues. It wasn't always easy to balance their needs and ours, and there were issues of privacy and balance to be worked out. At the same time, I look back on the experience as one that was truly wonderful, and both my husband and I feel only a deep regret that it didn't last longer, that Eric's grandmother died too young. We missed deeply having them be part of our lives. That it was not always perfect, simple or totally comfortable was simply one of the realities of having human relationships - none are. But it was a good and rich thing.

I was thinking of this recently, in response to a recent Pew Survey, tracking the growing trend of multi-generational families. Since the 1980s, there has been a growing shift towards families living together, with 49 million Americans - 1 in 7 - now living in a multi-generational household with two generations or more of adults.

This is due to a combination of factors. The first is the concentration of wealth among Baby Boomers and older adults, and the tendency towards later marriage. Younger people are living with their parents longer. The recession has dramatically increased this trend. Meanwhile, immigrant populations tend to be more multi-generational and the US. Moreover, the aging of our population means a gradual shift away from single family homes - and some of those shifts involve shifting towards combining households.

It isn't just 20 and 30 somethings, though that are going home - everyone is seeing this trend accellerate in light of economic issues:

...the trend reversal has also played out among native-born Americans. And for all groups, the move into multi-generational family households has accelerated during the Great Recession that began at the end of 2007. The Pew Research analysis of census data finds that in 20084, 2.6 million more Americans were living in such a household than had been doing so in 2007.

If I have a small claim to fame, it has been for the observation that the shift to a less affluent and less stable future will mean families living together - my semi-famous essay about the apocalypse looking less like Mad Max than "your brother-in-law living on your couch for two years" seems to be about right - and as I wrote in my very first essay on the subject, many years ago, demographics and social trends only lead us in the same direction that economic necessity will.

The Pew survey already has found that Medicare cuts make it more attractive for elders to move in with family - as the Baby Boomer population ages, this will become even more common, I suspect. The truth is that subsidy cuts to assisted living and elder care facilities, devaluation of housing (the asset most people hope to trade for future care) and the economic crisis we are facing in health care costs means that many of us are likely to find ourselves having much poorer choices than we already have (and the ones we have aren't great) for elder care. Not everyone will live with their aging parents - and for some people, with deep family issues or severe health issues that can't be handled at home, this isn't even an option, but for milliions, it will be.

What we've established is that when we absolutely have to, we can get over the idea of the nuclear family, let go a little of the idea that we all need huge amounts of personal space (Virginia Woolf's case for a room of one's own was anchored in the space realities of early 20th century housing - think 12x12, not the 850 square feet per person that was the average in 2005.), deal with our issues with our parents or kids (assuming they weren't too horrible.

But what we haven't gotten around to is the next step - beginning to recogize this arrangement not as a tolerable necessity, but as one that offers deep and real potential benefits. We also have not yet begun to do it *before* it becomes necessary - that is, right now combining households occurs because we can't pay the mortgage anymore, or because we can't find a job and have to move in with Mom, or because we can't afford assisted living and Grandma can't live on her own. It is not yet occurring before the house goes into foreclosure in most cases. It is not yet occurring while Grandma and Grandpa are young enough to help out. It is not occurring because young couples are saying that maybe having their own home isn't necessary, maybe it is ok to remain in shared space, with shared resources.

Does that seem crazy and unrealistic? I have often thought that one of the most heartening things that happened in the wake of the election of President Obama was the fact that his mother-in-law moved in with the Obamas to provide stability and security for the kids. This model of voluntary sharing of the extended family was mostly the source of dated, sexist mother in law jokes, but I actually think it was genuinely important - and it reflects the fact that not every culture has always bought into the idea of the nuclear family as a model - African Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans are dramatically more likely to live in multi-generational households - and to express satisfaction about doing so.

But living with your parents is still the subject of jokes. Moving in with your kids is still viewed as "being a burden." And privacy uber alles in the US - which is a pity. Because just as I'm suspicious of the assumption that we're too tired to cook (scroll down to my recent post about Barriers to cooking and eating sustainably) because it is so very profitable for corporations to tell us we are too tired, I'm suspicious of the idea that privacy is all. I think that has been enormously profitable as well - it has fueled the housing boom (and look how great that's been for all of us!), fueled enormous amounts of consumption (nope, you can't borrow someone else's vacuum cleaner, you must own your own private one), and fueled whole and vast industries in replacing labor once done in the informal economy and now cast off on the formal economy. In some cases this shift to the formal economy has been an improvement, for some people - for families who had to struggle with severely impaired Alzheimers patients, for example, who now can find facilities where better care can be provided. But in many cases, this represented a loss - economic loss, as resources that were once passed down were sold to pay for care, loss of time as we worked longer hours to make sure everyone had their own house or apartment, social isolation and loneliness, the externalization of other work into the corporate economy...and so on.

Just as we tend to assume that new technologies have always been beneficial, we tend to assume that this progression away from one another is both natural and desirable - the story we tell ourselves is that for most of our history we had no choice but to care for our own elders and live in close proximity, now we finally have the chance not to. But I don't think that's the whole story - I think in general it is wise to look at what we take as natural and logical in our society and look for those who profit - and the enormous sums involved in telling us that we don't want to share housing offer a visible incentive, at best, for encouraging us to believe that natural instinct isn't what's being gratified here.

We are finally recognizing that such family models are viable. What we need to see is that they are desirable in many cases - and that they can be chosen in the absence of circumstances that force us into these arrangements - that rather than losing the house, maybe it would be better to have your sister and her kids move in and pay some rent before the issue comes in. That building an apartment downstairs for Mom and Dad might make more sense for everyone than having them live far away and waiting for the inevitable crisis. That families straitened and strained by burdens and resources might do better to combine before it is necessary, to share work, wealth, housing, time, company. Some years ago, in an essay on husbanding economic resources I wrote about the ways that extended family models operate to retain resources within the family. In Depletion and Abundance I wrote about ways in which this mirrors the peasant economy, in which often little wealth is brought in, but in which little also proceeds out. It is this, in the end, that allows families to live functionally on that little.

I know, not everyone can do this - some people have horrible families, some families can't agree, some combinations will not work, some households lack resources. But the very fact that it is happening suggests the range of possibilities. The very fact that there are so many people out seeking "community" in a host of ways suggests to me that the cultural assumption that your community cannot begin in your family is wrong - but it will take a long set of shifting assumptions to re-entwine ourselves in one another's lives. Still, it seems that work is beginning.

But I get emails all the time from people who write that they'd love to have their parents or grown kids come back and live with them, but that they won't consider it. It is possible, of course, that these are families with deep structural failures that one party simply doesn't see. But my suspicion is that not all of them are - in fact, I think it is often the case that parents and children, siblings and grandparents are simply talking past each other because we are so caught up in the assumption that sharing homes represents a failure, is something one does only in a crisis.

The other day Eric and I were joking about what would happen if we suddenly had millions of dollars, and Eric's first comment was that we'd still need to have housemates or live in closer proximity than we have for the last few years (it has taken us a while since Grandma and Grandpa's death to get around to finding housemates). It was interesting to me that the first thing he thought of was that the traditional assumptions of wealth involved less proximity and more distance - and that both of us instinctively recoil at that idea.

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: flickr/HelpAge

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