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Multigenerational Living for Long Term Care

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For most of human history, long-term care for aging family members consisted of all ages living together — and humans continue to do so in much of the world. In the United States, large social and economic changes have not only redefined family — think of blended families, same-sex marriages, children born to surrogate mothers — but have also revived multigenerational living with some modern adaptations.

If you were born after 1940, you probably grew up in a nuclear family: mother, father, 2.3 children. Maybe grandparents or other relatives lived nearby but not under the same roof. Although the nuclear family seemed the norm for middle-class Americans, it was actually an aberration lasting only a few decades.

Why different generations are living together

Each family is different and has its own story, but several reasons contribute to the appeal of generations living together.

Economics is probably the major driver of multigenerational living. Unemployment, loss of housing, credit card debt — all the ills of the economy have driven many families together to share resources and space.

Another reason to share a home is the changing needs of aging relatives. By simply living closer together, the strain of helping to maintain one's own home and that of a loved one is removed. The needs of older people who cannot live safely by themselves often can be addressed more easily and economically in a shared household than if they lived in a separate home.

And as a benefit to the younger generations in the house, older people can contribute to the household economy and help out with some tasks, particularly child care.

On the flip side, prolonged education and poor job prospects have created the Boomerang Generation, young people who have not chosen to or been able to establish households of their own, are unmarried, and have returned to feather their parents’ formerly empty nest.

This generation includes those who have married and divorced, or who had children while unmarried, and move home with the grandchildren in tow. This way, younger people have a place to live and can help their aging parents at the same time.

Looking at long term care in other cultures

As immigration from Asia and Latin America to the United States has increased, cultural traditions from these regions have encouraged families to live together just as immigrants of earlier generations from Eastern and Southern Europe did.

For some families, the arrangement is a matter of economics. For others, the older generation may not speak English well and may need assistance in many areas, especially healthcare. Many want to live in multigenerational families because they value older generations’ wisdom and traditions.

Although living together across generations is a cultural norm for many, it is not without problems as the younger generation takes on more Americanized habits and beliefs.

The growth of multigenerational households

In 1940, one quarter of Americans lived in households with at least two adult generations, usually parents and grandparents, as well as minor children. By 1980, that share had declined to 12 percent — the intervening decades were the high point of the nuclear family. But in 1980, that trend started to reverse, and since then the share of all Americans living in two-generation households has increased 33 percent.

According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 51 million Americans, or 16.7 percent of the total U.S. population, lives in a household that contains at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation. The Pew Center attributes this growth to the rising share of immigrants in the population and the rising median age of first marriage.

Although this shift affects all ages, it is particularly significant for the elderly and the young. About one in five adults aged 65 or older now lives in a multigenerational household, as do one in five adults aged 25 to 34. Another measure of this change: In 1900, only 6 percent of people 65 and older lived alone, whereas 27 percent currently do.

However, people are living much longer than they used to but with many chronic health conditions. Older people who live alone are less healthy and often feel more depressed than their counterparts who live with a spouse or others.

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