Multi-generational Living Options
Sometimes the choice seems obvious: You live in a big house with plenty of room, and your parent or other relative has only a limited amount of space. Of course, your mother will come to live with you. Or the reverse may be true. Your mother is the one rattling around in a big house, and you desperately need more space.
But the move (by either of you) may involve living not just in a different home but in a different part of the country. Leaving everything familiar and adjusting to the new location may be difficult. A trial period may help determine whether this option is reasonable for the long term.
Another option may be for both of you to find a new home that has more accessible features and is in a convenient location for everyone. Some adult children and parents sell their homes and pool their money to buy a new home with room for both generations. A new home gives everyone a fresh start and minimizes some of the difficulty in adding more people to an already established household.
Some builders are responding to this market by offering homes that have separate entrances, two master bedroom suites, a den or family room that can be converted to a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, and other flexible areas. Universal design features, such as wide doorways and few steps, are often part of the package, appealing to both the older generation and younger families with small children.
No solution is perfect, and the advantages and disadvantages for each family vary. Before you make a decision, consider all the pros and cons of each option. In the following sections, I guide you through the considerations of having a parent move in with you, moving in to your parent’s home, and the financial matters you’ll need to arrange.
Having a relative move in with you
When the right choice seems to be having a parent or adult child move into your home, considering how the space will work and how family roles will change is paramount to making the decision.
Organizing the space
If you’re thinking about bringing a parent or other relative to live with you, making sure that the space in your home is adaptable should be a priority. Features of the home that are second nature to you — steps down to the laundry or up to the bedroom, a front door that is hard to open, kitchen cabinets that are hard to reach — may be difficult for an older person to navigate. The lighting may be fine for you but not for a person with poor vision. Here are some other aspects to consider:
- Is there enough available space for all the equipment and personal belongings that your parent may bring? Review all the things that will have to come to your house before the move, and try to keep big items to a minimum. The grand piano or massive armoire may have to go, but try to accommodate prized possessions such as collections, artwork, or other valued items.
- Does the floor plan allow sufficient privacy for everyone? An open floor plan is conducive to family togetherness but also limits the space available for each person to find a special spot to read, write, watch TV, or take a nap.
- Are modifications needed for safety or accessibility?
- Are pets going to accompany your relative? If so, how will you integrate them into your household, especially if you already have animals to care for? Your dog and your mother’s cat may get along very well, but don’t count on it.
- Is there sufficient space for you to have meals together, at least some of the time? Sharing mealtime is one of the benefits of multigenerational living, but given today’s hectic schedules and limited space, it may be difficult to arrange. Having a dining space that is easy to use makes it more likely that meals will be shared with one or more family members, even if everyone is not available.
Remodeling your existing home to accommodate an older person may be a possibility. Some modifications can be relatively modest, such as providing an entrance with no steps or adding grab bars. So-called mother-in-law apartments or accessory units have been around for a long time and can be added or incorporated into the existing structure. This allows the older person to have private space, often including a kitchen, but still be part of the family. Remodeling can be expensive, however, and may not add to the home’s resale value. It may also be useful for a limited time if the older person needs more help or can’t be left alone. Making minor modifications to the home for safety and accessibility may be more affordable than a larger renovation project.
One variation on this idea is a self-contained structure that is built on the premises but not connected to the main house. Informally called granny pods, these units come in small, medium, and large sizes (a typical size is 12 feet by 24 feet) and can be set up in a backyard. They have water, plumbing, and electricity. The selling point for many people is the incorporation of technology, which can monitor the person’s vital signs, filter air contaminants, and do all sorts of other activities. The prices range from $85,000 to $125,000.
Zoning regulations and building codes may place some restrictions on both accessory dwellings and granny pods. Check with the municipal office on land use and a contractor to find out the rules and the process to apply for a variance if necessary.
Changing family roles
With all the best intentions, bringing an older family member to live with you requires some major adjustments as family roles and responsibilities change. The nonprofit Family Caregiver Alliance offers some valuable suggestions. Here are some key points to consider:
- Think about how comfortable you are with becoming the head of household when the household now contains the parent who has always been in charge. And how will the parent feel about ceding control?
- Be prepared for resistance from a parent who may no longer feel (or be) in control and may fear losing independence. Involving your parent and all other affected members of the family in decision making is a good strategy. Try holding family meetings and, for those who won’t express their views candidly in a meeting, one-on-one conversations.
- Consider how your parent can contribute to the household, apart from financially. Child care is one common opportunity (as long as the parent is able to keep up with the child). Another is preparing special meals on occasions. Some older people have special skills that can be drawn upon — perhaps making repairs, gardening, mending clothes, or keeping scrapbooks up to date. Most older people want to feel useful, and giving them an opportunity to help out is usually appreciated.
- Devise ways to accommodate your parent’s interests, routines, and food preferences without unnecessarily disrupting your own lives. If the move involves joining a different religious congregation, make the introductions early. Find out about community activities that your parent can attend.
- Be especially sensitive to how your children react to having an older relative in their home. Many children are enormously enriched by living with a grandparent, learning family history, and asking about “the old days.” At the same time, they may be embarrassed in front of friends by their grandparent’s old-fashioned ideas or attitudes. If the older person has symptoms of dementia, explain what is going on to the children, and give them tips about how best to respond to repeated questions or other signs of memory loss.
Preparing to move into your parent’s home
Instead of having your older relative move in with you, you may consider moving in with that person. You may be struggling to pay the rent for a small apartment while your parent has plenty of space. This may be a more viable option if you live near each other and you would not have to move to another community, perhaps even to another part of the country.
Most of the considerations that I discuss in the preceding sections apply to this kind of move as well, so be sure to consider how they apply in your case. Here are some additional factors to think about:
- Moving more than a short distance may require you to give up a job or personal relationships. Is this something you are prepared to do?
- Moving in with a parent involves a different psychological adjustment than is the case when your parent moves in with you. If you are moving back to the home you grew up in, be aware that you may fall back into similar patterns, even though you are now an adult.
- If this potential move is prompted by a parent’s illness or accident, you may assume that the move is temporary, but it may be difficult to alter once you are in residence.
- If you’ll be moving with a partner and/or children, consider how they will adjust to the new situation and how your parent will adjust to them.
If, after considering all the implications, the move seems like the right thing to do for all you, then you need to plan carefully, considering all the features that have to be in place.
Make fair financial arrangements
Depending on your financial circumstances and personal relationships, arranging to pay for the additional costs of a multigenerational family may be easy or difficult. For most people, it’s a matter of considerable sensitivity and may bring up deep-seated feelings about what is valuable, what is not, and what expenses should be assumed by one or another party. If you’re the adult child, you may feel it is your responsibility to pay for everything, even if you don’t have sufficient resources or you have competing demands. If you’re the parent, you may feel the same way or quite differently. Many older people say that they don’t want to be a burden, and they often mean that as a financial burden. And then there are siblings, often living at a distance and watching this arrangement with both relief and suspicion.
The advice from financial planners, social workers, attorneys, and others is consistent: Make money matters transparent and as equitable as possible. This doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be conflict, particularly with siblings, but it does help to minimize it.
Here are some specific steps you can take:
- Determine a set contribution. Sit down and figure out how much you and your parent or child can or is willing to contribute toward household expenses and whether that money will be designated for a specific purpose, such as rent, food, utilities, or household help. Having at least most of the contribution as a fixed sum makes the arrangement more predictable and less threatening to someone who may be accustomed to saving every penny for a rainy day. If you’re moving into your parent’s home, clarify what you’re going to contribute financially and who is going to pay bills and monitor expenses.
Be sure to put the agreement in writing. This will help avoid misunderstandings later. The agreement can always be changed.
- Set aside fun money. Make sure that the contribution allows for some personal money to spend on small luxuries, clothing, gifts, or any other purpose. This is not an allowance, because it is their money and they have discretion to save it or spend it.
- Set up bill paying. Set up an efficient and reliable way to pay bills, whether that is online or by check. Some recurring bills, such as rent or mortgage payments, can be deducted from your account automatically. Monitor the accounts carefully. Your parent may have paid all the bills before, or that may have been a spouse’s job. Your role should not be to take away all financial responsibility, unless the parent is unable to do any independent financial management. You should discuss any major financial adjustments or needs.
- Consider getting a power of attorney for parents. If they agree, you may want to obtain power of attorney (POA) for financial affairs. This can cover all financial matters or be limited to specific needs. Consult an attorney for advice. Even if your parent is fully able to manage money now, an unexpected medical event may occur, in which a POA would be important.
- Check on Social Security and other income. Make sure Social Security payments or pension payments are deposited automatically in your parent’s bank account. Also make sure the Social Security Administration has the person’s current address. You can check on the website or call 1-800-772-1213.
Watch out for scams. Older people are often the targets of phone or Internet scammers who announce sweepstakes winnings that never happened, solicit money for charities that don’t exist, and offer other once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to cash in. Warn your parent about these scammers, and if one happens to slip through your warning net, alert authorities and the bank or credit card company about it.
- Fill in family members on the arrangements. Involve siblings or other relatives such as nieces and nephews in a discussion about financial arrangements. Let them know what everyone is paying for (in general, not necessarily in dollar amounts) and contributing (again, in general). If they offer to contribute or to take over your responsibilities for a vacation period, make sure there are no strings attached. Also make sure they really understand what they will have to do if they take over your job, even for a week or two. If you feel that other relatives will use this time to pressure your parent for money or changes in the arrangement, don’t accept the offer.
- Consider a personal-care agreement for parents. If you have to give up your job or cut back on hours to accommodate your parent’s needs, consider consulting an attorney about setting up a personal-care agreement. This document sets out the amount your parent will pay you and the hours that will count toward your salary. But understand that it’s not a substitute for your regular salary, and no benefits are attached. Some courts have looked askance at agreements that pay family members their prior or even higher salary as a way to transfer assets without incurring tax penalties. The amount should be consistent with what you would pay to a paid home care worker.
- Update the will. Make sure the older and younger generations have an updated will with clear instructions about the disposition of any property or assets as well as items such as jewelry, artwork, or other pieces that may have sentimental as well as monetary value. Sometimes people promise the same item to several different people, forgetting what they have said to another person.
- Designate a healthcare proxy. Along with a will, the older person should have an updated advance directive and healthcare proxy naming someone to make healthcare decisions in case she cannot do so herself.