Some people live in multigenerational households out of necessity. Others do it by design. Some situations are long-term. Others are temporary. Countless practical reasons account for the growing trend — economics, health issues, divorce, childcare needs, relocation, renovation. For Shelley and her partner, Linda; their children, Owen, 9, and Charlie, 6; and Linda's parents, Tom and Elizabeth, all of whom now share Tom and Elizabeth's Washington, D.C. home, the decision to live communally was based, along with some practical considerations, on the belief that regular exposure to different generations, talents, and interests — and abundant love — is good for everyone.
They even have a name for their communal arrangement: Project for Intergenerational Living — or PIGL, as they jokingly call it. In her 2010 holiday newsletter, Shelley wrote, "Fully one-third of all families across the country who were looking for housing in 2010 were looking for housing to accommodate three generations. We're champions of the movement. Our PIGL continues to be an incredible gift for us all."
To illustrate her point, Shelley quoted then-eight-year-old Owen, speaking of the change the family's move from California brought about in his younger brother: "Someone pressed a singing button on Charlie and he can't stop."
No matter what brings the generations together, for the short term or the long haul, these seven guidelines, derived from my interviews with the PIGL clan, can help keep the household running smoothly, and make the experience a positive one for all.
1. Well-Defined Roles In the PIGL household, there's no question about who's in charge when it comes to setting limits, establishing rules, and disciplining Owen and Charlie. It's the parents. "It feels like we're still a nuclear family, but now with tremendous support and other significant adults in our lives," Linda says.
Elizabeth adds, "Tom and I consciously try to follow the lead of the parents." If grandma — the boys call her EG — does have an issue with their table manners or other behavior, she raises it with their parents in an adults-only meeting, never in front of the kids.
2. Clear Operating Systems There's much to be done in a multigenerational home: Scheduling. Shopping. Cooking. Household chores. And there are decisions that need to be made: Meals together or separately? How much time can grandparents devote to childcare? Who's responsible for which bills?
When several adults share a home, every aspect of daily living must be carefully charted in order to avoid confusion or a potentially dangerous gap in childcare. In this family, for example, Linda is in charge of scheduling, and all four adults hold regular meetings to identify areas that need attention, sort out scheduling conflicts, or air any other issues that may come up.
3. Good Communication This is key. Like most of us, the adults in PIGL lead extremely busy lives. And since kids and adults sometimes get sick; unexpected storms erupt; last-minute work meetings get called; and trains don't always come on time, family members must be able to reach each other at all times. Between family meetings and kitchen-table chats, family members stay in touch by email — sometimes even when they're all at home. Cell phones with texting ability are also key. But good communication goes beyond figuring out logistics. We're all human. Even the best-intentioned of us get irked sometimes, and we need to talk it out, skillfully.
4. Sound Financial Planning PIGL splits all household expenses, including the mortgage, 50-50. Others may divvy up expenditures differently, depending on family members' different resources. It doesn't matter how you do it, as long as there is a plan and everyone is on board. The lesson here is clarity.
5. Know Thyself Another point that can't be overstated: Different people have different energy levels, different tolerance for noise and chaos, and different needs for social interaction and solitude. Introverts may desire more privacy than extroverts. Some grandparents might be willing to share their home, but not their private spaces. It may take some experimentation to learn exactly where your own boundaries lie — and they may shift over time — but whatever they are, honor them, and let the rest of the family know your limits.
6. Consider the Options Not every extended family that wants to live in close proximity is suited to living under the same roof. Because of their history of communal living during their time in the Peace Corps, and their advantage of having a somewhat larger home, Tom and Elizabeth were probably more open to repopulating their empty nest than other grandparents (like you) may be. There are other ways to share your life with your adult children and their kids without being in such close quarters. Some families create additions to the home for a younger — or older — generation, with separate entrances and utilities. Others find an adjacent property — like a duplex, or two apartments in the same building — and take turns cooking dinner (or not). Given the players in your family, think through what will work best for all of you before making a move.
7. Trial Run If at all possible, consider a trial move. One reason PIGL has been so successful is that the arrangement started out as temporary; at least that's what everyone thought at the time. Although Shelley and Linda planned to find their own house within a year, the experience of staying with Linda's parents was so rewarding for the family that they decided to make it permanent.
Still, all of the adults in the household told me that you can't know for sure whether communal living is for you until you try it for an extended period. "Living together is completely different from visiting for a week or two," Linda says. Amen.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.