3 Generations, 1 Roof

Pros and cons of an arrangement that challenges grandparents' comfort zones

By Barbara Graham

Two grandparents, two parents, and two kids, all living under one roof — in perfect harmony? I'm in awe. This bunch could be the model for a contemporary version of The Waltons. They even have a name for their communal arrangement: Project for Intergenerational Living — or PIGL, as they jokingly call it. They have PIGL meetings, PIGL systems, and even a master PIGL schedule.

Meet Shelley and Linda

Multigenerational living is not unusual these days. According to a recent U.S. Census report, the number of children who live with a grandparent has increased a whopping 64 percent over the past two decades. In actual numbers, this means that in 2009 — the most recent year for which data is available — 7.8 million children lived with at least one grandparent, up from 4.7 million in 1991.

[bluebox survival]Clearly, the recession has had a lot to do with the growing trend. In years past, it was not uncommon for aging parents to move in with their adult children, and it still isn't, but now we're seeing more financially strapped adult children, and their kids, moving in with Grandma and Grandpa.

Although I fantasize about my son's family living nearby, instead of across the Atlantic, a single roof over our heads has never been part of my dreamscape. The PIGL family — Shelley and her partner, Linda, and their children, Owen, 9, and Charlie, 6 — didn't exactly plan to do so over the long haul, either.

Theirs was to be a one-year, temporary arrangement while Shelley and Linda, who had moved from the Bay Area, searched for a home and jobs in Washington, DC, where Linda's parents, Tom and Elizabeth, live. "We'd been thinking about moving east to be closer to my parents for several years," Linda says, "and after Charlie was born, the timing seemed right."

Tom and Elizabeth were thrilled. "We invited them to live with us while they explored the job and housing situation," Elizabeth says. "But the arrangement was working so well that after about six months, we just looked at each other one day and said, 'Why not make this permanent?'"

That was nearly six years ago.

Why It Works

The family's decision to move in with Linda's parents was not driven by financial woes, but there's no question that the arrangement offers substantial economic benefits. The two couples share all household expenses, 50-50. What's more, since Tom and Elizabeth had already paid off their house, Linda and Shelley did not have to take on even a share of a large mortgage when they moved east.

[bluebox sandwich]"The housing situation allowed me to take the time I needed to find the right job," says Shelley, a business development consultant, "and it's given Linda the freedom to be with the kids while also building her psychotherapy practice. Now, we can take vacations as a family that we might not otherwise be able to afford. It's really clear to me that if we didn't have so much support, if we had our own house, and the bigger jobs we'd need to pay for it, our lives would be very different."

As it is, she adds, "We're not just managing; we're really enjoying our parenting years."

For the grandparents, the economics were more challenging. When the two couples decided to make PIGL permanent, they drew up plans to renovate the house's unfinished third floor into a new living space for Tom and Elizabeth, so that Shelley, Linda, and the boys could occupy the second floor. As with every other cost associated with the home, they split the price. "For us," Elizabeth says, "taking on debt to finance our share of the renovation was not so easy at this time in our lives."

On the other hand, Elizabeth, who has spent decades working in the field of aging, acknowledges that at some point in the future, she and Tom are likely to face health challenges, and that "Linda and Shelley will have to spend significant time taking care of us. That's mighty difficult when adult children live far away."

Linda agrees. "Having us here to manage their care will make it possible for my parents to stay in their own home longer than it would be if we weren't around," she says.

What the Kids Get

For now, though, all six members of PIGL are thriving. "Everyone benefits from being exposed to people of different generations," Linda says, "and the kids benefit from having four live-in adults with a broad range of interests." Elizabeth — who the kids call "EG" — is the family naturalist, museum docent, and "Sky Theatre" director, who, together with Owen and Charlie, mounts plays on the third floor several times a year. Grandpapa and Owen are Red Sox fanatics who also share pancake- and waffle-making duties. Shelley is the jock, coaching the boys' soccer and basketball teams while Linda reads, hikes, and plays music with the boys. Linda's also the point person for managing the complex schedule that keeps the household humming.

EG and Grandpapa, who is semi-retired from his career in international development, benefit as much as the kids. "The opportunity to do spontaneous, unplanned activities with the boys gives us great joy," Elizabeth says. The first time I visited the family home, she had just spent hours on the floor with Charlie doing a puzzle. The next time, Elizabeth and the two boys had just returned from a magic show in a nearby park. "These are the highlights of my days," she says.

PIGL sounds almost too good to be true — and it would be without the family's vision, good will, and careful planning. That's not to say that there aren't trade-offs or conflicts. Shelley, for example, wouldn't mind having a bit more privacy now and then. Elizabeth can occasionally get prickly and territorial over the kitchen, which had been her exclusive domain for decades. And sometimes Linda can find juggling everyone's busy schedules to be cumbersome and frustrating.

Still, all agree that the pros of their communal life far outweigh the cons. As Owen says, "Our moms set rules and make us behave. EG and Grandpapa are nice, plus we don't have to go on trips to visit our grandparents."

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