Dealing with your parents — 28 February 2007
The challenges of multigenerational family living

One of the 21st century great challenges is adjusting to the dramatic demographic changes of the population. Due to increased life span and limited options for senior care, more and more households are composed of multigenerational living, which includes parents, children and grandchildren or adult children and senior parent/s.

According to the 2000 Census three generational households totaled 4.2 million homes. When combined with two generational living (ages not specified) of 43.6 million it adds up to 45% of all households. The largest housing segment is of one generational living totaling 57.5 million, which constitutes 54% of households.

A multigenerational living research done by Dr. Marcia Harrigan found that there were many advantages to several generations living together including: family connection, exchange of knowledge, help with child and elder care as well as companionship and freedom from loneliness for the seniors.

Dr. David Niven, an Ohio state University psychologist and author of The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families states: “What’s clear is that feeling connected to your family members helps. What’s not clear is that living with your family members helps you feel connected to them.” “An awful lot of differences come out when you’re that physically close to each other.”

Psychologically there are many complex issues in assessing whether a multigenerational living is or will be a positive experience for all.

Living together certainly affords the generations an opportunity to learn from each other, spend time together and share their daily experiences. Grandchildren often lavish in the joy they bring to their grandparents, enjoy the unconditional love they receive, benefit from caring for the senior and being their grandparent’s pleasers and protectors.

The parent generation may also enjoy a new adult-to-adult connection with their parent that is unlike their childhood experience. They may feel that they have the chance to repay their parent for all the love and caring they received as children. Some adults get the satisfaction of nobly caring for their lonely, widowed or medically frail parent.

The seniors may enjoy the lively household, the opportunity to be useful to others, the security of companionship, the safety of being well cared for and the sense of being a part of a more dynamic energy.

These advantages are joined by some disadvantages.

Culturally, our society fosters autonomy and independence. Three generational living may hinder both. The grandparent may feel unhappy about the need to give up his or her former lifestyle and freedom. It may symbolize a declining state of health and functioning. The senior may feel: subservient to or controlled by their adult children, unhappy about transitioning from self care to being dependent, concerned about being a burden and imposing upon the family’s lifestyle.

The parents often feel emotionally conflicted about their dual roles of accommodating their children and caring for their parent. The parents’ added responsibilities for the senior generation further reduce their: freedom and autonomy, their privacy, couple time, and serenity. This sandwich generation report feeling guilty and ineffectual about pleasing and caring for everyone in the family and frustrated by the reverse role of now being their parent’s “parents”.

Children may also feel deprived of their parents’ full attention since grandma moved in. They may also resent their additional responsibilities and restricted freedom. Children in these homes often face more frequent criticism about noise, inattentiveness and self-preoccupation.

How the grandparents raised their children (now the middle generation) is a major factor in the success of multigenerational living. Those who harbor unresolved childhood or adult years’ hurts inflicted by their parents, may be less inclined to invite their parent in or may do so under duress with less than ideal results.

• Multigenerational living is a complex relational structure. It varies greatly from the nuclear family constellation that is our cultural norm.
• Considering adding a senior parent/s into the household requires a discussion of all concerned identifying the benefits and sacrifices involved.
• Even with the best intentions, expect conflicts, frustrations, guilt, restricted freedom, role confusion and loss of privacy for all the family members.
• If you choose this option – institute regular family meetings to discuss everyone’s needs.
• Accept help from others in child and elder care to safeguard your couple time.
• Abstain from directing your anger and frustration about your life to your partner. Guard your relationship as the center pole of the tent that holds the whole structure together.
• Pride yourself for your strength, courage and couple teamwork you manifest through your love and dedication to your family.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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