Multi-generation Homes & Communities

Multi-generation HomesMulti-generational homes were common during the Great Depression but declined once people rebounded economically. Now, as John Graham, coauthor of Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living, observes, the recent recession has prompted a move back from valuing independence to interdependence.

Some 51 million Americans (16.7% of the population) live in a house with at least two adult generations, or a grandparent with at least one other generation, under one roof, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. The Pew analysis also reported a 10.5% increase in multi-generation households from 2007 to 2009. Now builders are responding with homes designed specifically for multi-generation homes, or that can be modified to support that option later.

Could this trend be a utopia of built-in child care, elder care, three square meals, and shared costs? Could it avoid isolation in old age?

That college grad is back, and Grandma’s moved in, too.


It used to be that older people whose money had run out were the ones living with their children, but now it’s the younger generation that can’t keep up and are moving back in with parents after college. They’re referred to as “boomerangs.”

How many boomerangs are there? A 2012 survey by national home builder PulteGroup found that 32% of adult children expect to eventually share their house with a parent. Another Pew report found that more than 75% of these boomerangs were satisfied with their living situation. About half paid rent and nearly 90% helped with other household expenses.

Improved Relationships

82% of multigenerational households surveyed by Generations United in 2011 said the setup brought them closer; 72% said it improved finances, and 75% saw care benefits.

Elder Care Savings

Consider the long-term care costs alone. A 2012 MetLife Mature Market Institute survey put the average annual cost of a private nursing home room at $90,520 and assisted living at $42,600. Compare those costs  with the value and peace of mind of knowing that a loved one is being cared for by family, and you might see multigenerational housing as your new best option.

Some local building codes don’t allow for accessory units in single-family-home neighborhoods on the grounds that they could be used as rentals, so you might need to consider other options.

Building On – My own Experience with Mom

A lesson I learned from my own experience with mom & dad is that each individual’s medical needs are different, and each living environment is different.

I worried about my dad’s will-to-live after his first heart attack. All bedrooms were upstairs and he was sequestered there like a prisoner. I knew it would take a toll, because he was an avid golfer and worked with his hands as an accomplished cabinet maker. So when I returned to San Antonio after visiting him in McLean, VA, I bought him the best whittling knife money could buy. My plan was to reintroduce him to wood carving since he taught me how to whittle neckerchief slides as a Boy Scout. But before I could return and give him the knife, he had a second heart attack and died.

Mom’s story was a bit better. She and dad were both chain smokers, and mom eventually developed emphysema and was forced to quit. But as scary as the disease was (she always had an oxygen tank nearby), her living arrangements were better. After dad died, mom sold the big home in McLean and bought a nice little condo in Fairfax, even replacing bulky furniture with pieces that better fit the smaller space. That worked fine for a few years, but as the disease progressed and she lost her ability to drive, she became lonely and needed more care.

One of the best things mom did next was to sell the condo and use the money to build an apartment attached to my brother’s home. His lot had enough space to do that, and zoning didn’t prevent it. The new apartment gave mom autonomy and a sense of security with family so close by, and she was a happy there – as happy as she could be given her health problems. When she finally passed away, it was in her own home. Neither of my parents spent any time in a rehab or nursing home or in an assisted living facility. To them, an occasional stay at a hospital was bad enough.

In-Law Suites & Granny Flats

In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats is a book that serves as the essential guide for turning one house into two homes. It’s by Michael Litchfield and covers everything involved in creating a secondary living space in your home or on your property – from planning and permitting to specifics such as sound-proofing, space-conserving appliances, and dealing with damp basements. Litchfield covers a wide range of options, including attic, basement, and garage conversions, bump-out additions, and even freestanding structures.MEDCottage

MEDCottage is an example of a freestanding modular home that serves as a “mini-medical facility.” It’s designed like a deluxe trailer for the elderly, but it doesn’t look like a trailer. I like the idea of relying on experts to integrate various systems, where the combined value is greater than the sum benefits of each part. Inside the 12’x24’ MEDCottage are living, sleeping, cooking, and bathing areas, equipped with some of the latest technologies to assist in care-giving. Sensors monitor activity and vital signs, send medication reminders, and alert caregivers if there’s a fall via PC or smartphone. The aesthetically pleasing home is secure, pathogen-free and filters air for contaminants.

MEDCottage can be rented and installed temporarily or purchased and installed permanently on flat space in your yard to give grandma her own space, autonomy, self-esteem and connection to family.

My Neighbor Consolidated Their Homes

Tom & Gwen sold their own home and that of her parents and used the proceeds to buy a slightly larger 5-bedroom home with about 3,000 square feet, where three generations now live together. They save money by sharing one mortgage and living expenses, and the arrangement works well since both grand parents need daily attention and care.

Grandpa has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and Grandma’s diabetes has been difficult to manage. They get weekly maid service and help from a home health aid, but close calls still seem to occur regularly, so they’re glad they’re close enough to notice them.Lennar Evolution Design

Tom & Gwen occupy the master, and their 11 year old son has the upstairs bedroom and game room. Grandma & grandpa are both in their 80s, sleep in bedroom 3, and use bedroom 4 as their living room.

New Builder Designs

In 2011, national builder Lennar introduced its own Next Gen house in Phoenix. It’s a home-within-a-home for long-term guests, family members or anyone else who can utilize this innovative space. Features include a complete suite with bedroom, living room, eat-in kitchenette, private entrance, and garage. An adjoining inner door can be left open so the house can function as one big home or, when closed, two residences. Now Lennar offers more than 50 Next Gen floor plans in 120 communities across the nation.

Next Gen’s concept is two houses in one: The main home has three or four bedrooms, and there’s an attached unit with its own front entrance, kitchen, bedroom, living space and garage. It’s typically one-fifth the size of the main house and is perfect for an aging parent (or guest, nanny, caregiver, college student, or as a man cave).

Challenges of living together

The multi-generational housing scenario is not so rosy for everyone. Family friction, strain on spouses, fewer opportunities for career advancement, and less personal time are very real concerns, but consider all the options.

Multigenerational Communities

Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America is a book of essays and advice, edited by former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain, and Jane Hickie, with forward by John W. Rowe. It extends the multigenerational concept from homes to neighborhoods and communities. The basic premise of this book is that Americans have trouble aging in traditional homes (I call them Peter Pan homes, because they’re designed for people who’ll never grow up – or old). Likewise, their neighborhoods are age-segregated and work for people who drive but lack public transportation or the ability to walk to stores and libraries. Future demographic changes demand different ways of looking at home and community design to support aging in place.

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