They're known as the "sandwich generation" — adults of a certain age who find that they must simultaneously care for their own growing children as well as their aged parents.
That's been the general definition over the past 20 years. But the cruelties of the recent economy, along with the accelerated aging of the population, suggest that it might start to get a lot more crowded in that sandwich.
Because of the aging of our population, Grandma is increasingly likely now to be coming home to live with you, either because she physically can't live alone anymore or because the stock market has KO'd her retirement fund. Or maybe your own decimated 401(k) will have you seeking shelter at Grandma's.
Perhaps that grown son or daughter you thought had flown the nest may be knocking on your door because the apartment rent has grown too steep or because their jobs have evaporated.
If so, then many more American homes are about to become multigenerational — and more complicated.
The census studied the number of multigenerational households in 2000 and concluded there were about 4 million of them in the country at that time. But research from AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) suggests these households grew to 6.2 million in 2008, a number that the organization speculates is multiplying quickly because of the new realities of the recent economy. AARP says that nearly one-fourth of all baby boomers expect to be living with their parents again eventually.
Maybe "eventually" is now: Last week, Coldwell Banker Real Estate released a survey of its agents in which 37 percent noted an increase in homebuyers looking to purchase homes to accommodate more than one generation. And 70 percent of the agents said they believe the economy may increase demand for such homes in the next year.
So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when I was flipping through architect Sarah Susanka's latest home-remodeling book and found, among the expected chapters on such things as using color effectively or adding an island workspace to a kitchen, a lengthy discussion about accommodating multiple generations under one roof — without bloodshed.
Susanka is best known for a series of popular design books on her ideas for the "not so big" house, which tries to squeeze more utility and comfort out of less square footage. The newest volume, "More Not So Big Solutions for Your Home" (Taunton Press), is based on a series of articles she wrote for Fine Homebuilding and Ideal House magazines.
She wrote the piece on the need for multigenerational design several years ago because she said she saw it coming — and her own experiences with clients, not all of it encouraging, told her it's something that needs a lot of TLC to work. Susanka found herself doing a lot of hand-holding with those clients, something they didn't teach in architecture school, she said.
"My own experience with a single-family house being designed for multiple generations is that it hasn't worked well," she said in an interview.
"You have to be sensitive to the privacy of the main family," she said. "In one project, quite a few years ago, three generations of family were gung-ho about living in the same house. They bought it together and (remodeled it) to give the grandparent couple, the parents and their three offspring places that were theirs alone.
"But the proximity is such that it's difficult to break family patterns. So if you have difficulty with a parent, you'll probably continue to have it."
Not the most encouraging outlook. Susanka's hard-learned advice deals less with the physical space planning you'd expect to find in a coffee-table remodeling book than with a gentle plea for all parties to go into these house-sharing situations with their eyes wide open.
Bottom line, she says, is privacy, and the book offers two remodeling strategies that look great but just aren't going to be financially feasible for many families — a small room addition, with separate entrance and kitchenette, for an in-law; and a major basement remodel, with the same attributes, for a young adult who returns to the parents.
But there are less-drastic strategies that might provide some sanity-preserving privacy. I recently talked with Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP, who suggested that multigenerational households might want to take a hard look at that seldom-used living room or dining room and consider a "light" remodel to turn it into a walled-off getaway for the generation that needs a place to escape.
Or maybe, a la the Coldwell Banker survey, you'll make some real estate agent's day by deciding to relocate the whole, multigenerational clan under a new roof. Just be sure, as Susanka advocates, that everybody has someplace to breathe and that everybody agrees to respect the rules.
"Creating an environment in which there's a reasonable level of privacy for everyone," she said, "can mean the difference between household harmony and collective misery."
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