Today 7.5 million kids live in the same house as grandma or grandpa. For 78 percent of them, at least one parent is there, too, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Family Living Arrangements 2010.
The number of children under 18 who grow up in a home with gramps or granny is increasing — to 10 percent of kids today from 8 percent of kids in 2001. Should you think about joining the growing ranks of multigenerational families under one roof? Some questions to consider:
How does your spouse feel? Before you decide, you and your spouse need to hold many discussions, says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character. "[Talk about] the amount of time that this commitment will take out of every day, the loss of privacy, the financial burdens, the sheer physical work that may be require, and the often unpredictable difficulties posed by increasing ill health, declining mental capacities, and escalating emotional demands. An older person who is cheerful and self-sufficient today may become bed-ridden and difficult tomorrow, requiring full-time caregiver." Agree on how you would face the joys — and burdens.
How does it fit with your view of a modern family? In the past, homes typically included many generations. "In many traditional cultures, there is the expectation that grown children will care for all the needs of their parents, just as the parents cared for the children when they were small," says Berger. "Only within the last 100 years or so has this pattern in the United States been altered with new concepts of the nuclear family and new habits of housing, employment and geographic transitions. The sandwich generation is really as old as time, but our modern lifestyle does not always make room for this undertaking."
How will the new arrangement affect your kids? If you decide to proceed with the move-in, clearly explain to your kids how their lives will change, says Dr. Michelle Barratt, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, a former member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on adolescence, and the mother of five kids (ages 9, 16, 17, 20 and 22). "What will the additional chores be? Will there be a shift in room assignments? Who has priority in which bathroom?" Discipline is another issue. "It will be important for there to be clear roles and responsibilities," says Barratt. "If a teen asks to go out, does just mom or dad have to agree or grandma and grandpa, too? Does the house curfew for the teen change to allow for the earlier bedtimes and very early waking hours of the newcomers?" And what about grandparents with hearing aids who can't tolerate the teen's loud music or whistling?
Why is it happening now? Is it for health or financial reasons? "From a practical point of view, taking in grandma and grandpa is not always a good fit for families today," says Berger. "There are often problems with housing, with finances, and with emotional expectations."
Who's the boss? "In the old days, a parent's word was often law," says Berger. "A woman of 50 could still consider herself under the thumb of her own mother's whim, or the whim of her mother-in-law. Our ideas today are very different indeed. Grandma's ideas about childrearing are not taken as holy writ, and grandpa's financial advice is often dismissed as irrelevant to the family economy."
What is your relationship? "If grandparents and young ones have been good friends, then yes, it's a welcome addition," says psychologist Marcella Bakur Weiner, co-author of The Problem Is the Solution. "If the reverse is true, and grandparents are critical, interfering, negative, etc., then no. The bottom line for all of life's decisions: go with what and who makes you feel good and avoid the other where at all possible. So if mom or dad says, 'Guess what? Grandma or gramps is coming to live with us,' and there's a groan or moan, well, there's your answer. On the other hand, if there's joy on the face and some version of a song and dance, well, the welcome gate is wide open."
What are the benefits? "The presence of the older person can add enormously to the joy and devotion that everyone at home experiences," says Berger. "This is, of course, especially true when the older person is sensitive and loving and wise, but it is also true when times get rough and the family pulls together in face of hardship. Demonstrating that the family takes care of its own is a valuable aspect of the family's pride and identity. Nothing can really replace this."