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So Happy Together

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
December, 2016 Issue

Sasha Oaks lives upstairs in the vintage Victorian home in Petaluma that her parents bought in 1971, the year she was born. Her 70-year-old father and 68-year-old mother still live there, too. Sasha’s 23-year-old son rents a room on the top floor and shares a bathroom with her, while her son’s great-grandmother, 88, occupies a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor.

“We all get along, but there’s a certain amount of being on your best behavior, purposefully” explains Oaks, an only child and self-employed artist and photographer. “We support each other and make concessions to help each other out.”

Having lived under the same roof off and on for several years, these five family members affectionately call their home “The Oaks Hotel.” Once a three-bedroom/one bathroom structure, it now has four bedrooms and three bathrooms.

Several generations of a family cohabiting is becoming more common nationwide, as reflected in statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan “fact tank” based in Washington, D.C., that conducts demographic research. The number of Americans living in a multigenerational household—defined as one that includes two or more adult generations or includes grandparents and grandchildren—grew to 60.6 million in 2014, or approximately 19 percent of the U.S. population.

Some of the increase can be traced to the Great Recession, when adult children—many with their own spouses and/or children––moved back in with parents after losing jobs or being hit with other financial hardships. Yet many other factors also account for the larger numbers. Financially secure baby boomers are better able to give their aging parents a place to live while also providing a home for their own children. Statistics show that young people are marrying later and staying in college longer, and therefore continuing to live with their parents out of economic necessity or by choice. Immigration also plays a major role, with Latin and Asian families more inclined to live in multigenerational households based on long-standing cultural traditions.

Honoring the family

“Where I come from, no one bats an eye at multigenerational living. I’m a first-generation Filipino immigrant, raised in a culture where it’s commonplace,” says Tatiana Gabitan, a social work supervisor for the In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) Program with Comprehensive Services for Older Adults in Napa, a division of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.

Gabitan says multigenerational living among Filipinos just comes naturally. “Family is very important in the Filipino culture, so it’s not necessarily a financial decision—although it does have its benefits. I lived with my parents, along with my two older siblings, until we finished college and started our careers in the Philippines. I began my career debt-free because I’d lived at home. I didn’t move out until I was married and started a household of my own, which was shortly after I immigrated to the United States.”

“Napa County is among the counties with the highest concentration of adults age 65+ in California, and it has the highest concentration of the eldest age 85+. The city of Napa is where 50 percent of the county’s population resides, followed by American Canyon at 10 percent and the rest scattered in the various up-valley cities or census designated areas. Of the county’s 65+ population, 11 percent lives alone. Within the population served by our program, we see a significant number of older Caucasians who live alone or as couples, while other ethnicities more often appear to be part of multigenerational living arrangements. In my experience, American Canyon appears to have a high number of multigenerational living arrangements because it’s more of a melting pot of cultures.”

Gabitan, who lives in American Canyon, says her own house is one of the newer ones in the city that was marketed with an “in-law suite,” and many new homes have been built there with a ground-floor suite for accommodating grandparents or other family members. The suite comes in handy frequently when Gabitan and her husband enjoy months-long visits at different times from their two sets of parents, who still live in the Philippines. The elders get to spend quality time with their young grandchildren while also helping to reduce the cost of daycare and babysitting for Gabitan, among many other benefits for all three generations.

Creating in-law units

Reverting to a multigenerational housing model can be challenging in the North Bay. Single-family homes are by far the largest source of housing already built, and zoning regulations for new homes and conversions tend to be restrictive and expensive. “And yet the nuclear family accounts for only 33 percent of the population in California,” says Rachel Ginis, executive director of Lilypad Homes, a Marin-based nonprofit that supports and facilitates the creation of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and junior accessory dwelling units (JADUs), which are small, private in-law apartments within existing homes.

Lilypad Homes has worked to develop and promote state legislation AB2406, that was just signed by the Governor into law. The law is intended to ease the critical shortage of housing in the state by creating a simple and inexpensive permitting process to repurpose a spare bedroom into a rental unit for housing an owner’s parents, adult children or others who work in the community. Fees and associated costs are minimal, making it practical and affordable for almost any budget.

In general, the JADU model reconfigures an existing bedroom or bedrooms and ancillary spaces in a home, up to 500 square feet in size. Only one unit may be developed on a property. The room could be remodeled with an exterior door, extra insulation in interior walls for soundproofing and the addition of a simple food preparation area equipped with a sink and small kitchen plug-in appliances including: induction cooktop, under-counter refrigerator, and a convection microwave. “It’s a European-style kitchen, the type you find in about half the homes in Paris,” says Ginis. “The JADU can function as a completely independent unit, or you can simply open the interior door and voila! —it’s still a single-family home. Most homeowners in Marin interested in this type of conversion are seeking a place to house loved ones, people they care about, or caregivers so that they can age in place.”

Marin County is the most over-housed community in California, explains Ginis, with 63 percent of homes occupied by only one or two people, typically sleeping in only one bedroom. “The county has more bedrooms per person than any other place in the state,” she says, making it an ideal environment for JADUs to proliferate. “And thanks to two other amendments that passed, creating an ADU on a property is more accessible than ever before, whether it is attached or detached to the main residence.”

Creating a JADU in an existing home can also have a huge impact on resale value. Ginis references a Wall Street Journal article from 2014 that claimed houses with in-law units were priced about 60 percent higher than houses without them, based on Zillow listings in major cities nationwide. “Given today’s demographics, it makes sense to move toward the multigenerational housing model, and these JADUs are an economical way to do that. They cost less than any other type of housing, even less than ‘tiny’ homes,” says Ginis.

The cities of Novato and Tiburon have already approved ordinances allowing JADUs, and other Marin cities are also evaluating changes to their housing codes that would make the units possible.

Respecting elders

“Having my parents and my husband’s parents living with us, even if just for a few months, gives us a new closeness to our relationship, and the wisdom learned from older family members is priceless,” says Gabitan. “We let our parents spoil their grandchildren to some extent, but they also respect our routine and our wishes. We’re all mindful of each other’s space and privacy.”

One of the positives of multigenerational living, she says, is that grandchildren come to have a deeper love and respect for their elders. The built-in socialization for the older generation is also a plus: “There isn’t the isolation that can put a lot of seniors at risk when they live alone.”

Claudia Navarro, a social worker with the Multipurpose Senior Services Program in Napa, grew up in Colombia, where multigenerational living was the norm for most families. “Some of the reason has to do with socio-economic factors, but for many it’s an ingrained sense of obligation. You always take care of your mother, no matter what her health needs may be.”

In the Oaks household, Sasha and her son, an architect, are delighted to pay rent to her parents. “I figured since we have to pay rent anyway—to somebody—it might as well be them. For me and my son, it’s all about investing in my parents being able to better support themselves in retirement.”

Her grandmother could afford an assisted living facility, but Oaks says she wanted to live with family instead. “Because her children had married young and bought homes, she hadn’t spent much time with them as adults,” she explains. “So grandma wanted to be here with us, and we decided to make that happen. And though she’s had her health challenges, dementia isn’t one of them.”

The caregiver role

As elders in multigenerational living situations become more frail or succumb to debilitating diseases, it’s important for family members who act as caregivers to receive time-outs, even if it’s only a few hours per week. “I’ve met many family members who are 24/7 caregivers and show acute signs of depression and guilt,” says Navarro. “They believe they aren’t allowed to take a break while their mother or father is suffering. But then they reach a point where they just can’t do it anymore.”

Caregivers have to make certain that they also take care of themselves, says Dr. Lucy Andrews, DNP, owner of At Your Service Home Care, which serves clients and patients in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties. “Caring for somebody with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, in particular, means living in a constant state of low-grade stress in an unpredictable environment.”

Sometimes a member of the family becomes the “accidental” caregiver by default. “Whether it’s a parent-child or parent-grandchild environment, becoming the caregiver changes the dynamics of a relationship when providing physical care, versus having a nice chat with grandma,” says Andrews. “That’s one reason people use an outside care service, so they can maintain the integrity of the relationship with their elders.” [See “Care for the Caregiver”]

Every little bit of help can make a difference. An outside care assistant who comes into the home for only three hours per week makes it possible for the primary caregiver to go for a walk or enjoy some “alone” time to read or take a nap, says Andrews. “It lets that caregiver take a breather before diving back in.”

Women caregivers are especially vulnerable to burnout. “Many family care providers don’t take the time to tend to their own emotional and medical needs. They miss work, then lose opportunities for promotions, and a cascade of other unfortunate things can happen,” says Andrews. “Sometimes we women do ourselves a disservice by trying to be all things for those around us. We tell ourselves that we’ll muscle through because it’s our obligation, but we suffer from that, ultimately. It can set up family dynamics where resentment builds up. We can be put into the position of caring for someone we love, but this may lead to frustration, resentment and ultimately guilt.

Spats and cranky moments

Whenever you live with housemates, says Oaks, someone will always get on your nerves, and that can be especially true when several generations inhabit one home. “We all have our cranky moments,” she says. Add in the parent-child dynamics, and there can be little spats, too. But we recognize how minor many of our issues are and can move past them.”

One of those minor issues was arguing over the correct way to wash the dishes after dinner (the Oaks share their evening meal together at least three or four nights per week). “We all have a different way of doing it, and this became a source of irritation for a long time. Finally, I told the others that we couldn’t have this same fight night after night, so we agreed on a policy that whoever is doing the dishes can do them however they like. The rest of us walk away—no more nagging.”

Oaks can also be grumpy first thing in the morning, she says, which can create friction in a full house. “I had to make a rule that nobody talk to me for about a half-hour while I’m having my coffee. That’s helped to keep me from snapping at anyone until I’m finally awake and ready to have a rational conversation,” she explains with a smile.

If there’s a downside to multigenerational living, adds Oaks, it’s that one must actively work at evolving the relationships. “In my situation right now I’m a child, a parent and a grandchild. Living long-term with your parents and your child can be difficult, because it’s so easy to slip back into your role of child and parent. But overall it’s been a pretty good arrangement for all of us.”

Care for the Caregiver

Cohabiting with several generations of a family under one roof can have rewards beyond counting, yet it often involves providing care for an elderly relative who needs around-the-clock attention. For most of us, being the care provider to a frail mother or father is a job we’d take on willingly with affection. But we’re only human, and the mounting physical and emotional stress can take a toll.

Women are at much greater risk for burnout, as they typically shoulder more of the caregiver responsibilities in a multigenerational living arrangement. According to Dr. Lucy Andrews, DNP, owner of At Your Service Home Care, a study on family caregiving conducted by MetLife revealed that when there’s no daughter in a household—only adults sons—the family tends to seek outside help much faster than in situations where the daughter is the primary care provider.

Setting aside time for respite care is vitally important. Respite care is the temporary care of an elderly, ill or handicapped person that provides relief for the usual caregiver. It can be as simple as asking a trusted friend or neighbor to watch over your loved one for 30 minutes while you run a short errand or go for a walk. For a longer getaway of several hours, to enjoy a much-needed massage or attend a meditation class, bringing in another family member or a home care service provider can be a lifesaver. offers these suggestions to those who are in danger of burnout:

Ask for help from family and friends. This can be a win-win for all involved. The primary caregiver gets a break while the person being cared for benefits from the company of another trusted person.

Seek out companion care. An “elder companion” can prepare meals and perform light housekeeping duties while also giving companionship to the person needing care.

Consider a personal care assistant. This is a trained helper who can assist with bathing, dressing, toileting and grooming your loved one, along with handling light housekeeping and homemaking tasks.

Look into an adult day service. Sometimes called adult daycare, these facilities will assist with the client’s needs while also providing mind and body exercises, meals, social activities, and more. They can be located in stand-alone centers or at churches, hospitals and nursing homes.

Consider assisted living respite care. Some existing assisted-living facilities, continuing care retirement communities and nursing homes offer room and board for older adults who need help with everyday tasks. The length of stay can be from a partial day to several weeks.

Find a caregiver co-op. These are organized groups that give members an affordable way to pitch in and take turns caring for one another’s loved ones in exchange for some time off. The arrangement not only gives caregivers more time for themselves, but also fosters a sense of community among both those who give and receive the care.




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