Moving from an empty nest to a full one

April 15, 2011

Where do you want to live when you turn 70? If you’re like most Americans, according to AARP, you expect to be living where you are right now and to stay there for the foreseeable future.

But there is another way to spend your retirement years, John L. Graham, professor emeritus at the University of California at Irvine, said in a recent interview.

You can become part of a multi-generation household by moving in with one of your adult children and his or her family. Though many seniors profess to want independence and a place with mild winters if they move anywhere, Graham said that multi-generation living offers something even better — the emotional intimacy that comes with frequent contact among family members and the opportunity to make a strong connection with your grandchildren and pass on your knowledge and experience. It’s also an opportunity to reconnect with your adult children at a different stage in both your lives.

For baby boomers, this idea is not so far-fetched, Graham said. Compared with their parents, the boomers have generally had closer relationships with their children, even though both boomer parents frequently worked outside of the home and spent fewer hours with their offspring.

Graham, 63, neither grew up in a multi-generation household nor lives in one now. But he does bring some unusual credentials and experience to his ideas. He said he plans to be living with one of his children by the time he reaches 70.

As a professor of marketing, his research focused on the ways that cultural differences affect consumer behavior. This led him to study everyday life and housing patterns in cultures around the world where the multi-generation or joint households are common. The closeness of those households was impressive, as was the contrast with the experience of most Americans, he said.

Graham thought that a joint household could work in the United States, and research done by his sister, Sharon Graham Niederhaus, bore this out. As part of her master’s thesis on accessory apartments, she interviewed more than 100 families successfully living in multi-generation households across the country. Joining forces, the siblings published “Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living” (M. Evans, $17).

Niederhaus found significant differences between joint households abroad and what works here. Traditionally speaking, a joint household lives together under one roof. In 21st-century America, however, Niederhaus found that joint households are more often distinctly separate entities living in close proximity. Separate entrances and kitchens are critical to success. Members of the households share many activities and frequently eat together, and the grandparents often take an active role in the care of their grandchildren. But, at the end of the day, each generation bids adieu and retires to separate quarters. In most cases, there is a standing rule to call ahead before visiting.

Why is 70 the right age for embarking on such a venture? Graham said that you are still young enough to adjust to living in a new town, making new friends and forming new social networks.

If the idea appeals, don’t expect things to gel overnight, Graham said. It may take several years for your family to get onboard. If you want to have a plan in place by the time you turn 70, he suggested starting the conversation when you are about 65.

The first time you broach the subject, there will be awkward moments because you will have to address some thorny issues, Graham said. For example, do you all get along well enough to even consider this? Can you all forgive past transgressions and move forward with a clean slate? Are your ideas about child rearing similar to your offspring’s? Do you feel you can help with child care? Do you want to? Can you refrain from giving unsolicited advice? If you are a widow or widower, will your children be comfortable if you have overnight visitors?

Assuming that you are in good health, your mortality shouldn’t be an immediate issue, but it will be an undercurrent, and there will be rumblings about your assets and estate, Graham said. If the joint household requires that one child’s house be extensively remodeled or that you and that child buy a bigger house that will accommodate everyone, who will pay for it? Renovation work will add more value to the sibling’s house; will this be taken into consideration when you divide your estate? Eventually you may need to draft a legal document that is very explicit on this point, Graham said.

If you can get everyone on the same page, Graham suggested a trial run. “A vacation where you share a common kitchen will test the personalities of the adults in close contact” and certainly elicit useful information, he said. If you have more time, you could spend a few weeks in the town where your child and his family live. If you stay in a nearby residential hotel or motel that offers suites with small kitchens, you will have a place of your own to retire to each night, but you can spend plenty of time during the day with your relatives and get a sense of their household rhythms. Staying on your own will also give you the opportunity to see how easy or hard it will be to make a new life for yourself there.

If everything seems positive, the next step is figuring out where you will live. Although his sister interviewed many families in which the grandparents lived in a separate cottage or an apartment that was attached to a bigger house, this is unusual. In most places, zoning laws prohibit two dwelling units on one property, so you’ll have to be creative. The possibilities that Graham suggested include living next door, across the street or back to back and sharing the same backyard, or a duplex with each household occupying one half.

All this may sound like a huge amount of work to organize, but the rewards of living in a multi-generation household are “totally worth it,” Graham said.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and lives in Michigan.

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