Advances in homecare, public transportation, assistive technologies and increased mobility have made it possible for more older adults to decide where and how they would like to live—and a growing number are deciding to share a roof with their children and grandchildren.
This is known as multi-generational—“multi-gen”—living.

Multi-gen living is defined as at least two adult generations of a family living together. This might be grandparents living with their adult children and grandchildren, parents and their adult children sharing a house, or even a four-generation home that includes great-grandkids.

Different configurations

In these situations, accommodation can range from traditional layouts to custom designs where a separate living area is organised for each generation and designated areas are shared. There can even be separate kitchens and entrances. Usually, however, the classic family home is adapted, structurally or in practice, to accommodate everyone.

This way of living is popular with about 20% of Australians living in a multi- generational households. This is partly because of the aging population. Experts suggest that increased life expectancies (currently 85 years of age for men and 87 for women) are giving older adults more time to build and strengthen their relationships with their kids and grandkids. Housing affordability also plays its part.

Adults who migrated to Australia as children, as well as second-generation Australians, are particularly likely to live with a parent and grandparent. This may have been their way of life growing up in the country they moved from, and is often the pattern while families become established in their new Australian life.

Sharing the costs

The number of younger adults moving back in with their parents is also steadily increasing, mirroring socio-economic trends. More than 40% of young adults in their early 20’s are still living at home with at least one parent. These adult children are commonly referred to as the “boomerang generation,” as they leave home and then return due to finding value in sharing space, care for kids and household duties. And can we blame them? With the median house price of an Australian home in Sydney being $1.19M an almost unreachable goal for many millennials in the gig economy— staying with Mum and Dad makes sense.

Mum and Dad’s or Grandpa and Grandma’s retirement savings can also make significant contributions to family finances. With family members pitching in to cover rent or mortgage and insurance payments, food, maintenance costs, decorating and modifications, the cost of living is improved for everyone.

Sharing the care

In busy families, grandparents who are active enough to provide childcare build stronger relationships with their grandchildren and often save the family money when it comes to childcare or after-school costs. They might also fill in when children are ill. Playing a role in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives can give seniors a sense of purpose and help them to avoid the loneliness and isolation that can creep up in later years.

On the other side of the coin, a watchful eye and eldercare can also be provided for older adults in a multi-gen home. Shared meals, housekeeping and day-to-day interactions benefit everyone. And, for working adult children, the stress of worrying about an elder who lives elsewhere is eased when their parent is under the same roof.

Do your homework

You’re all excited about renovating for Mum or Dad. Before getting started, here are some things to consider.

Current and future care: Assess your parents’ present and projected mobility and need for assistive aids, and consider space for live-in carers.

Housing needs: Look critically at the size and layout of the available space. Review your home’s proximity to doctors, clinics and other services, and logistics surrounding participation in social and community activities. 

Social support: Evaluate the amount of space your parents will need to entertain their own friends; their need for transportation to errands and parking. Talk with your parents about their level of desire to be totally independent versus wanting to share some space, time or meals with the family.

Be clear:

  • Is your whole family committed to the project?
  • Are contacts in social services, community care and private care in place to help prepare for changes and provide support?
  • Have you an architect to design the space and a contractor to implement the construction?
  • Have you sourced information on vendors of special equipment, such as stair lifts?
  • Do you or your parents have the financial means to renovate?

Do the maths:

Costs can vary enormously in a project, based on the design and scope. If, for example, a granny flat is already in place, it may only require accessibility modifications. For perspective, compare the costs of your home’s renovation, care and ongoing maintenance to alternatives such as homecare, a retirement home or a nursing home.

As with all major projects, obtain three written estimates, do your homework about zoning and building permits, expect slippage and have alternative plans in case of delays. 

Obtain any necessary financing commitments in advance.

A written agreement

Everything may seem rosy today, but take the time to consider all eventualities. It’s wise to clearly document your parents’ contribution to renovation costs and/or ownership of the property, especially if property is held jointly. Remember that this renovation will increase the property’s value and any capital gains should be reflected accordingly. Decide ahead of time what your parents should contribute to ongoing maintenance and housekeeping, if anything. And make sure there is an “escape clause” if things just don’t work out, or in case of major life changes such as divorce, serious illness or death, or if you or your spouse are relocated or decide to move.

Next steps

  • Relocation help may be available from family or professionals to help downscale, sell, store and distribute possessions. Be sure to involve your parents in planning the move. Hire a reputable moving company to make the transfer as smooth as possible.
  • Be realistic and honest in managing your family’s expectations.
  • Remember that your parents’ needs will change over time, and that there might be sudden deteriorations in their health.
  • Be honest about care; if the burden becomes too heavy then an accredited facility might be best placed to provide what’s needed.
  • Consider asking for independent assessments by family doctors and social services at regular intervals, to notice and address what you might miss when you see your parents every day.

What to watch for

The benefits of multi-gen living are undeniable but here are some caveats to consider:

Issue: Living with others may be more difficult for those who have been accustomed to living alone. 

√ Solution: Respect each person’s privacy and allocate everyone a personal space. Agree on noise and lifestyle habits, such as smoking and bedtime hours.

Issue: Chores. 

 Solution: Establish household rules for chores such as shopping, meal preparation, household cleaning and maintenance.

Issue: Disagreements. 

 Solution: Establish a way to resolve conflicts and address problems ahead of time.

Issue: Financial misunderstandings. 

 Solution: Review potential concerns before everyone moves in. Draw up a written agreement for financial matters such as home ownership, who benefits from capital improvements, and the cost and resale value of home alterations.

Issue: Parenting and behavioural concerns.

√ Solution:
Establish rules ahead of time, outlining who has the final say when it comes to younger children’s care and discipline.

Making it happen

Architects and homebuilders associations are ready. Floor plans and building designs targeted at multi-gen living have started to incorporate private apartments, granny flats, elevators and ramps, as well as accessible, open floor plans with wider doorways and hallways for everyone’s convenience and safety. If you’re planning to renovate, be sure to seek professional advice regarding building codes, accessibility guidelines and zoning requirements—just to be sure.

Pat M. Irwin, BA, AICB, CPCA.

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