Multigenerational living needs open-minded communication


By Brian Goslow


Edgar “Ed” Klugman was used to being fully in charge, starting back with his days as a high school principal and continuing throughout his 30 plus years as an educator at Boston’s Wheelock College.

Then his daughter moved in with his two grandchildren. It happened just over two years ago, shortly after Klugman had gone through bypass surgery and could no longer drive. “They lived in Newton but didn’t own the house they lived in,” Klugman explained. “Their landlady and her son sold the house and told them they’d have to move.”

For the previous decade, Klugman has been preaching the importance of multigenerational living and how society has to relearn the value of utilizing the experiences of its elders, first with Discovering What’s Next and more recently as a member of Newton at Home, an organization formed to help longtime city residents stay in their homes.

That multigenerational advocacy gave daughter Tami, 48, incentive to ask her father if she and her two daughters, Takara, 23 and Chenoa, 18, could move in with him. “My daughter said, ‘Hey Dad — time for you to walk your talk,’ ” Klugman said. “And I agreed. And they’re right.”

Thus, he now finds two more generations of Klugmans under his roof — plus their friends, who sometimes stay overnight, and more cars needing places to be parked. The sudden influx of new family members and friends jolted his neighbors. “It’s a very new thing for them — and me,” he said.

Klugman had certain expectations of what he’d like to see in return for welcoming his daughter and granddaughters into his home in terms of sharing responsibilities and space — starting with the eating area.

“I like a clean kitchen — especially when I wake up in the morning to make breakfast,” he said. While some meals are shared together, many are eaten apart due to conflicting schedules. “One likes to cook and I’ll ask if she’s going to clean up when she’s done. She gets to it but on her own time,” he said.

Klugman acknowledges this situation isn’t unique to his family — and it’s not just the kitchen. “It’s where you park, how you take care of the plants and backyard; what do you plant there and who’s going to be responsible for bringing out the trash, especially in the winter,” he said. “There are many things that have to be decided when you live as a group.”

The percentage of intergenerational households in the United States has been slowly growing since hitting a low point in 1980, when only 12.1 percent of U.S. homes were intergenerational, down from 24.7 percent in 1940.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Decennial Census data and American Community surveys, 16.1 percent of U.S. homes are currently multigenerational (which is defined as being composed of a least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation); Approximately 49 million people live in such households. A 2010 Pew study, “Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household,” said the growth seems to be due to social and economic factors.

Sharon Graham Niederhaus, co-author of Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living (M. Evans), said many parents are moving in with their children due to financial concerns about being unable to look after themselves, as they age.

“People are worried about Social Security failing; a jump in medical costs; people getting older and living longer; the high cost of assisted living; and reduced pensions,” Niederhaus said. “It’s forcing a lot of people to think ahead about how they’re going to live. It’s better to plan ahead.”

Parents and their children once might have been hesitant about discussing their financial concerns with each other, but Niederhaus said that is changing, and such issues are nothing to be ashamed of.

“The new buzzword is ‘interdependent’ not ‘independent,’ ” she said. Once that reality is accepted, families can have discussions that look at their years ahead. That can be especially beneficial for boomers nearing retirement. “You need to talk about where you want to be when you’re 70, then start looking at what it will take to get there,” said Niederhaus.

She estimated that one-third of U.S. homes could be rehabbed to ensure separate living spaces that are also fitted with easy access entrances between two apartments when desired. “They can have a separate entrance and a kitchen … with slider doors between the apartments, if they so choose,” she said, stressing the importance of private space in making the arrangement work long-term.

Short-term or long-term, Niederhaus emphasized the value of communication in making multigenerational living work. “It’s a good idea to meet before moving in together to make an agreement on family living, whether it be on the payment of gas and electric bills or who’s going to take out the garbage,” she said.

In her book (co-written with her brother, John L. Graham), Niederhaus states the biggest areas of misunderstanding in multigenerational households tend to be in the areas of financial and legal considerations.

In terms of financial issues, these include down payment and mortgage payments on the home, rent, property taxes, transfer-of-wealth taxes, insurance, utilities, maintenance and repairs, remodeling and the goodwill of the siblings.

In terms of legal issues, ownership and control of the property; inheritance (trusts and wills); contracts (legal relationships and care-giving contracts); and how one of the family member’s inability to perform all or parts of an agreement due to a health, employment or pension crisis should be addressed.

To ensure any issues or conflicts don’t simmer for an extended period of time, Niederhaus suggests that families establish a regular date — the first Monday of the month, for example — for everyone to sit down and talk about what’s on his or her mind. “It’s also a way of getting together,” she said.

Nancy Williams, author of Secrets to Parenting Your Adult Child, points out that a parent, regardless of age, is still the parent in charge of the household. The challenge is how to assist a child while respecting boundaries now that the child is an adult, and in many instances, also a parent.

“It’s important to acknowledge they’re adults and not be controlling,” Williams said. “On the other hand, if they’re living in our home, we have the right to establish what the rules are.”

When generations live apart, disagreements can go unresolved for extended periods of time. That’s not the case when they live together and see each other on a daily basis.

“There’s an urgency to solve differences,” Williams said. The key to making these arrangements work, she said, is sitting down and talking about the needs and desires of all generations and to be upfront about the expectations each generation has of the other. “You have to ask yourselves, ‘How do we want to make this time in our lives worthwhile?’ ”

When a disagreement does occur, it can help to call a “time out” and talk about the situation with a friend or counselor before confronting a family member. “That’s when it’s time to tell the other person to sit down and say, ‘Let’s talk about this so we can resolve this because I want to have a good relationship with you,’ ” Williams said.

In searching for common ground, Williams suggests considering what works well, what doesn’t work well and what needs to be changed in the current living arrangement. “Like a business, you need periodic reviews,” said Williams.

The process gives the parent the opportunity to serve as a mentor and give their child or grandchild a structure that will serve them throughout their lives. “Set boundaries you’re willing to stand by and enforce and communicate them respectfully; tell them, ‘Here are the perimeters I can function in,’ ” Williams said. “If you set rules, you most follow through on a stated penalty if they’re broken. It’s not healthy if you don’t stand by them.”

Klugman had hoped to gather his family together to talk over living issues on a regular basis. That wasn’t so easy with their busy schedules.

“I wanted us to have family meetings to discuss our problems but that’s me speaking as a principal — it wasn’t what they had in mind,” he said. Instead, they meet on a one-on-one basis. He’s learned how to listen to what they have to say instead of insisting on doing things the way they’d always been done.

He understands that as hard as the adjustment has been for him, it’s been equally difficult for his family — especially his daughter. “You’re coming back home, not as a child but a mother with two children,” Klugman said.

In this regard, Williams suggested trying to walk in the younger relative’s shoes for a bit. “If they live in your house, just sit in their room or listen to the news and consider their reaction to what they’re hearing. What housing prospects will be like in 10 years or what careers are going to be needed and which are overstocked — in terms of their economic prospects and needs,” she said. “Consider what are their needs and challenges in meeting them.”

While Klugman admits making the new arrangement work is a challenge, he said it’s worthwhile in leaving a family legacy. Having given his family a new home, last summer, he gave them a new nationality as well.

Because he wanted to give his family a better understanding of where his values came from, he took them to visit the parts of Germany where he and his parents had been born. Because he had lived in the country during Hitler’s reign, his daughter and grandchildren were able to become nationalized citizens, which gives them the opportunity to attend school there and utilize the benefits of being a member of the European Union.

Klugman hopes to leave a lasting legacy for his neighbors by continuing his efforts to make intergenerational living a priority focus in his hometown. He recently met with the Newton’s mayor to talk about the issue.

“I want to encourage us to do more of what we’re doing in the field of intergenerational connecting,” Klugman said. “We need to learn together. It’s a win-win situation if you approach it correctly.”