Should grandparents live with or near their families? Is three- or four-generational living a joy or a disaster?
A Small Room on the Side
During our journey across the country to learn more about grandparents, we visited the “hills and hollers” of Appalachia. A farmer named William showed us a small room on the side of his large farmhouse. “That’s where my wife and I will live when I’m too old to work. That’s where my parents stayed before they died, and my grandparents, too.”
William’s children were looking forward to the transition of caring for their parents. Meg, William’s oldest daughter, said, “If I can’t look after them, someone else in the family here will. That’s what we do here. They took care of us. We’ll take care of them.”
Farm life is team life. One farmer we spoke to said, “The family’s the team. Everyone’s got a job. You can’t be too old to do something. Even if it’s telling stories to the kids at night.”
Most people don’t live on a farm like William’s family, yet many American families today are beginning to make arrangements for the grandparents to live nearby or even next door. Many people we spoke to are renovating rooms or adding “granny flats” to their houses so their elders can be a bigger part of their family’s life.
Gracie and John O’Rourke from New Jersey recently built an addition to their home so that the grandparents can leave their retirement community in the south and live with them. The change has worked out well for everyone.
The mother of four children, Gracie O’Rourke is especially happy about the new arrangement. “Before I couldn’t even get sick because I had no one to help me with the kids. Now I have John’s parents there to help when I’m sick or when one of the kids is sick or when I work late. I always used to tell John that I needed a wife, too. Now his mom helps out in the house and my father-in-law is kind of like a husband-handyman.”
The children love having their grandparents nearby. 10-year-old Mille has become inseparable from her grandparents and spends more time in their part of the house than any other. “Grandpa helps me with my homework. I got smarter in school since they moved in. I watch the soaps on TV with grandma and we eat popcorn.”
16-year-old Tom O’Rourke likes to go sailing with his grandfather. “He’s a really good sailor. He was in the war and was on a destroyer. We entered a boat race last year and won.”
Current economic problems have forced family members to return to living together. Perhaps this may be a blessing in disguise. An article in the Boston Globe describes a mother who built an apartment above her garage for her parents. “I think in the long run it’s cheaper to have my parents live here than in elderly housing. My husband and I travel a lot for our work and it’s nice having Mom and Dad around to look after things when we’re gone.”
Having grandparents at home is a huge asset for latchkey children who normally return to an empty house. In addition, the new living arrangement gives grandparents and parents the time to work on interpersonal issues that they normally would not confront if they were separated by distance. The fact that everyone is living together can be a big motivator for resolving festering problems. Lastly, this kind of family arrangement is a great example for children as they observe their elders supporting and caring for each other.