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3 generations, 1 roof: Multigenerational households on the rise in Howard County

A giant blue tarp is flapping in the summer breeze on top of the two-story addition workers are building on their Sykesville house, and in the backyard, three generations of Beares are explaining why they decided to join the latest trend in household arrangements: multigenerational living.

“We were in a four-bedroom house, just the two of us,” says Paul Beares, 69. “We didn’t need a four-bedroom house anymore. We needed to downsize.”

“And we wanted to upsize,” says son David, 37, noting that he and his wife, Abby, had a third child last summer and not much extra space in their small Annapolis home. “Also, we were living in Annapolis, and our business is in Columbia. The drive stinks.”

“We wanted to be in Howard County,” says Abby, who grew up in Columbia. “And we wanted a place with some land.”

“My dad lived with us for a while,” says Paul’s wife, Susan, 66. “In fact, we’ve all had that three-generation experience, and all saw how it could work.”

“I like it that we’ll be able to see them (her grandparents) every day,” says Alivia, 8, joining the conversation. “They’ll be here to baby-sit us if Mommy and Daddy go out. And Babba (her grandfather) is around to help with the house.”

The Beares’ circumstances dovetail with the mutual needs and desires that multigenerational households can satisfy, but the family is hardly unusual in opting for this sort of arrangement. Not anymore.

Driven by a variety of factors -- the uncertain economy, the rising tide of young adults returning to live with their parents, a growing immigrant population with a strong multigenerational household tradition, a growing senior citizen population and increased interest in aging in place -- the number of such households is on the rise.

The ‘comeback’

A 2010 Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends study found that the number of Americans living in a household that included at least two adult generations rose from 28 million in 1980 to 49 million in 2008.

Noting that such extended families were common until World War II but declined in the ensuing few decades, the study concludes: “The multi-generational household has mounted a comeback.”

Statewide figures reveal the same trend, with the number of Maryland households with three or more generations increasing from 88,923 in 2000 (4.5 percent of all households) to 108,934 in 2010 (5.3 percent of all households), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Earlier figures for Howard County are not available, but the 2010 census found 4,163 such households in the county, 4 percent of the total, and those who keep an eye on such trends say multigenerational living is becoming more popular here as well.

“We’ve probably seen a lot more of it over the past 20 or 30 years,” says Dayna Brown, administrator of the county Office on Aging. She credited the increase mainly to people living longer and an increased desire of the elderly to age in place -- stay in the community rather than move to an assisted-living facility. To do that, she says, many rely on family caregivers, such as adult children.

“It’s growing,” agrees architect Karen Pitsley, owner of Transforming Architecture, a residential design firm based in Highland. Pitsley says she is fielding more and more requests to design second-floor master suites, in-law suites and other additions that will accommodate families combining resources under one roof.

“A lot of people in Howard County are looking for houses that will allow that,” she says. “With all the baby boomers hitting their 60s and 70s, there’s a much greater need for this now.”

While many cite the increasing numbers of elderly and the so-called “boomerang generation,” Michael Rendall, director of the Maryland Population Research Center and a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, says economic forces are largely behind the move to multigenerational housing.

“The Great Recession is the root cause of the phenomenon,” he says. The trend is driven by the difficult job situation facing the younger generation, he says. But by pooling resources, both the younger and older generations are helped by the trend.

Rendall predicts that as the economy improves, the trend toward multigenerational households will reverse.

Others are not so sure.

In their 2007 book, “Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living,” Sharon Graham Niederhaus and John L. Graham argue that “with the advent of medical technology and extended life expectancy, and with both parents working, the single-family home for nuclear families is no longer meeting the needs of our changing population.”

Pluses and pitfalls

Whatever is behind it and however long it lasts, the trend toward multigenerational households presents both pluses and pitfalls. As even advocates Niederhaus and Graham point out: “We do recognize that living with kids, parents and grandparents all in one house isn’t exactly ‘Mary Poppins.’ ”

The pluses are perhaps obvious: financial support for all parties concerned; free (and loving) child care for the young parents; free help with the more difficult chores and perhaps even personal care for the older parents; and the less tangible benefits of extended family life and closeness.

“For us, it’s just seemed like it’s worked out,” says Ella Miles, 85, who lives with her daughter, her granddaughter and grandson-in-law, and her three great-grandchildren in a five-bedroom house in Cooksville.

For Miles, multigenerational living is nothing new. Her daughter has always lived with her, and her granddaughter’s family has been with her for 10 years.

Miles charges no rent, but everyone shares household expenses and chores, including the great-grandchildren. Miles says the arrangement benefits everyone. When she needs to move or lift something heavy, for example, Miles has plenty of help available. And, when her granddaughter and her husband are working and need someone to watch the children, Miles or her daughter is there -- and loving it.

“The children keep you young, and they keep you hopping,” Miles says. Recently, the three great-grandchildren went away for a week with their parents. “They left on Saturday,” she recalls. “On Sunday, I was happy, but on Monday I was unhappy. There was no noise in the house!”

As for the potential pitfalls of multigenerational living, they are legion: a loss of privacy, money problems, conflicts over chores or even how to do them, a recurrence of negative patterns and interactions between a parent and child, and conflicting child-rearing philosophies, to name just a few.

Even Miles, well accustomed to and generally well pleased with her living arrangements, admits to occasional problems.

“The adults sometimes get on each other’s nerves -- do things you wouldn’t do,” she says. “But that’s normal. … We all pretty much get along. And if there’s a conflict, we try to settle it right away.”

The Beareses, who embarked on their multigenerational journey this summer after pooling resources to buy the Sykesville house, say they are aware of the possible drawbacks. But they talked about them beforehand, as couples and as a foursome, and decided the advantages far outweighed the pitfalls.

“You have to acknowledge everybody’s misgivings,” says Abby, adding that privacy was her chief concern. “You have to be willing to compromise.”

David and Abby, for example, say they know they couldn’t have afforded so much land (1.5 acres) so close to their jobs and so safe for their children (on a dead-end street) without help from their parents.

“They had a lump of cash (from the sale of their house). We had the cash flow,” David says.

Susan and Paul, meanwhile, had just seen their only other child move out of state and were facing the prospect of approaching old age on their own, in a house far too big for them. Instead, they chose to live in an in-law suite built this summer in their new house, a suite with its own kitchen and living area, and, on the second floor, their own bedroom and bathroom. Moreover, the suite was designed with such senior-friendly amenities as raised electrical outlets, doorways wide enough for wheelchairs and a stairway big enough to accommodate a lift.

And, of course, Susan and Paul also got their son, his wife and their three grandchildren in the deal. “To be around these children, it’s just a joy,” Susan says. Not to mention, a help at times: Paul, who took up gardening after he retired from a career in banking, says the grandchildren helped plant the garden at the new home.

“We were living a comfortable life,” Paul concedes. “We could’ve stayed where we were, lived out our lives there. But this kind of (arrangement) is life-giving.” Holding his youngest grandchild, 1-year-old Quinn, he adds: “It’s an adventure.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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