A burden or a blessing?
May 14, 2012
by Ivan Raconteur

The term “multigenerational household” refers to a residence in which three or more generations live together under one roof.

They used to just call these “families,” but these days, it seems like we need to create a special term for everything.

NPR has been covering the topic with a series called “Family Matters.”

Many others have weighed in on the subject, as well.

The increased attention is due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is the fact that there are a lot more multigenerational households around these days.

After a period in which it was fashionable to boot the old folks out and keep them out of sight and out of mind, the trend has changed.

It has been reported, for example, that between 2007 and 2009, the number of people living in multigenerational households jumped 10 percent, bringing the total to 51.4 million people.

One factor is the economy.

People of all ages have taken a hit, and for many, it is an economic necessity to live together and pool resources.

Many who had hoped to be enjoying their golden years by now have seen their nest eggs shrink or disappear, leaving them with few options.

People who should be in their prime earning years have lost jobs, or seen wages cut or frozen, while at the same time, the value of their homes has plummeted.

This same miserable economy has made it difficult for young people who should be entering the workforce.

Finding jobs has proved difficult, and finding good jobs has been nearly impossible for many.

As a result, many young people are not leaving the nest as promptly as they or their parents may have hoped.

At the same time, people on the other end of the spectrum are not checking out as punctually as they once did.

In 1950, the average life expectancy in the US was 68 years.

People had to hurry up and enjoy their retirement in those days, because the odds were against them living too many years after they punched out for the last time.

Today, the US life expectancy has stretched to about 79.

This means that older Americans are living longer and having to find ways to fund these “extra” years. This is no picnic, since health care costs are skyrocketing, and older people generally are among the heaviest users of the health care system.

The combination of these economic and other factors has made for some challenging situations for many families, and these have been well-documented.

One thing that is a bit troubling in some of these discussions is the perspective that is highlighted.

Much attention is given to how multigenerational households are a burden on the “sandwich generation” – those that can’t seem to get rid of their kids, and now find themselves coping with their aging parents, as well.

No doubt this is challenging, for all involved, and one does not mean to make light of that.

However, it also seems a bit ungrateful.

I haven’t any children, but I see the sacrifices people make for their kids, not just when they are young, but throughout their lives.

Not only do they contribute financially to their children, but they invest a huge amount of time, energy, and probably a bit of their sanity into the raising of their families.

It seems a bit harsh, therefore, to begrudge them some help when they reach a point in life where they need some assistance in return.

It seems reasonable to suppose that some of these older Americans aren’t necessarily thrilled about the arrangement, either. Given the choice, it is likely that they would prefer to be financially and physically independent, rather than having to live with and depend on their families.

Instead of looking at older people as a burden, perhaps we should look at them as a blessing.

This is by no means to suggest that it will always be easy, or convenient, or ideal. Families, like any relationship, require effort, if not plain hard work.

Many people accept this, and have made the commitment to make these situations work, and I commend them.

Focusing on the benefits, rather than the burdens, seems like a better way to frame the discussion.

Having an older family member in the home can provide a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be passed down to younger family members.

Instead of withering away in an institution somewhere, older people can draw energy from spending time with the younger members of the family.

Not everyone has the opportunity or the resources to make this work, and every situation is different, but sometimes it is necessary to make the best of the situation we are given.

Talking about the importance of family is one thing. Putting commitment into practice is another.

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