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Multigenerational Living may Benefit Everyone

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and this old African proverb certainly rings true in the Peace household.
Days begin at 5am or earlier in the family’s three-story townhouse in Carrollton. Vanessa Peace gets the kids — Ella, 7, and Preston, 4 — up, dressed and ready for school and day care, respectively, while her husband Mike logs on to work. But Ella’s uniform includes more than the standard top-and-bottom combination. Because she was diagnosed with Rett syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder found almost only in girls that affects her ability to walk and talk, when she was 18 months old, Ella wears arm and leg braces and has a wheelchair too.
After seeing the kids off, Peace, a senior manager of brand identity at Southwest Airlines, and Mike, an independent contractor in the insurance and oil industries, begin their full workdays. (Mike works from home).  
When the kids get home, Vanessa’s mom, Lee Bromley, takes over cleaning the kids up, giving the kids snacks, doing laundry and serving dinner Vanessa pre-made on the weekends (Mike still takes care of chauffeuring Preston, getting Ella off the school bus and bathing the kids).
Bromley moved in to a spare bedroom in her daughter and son-in-law’s home to help care for the kids two years ago after coming to Texas from Alaska following a divorce. And now Peace can’t imagine how the family would function without her.
“I know a lot of other families with children with special needs, and I don’t know how they do it without an extra set of hands,” Peace admits.
The Peace/Bromley living situation isn’t the norm, but it isn’t really that uncommon either. While many people might think twice about inviting their mother to live with them, this family dynamic is actually part of a growing trend. According to the Pew Research Center, 57 million Americans now live in some sort of multigenerational configuration. While multigenerational living is more common among Hispanic, black and Asian populations than white populations, these types of living arrangements are increasing across nearly every race and socio-economic group. In fact, the number of these households has doubled since 1980 when society set ideals that everyone needed to own their own home.
Many cite financial reasons as the primary motivator for multigenerational living (though that wasn’t the case for the Peace/Bromley unit) since therapies, treatments and equipment can be extremely costly for families with children with special needs. Others simply need child-care help and would rather entrust their children to a grandparent than a stranger or day-care center.
“[My mom] just does so much for the family, which allows me to work outside of the home, and I know that my kids are well taken care of when I come home,” Peace explains. “I also travel for work so the child care and household duties don’t all come down on my husband.”
To be sure, parents, children and grandparents reap benefits from sharing space. With more hands on deck, household tasks like cooking and cleaning can be shared and the overall child-care responsibility doesn’t just fall on Mom and Dad, who might also be juggling jobs, siblings and other responsibilities.
“Fortunately, my husband and my mom are like the best team,” Peace says. “They just tag-team when the kids come home from day care and from school. They’re terrific together.”
Teamwork is key. In a successful multigenerational household, everyone contributes. Peace splits cooking duties with her mom, for instance. During the week, Bromley plays chef; Peace takes over on the weekends.
And there’s more.
“In a survey of multigenerational families, we found the vast majority reported living together strengthened emotional bonds between family members,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a nonprofit working to improve the lives of children, youth and older people through intergenerational policies and programs.
Extra support means more time to spend with your kids, your spouse and your parents or in-laws. While multigenerational households may be the result of bad circumstances, they offer an opportunity to foster relationships that many families will never have.
To ensure that her mom never feels like she’s being taken advantage of, Peace schedules regular dates with her.
“We have pedicures and go to lunch,” Peace says. “I’m also conscious of the fact that my mom is still relatively new to Texas and needs to build her own social network outside of our family.”
Another perk to a shared household? Financial aid. Sharing utilities, rent or house payments reduces monetary strain for everyone, especially those families with children with special needs who allocate a substantial portion of their incomes to expensive therapies, treatments and specialists.
Experts agree that the positive aspects of multigenerational living definitely outweigh the negatives, but it’s important to note that it’s not always easy for different eras to co-exist in tight spaces. The challenges are considerable. Issues of privacy, independence, responsibility and resource sharing can cause tension and stress.
Dr. Rhonda Johnson, owner of the Center for Counseling and Family Relationships in Fort Worth, suggests seeking support and wisdom from people who have walked this road before you and either moved a parent in with them or moved in with parents or in-laws. (Visit dfwchild.com/thrive/directory for our expansive list of local special needs resources and support groups.)
In the beginning, Peace admits to having concerns. Would she and her husband lose their privacy? What about her mother’s privacy? Would they have time to make sure her mother felt part of the family and not like she was just there to help?
“At first, we had to figure out when we needed our space as a couple and when we all wanted to be together and include mom,” Peace explains. “With time, we’ve collectively gotten used to our space and mutual need for privacy.”
Tackling rules, goals and everyone’s expectations head-on — and ideally in advance of moving in together — is paramount, say social scientists.
“It’s important for all parties to understand that lives will drastically change,” Johnson explains. “An open discussion regarding the lives of everyone involved and the benefits and consequences need to be taken into consideration.”
Define roles and responsibilities first and decide whether the living situation is temporary or permanent, advises Dr. Sandra Davis, a clinical psychologist at Richland Oaks Counseling Center in McKinney. Be realistic. Then set regular family meetings where frank, open dialogue is encouraged.
House rules on everything from dinnertime to visitors need to be set, and established routines should be respected.
But it’s also important to be flexible and to re-evaluate rules and expectations when things change, such as with the addition of a new baby or when a child increases the frequency of therapy sessions.
And though there are no hard and fast rules for financial arrangements, families do need to come up with guidelines — who’s paying for what — since the most common stressor when generations move in together tends to be financial.
The other big issue? Privacy. Giving everyone access to both private and shared spaces is essential to a harmonious fuller house family life, but purchasing a larger home or remodeling an existing property isn’t always in the cards, especially when the catalyst for the move was financial. Experts say every family member needs to claim some sort personal space — a bedroom, sitting room, even the corner of a room — for favorite chairs, places to watch TV or a place to meditate or exercise.
While Bromley currently keeps her own space in the family’s guest bedroom, come fall, she’ll make her own mini home in the mother-in-law suiteof the new custom home the family is building with Canyon Creek Homes in Ovilla, a city in both Dallas and Ellis counties. Bromley’s modest abode will have its own kitchenette, bedroom, bathroom and living area, all separated from the main part of the house by a hallway.
This new home is part of a growing trend in housing that’s resulted from so many more people living together under one roof. In fact, according to a 2015 National Association of Realtors (NAR) Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends Report, 13 percent of all home purchases in 2014 were by a multigenerational household. And 37 percent of realtors surveyed nationally by Coldwell Banker reported having more buyers looking for homes that accommodate multiple generations.
Since 2011, when homebuilder Lennar introduced its NextGen model designed specifically to meet the needs of multigenerational households, the company (which offers 120 floor plans) has built more than 200 communities in 14 states, including the Texas communities in Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Killeen.
Whatever the reason for people combining households, “being able to go from two mortgages to one is economical and makes better sense for so many families,” says Kimberly Ashbaugh, director of NextGen brand management at Lennar Corp. Experts warn against co-ownership of these properties, which could cause legal and tax complications down the road. (Read: Hire a lawyer if you’re thinking about co-owning.)
These new multigenerational homes, while varying from one builder and one location to another (see the sidebar for Dallas-Fort Worth area multigenerational communities) all offer more privacy and flexibility. Most have spaces with separate exterior entrances but an interior door that opens to the rest of the house too. And many let you customize the additional space and have options for kitchenettes with full-size refrigerators and dishwashers.
The new home will give Bromley more space of her own, but it’s also offering her more security.
“We’re giving my mom more comfort, and long-term, she feels like she has great stability living with my husband and I and the kids,” Peace says. “And we feel incredibly supported by her. It’s not necessarily the traditional family lifestyle, but there’s nothing typical about our family.”