All in the Family

Jivabhai and Shantaben Patel (center) surrounded by their family. Photo courtesy of the Patel family

Flexibility is key when aging parents move in with their adult kids

Jivabhai P. Patel contracted Covid-19 a few weeks before Christmas, and he did not recover. But because he lived at home with his grown son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, Patel, who was 89 years old, did not die behind glass in an intensive care unit, alone in a hospital bed. 

Instead, on his last night, his children and grandchildren surrounded him in the house they shared. They held his hands. They told him how much they loved him. And just before 4:30 a.m. in late December, his son, Hemant Patel, laid by his side as his father’s breath slipped away. 

“That was a huge gift,” says Hina Patel, Jivabhai’s daughter-in-law. 

That gift came from a decision the family had made decades earlier, when Jivabhai and his wife Shantaben J. Patel moved in with their grown children, first in Bloomingdale and then in South Barrington. 

But merging households can be complicated for aging parents and their grown children. Whether a move is prompted by a desire to live closer to kids or grandkids or by anxieties over a parent’s flagging physical condition, aging experts say families need to have wide-ranging conversations about potential relocation to deal with issues of independence, personal space, and finances. 

Clifton Saper, PhD, lead psychologist and director of behavioral health services at AMITA Health, says when parents initiate the move, the path is often easier. The alternative, when failing health prompts a relocation, can present a rougher emotional adjustment. 

“The other road that happens fairly frequently is that the adult children see that mom or dad can’t continue to live alone without support,” he says. “And they need to then convince the parent that a move is necessary. That’s certainly more challenging.” In that case, he says, it’s good to ask loved ones what their goals are, how they would like to spend the next few years, and how you can help them achieve their goals. 

Multigenerational advantages 

At the Patel house, Jivabhai and Shantaben, 89, thrived while living with their children and grandchildren. In their later years, when Jivabhai’s spinal stenosis grew worse, making his legs weak and numb, his family helped him around the house, pushing his wheelchair and making sure he had dinner at his preferred time. 

Before Jivabhai’s limited mobility, he and Shantaben served as the primary caregivers for their grandchildren when their son, a business owner, and their daughter-in-law, an anesthesiologist, had to work late or needed to travel. 

“I never had to put my kids in daycare, ever. When they came home from school, their grandparents were home,” Hina says. “Having their grandparents watch and love them and teach them culture — there were so many advantages.” 

Even so, the Patels say, whenever parents move in with their grown children, everyone needs to stay flexible.

“If you don’t want any fights or any disturbances, you have to adjust,” Hemant says. 

“Family time is good, but too much family time can be challenging.”

Adjusting together

Saper says it’s critical for families to have detailed discussions when seniors move in with their adult children (or vice versa). It’s a situation that has increased over the past few decades. According to a Pew Research Center survey, in 2018 some 14% of adults living in a household were parents of the household head, compared with 7% in 1995. 

When families decide to share space, “Negotiation is critical,” Saper says. “This is all about communication. What happens in most families is they don’t talk about it. And then they go to another room and say, ‘God, 

I can’t believe Grandma’s difficult to live with!’ I think everybody needs their own space they can retreat to. Family time is good, but too much family time can be challenging. You don’t need to be with the family all the time.” 

It’s important for everyone involved — parents and children — to maintain the mindset that “this is going to be our new home,” says Gina Knight, owner and president of Kastle Keeper, which provides aging-in-place home modification services, property management, and transition services to senior living communities. 

At times, Knight says, a third-party professional can take some emotional turmoil out of adjusting to a multigenerational living situation.

When Knight first meets with older adults, she says, “I don’t immediately discuss the subject of moving.” Instead, she first asks them about their lives, lifestyles, and preferences in order to learn what’s important to them and make them feel comfortable.

Later, she discusses the importance of everyone in the home agreeing to boundaries in advance, such as knocking on doors versus barging into bedrooms. She also suggests settling financial matters, such as how much each person will contribute to the rent, bills, or groceries. 

But most importantly, she lets older adults know they can preserve their sense of self, even if they are moving in with their grown kids. 

“I’m talking to them about the fact that they don’t have to lose their comforts of home or independence. They don’t have to lose their dignity,” she says. “The stress going on in the family is typically because mom or dad wants to stay independent. And they don’t want to necessarily be controlled, if you will, by their children.”

Making the move

For Mark Rantis, a real estate agent and senior specialist with Keller Williams ONEChicago, a critical question parents and their grown children should ask when transitioning to a multigenerational home is, “How do you live your everyday life? And how does this space or this house fit?” 

A space should accommodate family members’ lifestyle and habits, Rantis says. For instance, as his own father aged in their former Park Ridge home, their family replaced the carpet with laminate flooring to accommodate his walker. They turned the first-floor piano room into their dad’s bedroom. 

A key to a successful transition, Rantis says, is for older adults to shift their perspectives to the future. 

“Your memories are coming with you,” he says. “They’re not staying at the former house. Let’s have a place where you can create new memories, and you’re less of a fall risk. That’s what helps them go, ‘Oh, okay!’ because they’re looking at it from a different context.” 

That shift in perspective and in physical space inevitably requires some adjustment. 

But, as the Patels show, sharing a home with grown children and grandchildren also means experiencing everyday life together, sometimes all the way to the very end.