Aging, parents, independence and extended families

“If my wife’s mother lived with us, one of us would not come out alive,” a colleague blurted out when he heard that my husband and I were thinking of building a shared living space with my parents.


Before I could decide what the appropriate response might be, another person at our lunch table sighed, “I’ve always wanted to do that! I would love it if my kids would be willing to do that.”


For the next 15 minutes, everyone at the table joined in an animated discussion about aging, parents, living independently, extended families, health, kids graduating with so much college debt they couldn’t afford an apartment on their own ... Perspectives varied wildly, but it was clear these were topics common to family life in the 21st century.


Wow, were we ready to move forward with actually building a shared living space? My teacher instincts kicked in, and I started to do some research. It seems we are not so much on the cutting edge of an idea but part of an increasing trend in housing options. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted the growing number of U.S. households living in multi-generational homes. The article cited a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center that found more than 18 percent of Americans live in multi-generational homes. This number has increased by more than 1 million households a year since 2000.


The vision of a single-family home in the suburbs is giving way to urban and suburban homes with two or more generations living in a shared space. What are the factors contributing to this shift? Just take a look back at our lunch conversation. Aging baby boomers, financial downturns, children graduating with increased debt, rising housing costs. Everyone’s story is unique but they share some common themes. So how did we get to this place in our living journey?


Ever since I can remember, one of the first things on the lottery list in my family has been building a family commune. If — I mean when — one of us won the big one, the first purchase on the list would be a large piece of property where each of our growing families could build a small cabin with a fishing pond, BBQ space and common areas for family dinners.


Time has passed, and so far no one has found the golden ticket. In spite of that, we have managed to find fulfilling careers, raise kind and responsible children and stay connected to a growing family group despite increased distance and wide-ranging career and life experiences.


Fast forward to a year or so ago. My husband and I and my parents found ourselves at a housing crossroad. The past year had included weddings, funerals, births, emergency surgeries and retirements. Mom and Dad were facing the need to move from their beautiful golf-course home in Arizona to a place closer to my sister and I here in Oregon. Hubby and I had semi-retired and spent the last few years in a comfortable rental that will soon be turned into a community center for a new development.


Maybe this was the perfect time to really explore that commune we talked so much about. Over the summer, we spent lots of time talking about what we each were looking for in a home. One in which we could age comfortably. Single story for sure. Outside relaxation space, lots of windows, wide doorways, walk-in showers … our visions for what we wanted were similar.


Maybe we could make this work. Now all we had to do was: find a building site, select a plan, find a builder, hammer out the financial plan — how hard could it be? Almost a year has passed since those initial conversations, and we’ve found the site and a flexible and understanding builder, spent hours detailing financial plans, and outlined our wish list.


Stay tuned, we’re meeting with the architect next.


Tina Mondale lives in Medford.

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