11 July 2012

An Essay In Two Parts: Multi-Generational Housing {Part II}

Way back in January 2011, The Globe and Mail published an article discussing the emergence in popularity of the multi-generational home. I read it with great interest as at the time, this idea between Daryn, my mum and I to join forces under a single roof was just newly hatched and I was curious about others who had made a similar decision to merge households. The article cited a number of possible reasons for the uptick, the recent economic downturn being one, and the second being the recent evolution of societal norms, thanks in part to the example set by new immigrants for whom multi-generational living is often more common. The amalgamation of familial households has been gaining momentum in North America across all cultural backgrounds and, for me at least, it's easy to see why. A few of my own thoughts on the matter:

  • As professional demands creep every deeper (and more permanently) into our personal lives, time spent with family - especially raising children - is deeply impacted. Hours away from home result in kids spending an increasing amount of time in institutionalized care and time, of course, equals money. Fees to maintain just one child in full-time or before- and after-school care are steep, let alone multiple offspring, and while many programs offer discounts for the second, third and subsequent children, the cost of care is often still prohibitive for many. And at the end of the day, child/ren are still being cared for by relative strangers who are being paid to perform a service, not to love them and care for them as family would. So where are children receiving the sort of loving attention they need from parents, when parents are required to be at the office for longer and longer periods of time? It's my opinion that they're not (who has the time?) and it's beginning to show in the way we relate to each other and to the world.
  • It is damn expensive to live in this country: to own and maintain a home, to raise children, to drive cars (which are frequently a necessity, especially if you live beyond the borders of a major urban center), to entertain ourselves, to keep healthy, to eat, to age and eventually, to die. Everything in life has a price - everything - and increasingly that price is outstripping the income we can earn to pay for it. Blending multiple generations into one home makes good economic sense by alleviating financial strain for all parties, and allowing each generation to accumulate and maintain wealth in a faster and more reliable manner than they could have done individually.
  • The return to a larger, broader family dynamic serves to strengthen the support system available to all. As family size continues to contract over time and advancements in transportation and urban planning have made all the corners of the world open to us (assuming we can afford to buy a ticket), nuclear families are experiencing an increasing sense of isolation both physically and emotionally. For some this is ideal but for some families, this sense of loss of a solid support network - either real or perceived - is profound, and many are discovering that a manufactured network - of friends or colleagues, for example - is much less committed and secure than one created and nurtured by family.

The driving force behind this decision, for us, is to allow my mum to change her job circumstances. She is still quite young - only 55 - but she has high blood pressure and some other health issues that cause me to worry all of the time. She works tremendously long hours in the logistics business; she's a notorious control freak and is therefore excellent at her job, but her dedication to getting every. last. thing. done. means her day is often 12 or 14 hours long. She pushes too hard, and she travels too far. According to Mapquest she works only 24 minutes from home but in highway traffic each day, her commute looks more like an hour or an hour and half. This, on top of a 14-hour workday? No. I worry she'll stroke out one day sitting in gridlock on the 401 and my concern is not unfounded. My grandparents both had heart attacks very young (my grandmother was only 45!) and heart and stroke issues run in our genes. My mum is the only parent I have; I'm not willing to lose her to job and commuting stress. Combining households will dramatically reduce her financial needs and allow her to look for opportunities locally (within town) either full-time or part-time, or to retire entirely if that's her choice.

Daryn and I will also benefit, both financially and emotionally: a larger down payment on a property (courtesy of the proceeds of mum's home) means a smaller mortgage for us, and not paying for childcare when I go back to work full-time has many, many merits. That someone will always be home for our kids (especially the little one; J can pretty much look after himself now) represents a very real dollar value to us, not to mention the emotional value in knowing that when we're not at home, someone is helping to raise our children with the love and devotion equal to ours. She's
invested. She cares about the outcome because she'll have to live with it too, and that's the very best kind of caring.

Furthermore, looking down the road at elder care (Mum is young, but that won't last forever), it makes sense  for us to amalgamate households in order to ensure Mum receives the care she needs in her declining years. It isn't in me to commit my parent to a senior's care facility when she enters her dotage (not that I condemn anyone who chooses to do so; it's just not the right decision for me), and in any case she'd refuse to go: it's one of her biggest fears, to end her life in a nursing home. It's important to all of us that as she ages, Mum will receive any and all care she requires from family and that she'll eventually, unless she needs to be hospitalized for medical reasons, live out the end of her days in her own home. Amalgamating households is part of that plan.

I admit I struggled at first with the decision. We committed, and then we backed away. We considered building an addition onto our existing house, but Mum didn't want to "come home" and eventually the enthusiasm for that idea fizzled out. I understand her reticence, but it's difficult. I love this house. I love what this house represents, and that it keeps me connected to people I love with all my heart, and who I lost, and who I'm still - even all this time later - grieving for. I miss them every single day and being here, in their space that's now mine, keeps me tethered to them in a way I'm afraid to let go of. But what good is a house if I lose my mum to a stress-induced heart attack while she's on her way to work one day? My home is where my family is; it's why I moved back to Milton, after all. It's where Daryn puts down roots, and where my kids live and where my mum and brother are in a tight-knit little web that makes my home; the four walls can be any four walls, as long as my loved ones are inside it. (apparently, this is called
perspective, and now I have it)

And like that (imagine me snapping my fingers), the decision was made.

We have some concerns, of course, about the logistics of this move. Privacy is chief among them (for everything: parenting, fighting, entertaining and yes, I'm talking about sex here. Daryn and I will have to be much more mindful ~ and get a whole lot more creative ~ about the how, the when and the where of any bow-chicka-bow-wow that goes on). The grossness of my mum's Basset Hound is a close second. 
Our collective crap is a also concern: where we're going to fit it all, or conversely, what we'll be forced to part with. And our collective personalities will need constant managing - there are lots of us, and we're all strong-minded and sort of bossy. But to our minds, the benefits will outweigh the negatives, and as with any living arrangement with any number of people in any variation of relationships, these challenges can (and hopefully will!) be successfully negotiated with clear communication and established (and rigorously respected) boundaries. (Though it probably will be the end of movie make-out night ... just sayin.)

We're still working out the details, but it would appear we're all on board and onside to redirect this little adventure to a new address. We've been out to see a few houses in the past week or so, but none have ticked as many boxes as we'd like. I expect it will be a long search - our requirements are unique (especially for our price point!):

  • 4 bedrooms (at least), preferably on two levels
  • 3 common areas (living room/family room/den)
  • 1 office space/additional bedroom
  • AT LEAST 2+ full bathrooms
  • Low maintenance yard
  • Large kitchen (but preferably not eat-in)
  • Separate dining room
  • Parking for 3
  • Local to specific elementary, middle and high schools
  • Central heating and air
  • Fenced backyard (dogs)

As I said, it's a laundry list that will be difficult to find, but we think we're up for the challenge! We're open to renovating it to make it perfect (we all understand the benefit of customization, and since only one of us objected to tearing a new house apart as soon as we buy it, he was quickly and easily overruled by the new majority) but it will have to check most of our boxes in order to make the leap. As it stands, however, this is really happening. And I'm actually rather happy about it.

What about you? Have you ever considered combining households? It's rather a controversial subject, I found out, and I'm curious to hear your thoughts about it. Would you ever consider it? Why or why not? Are we flat-out, batshit crazy? Discuss!