My mom often jokes that as soon as she gets old, I’m going to toss her into a senior living home and forget about her. I often joke with her, even to the extent of pointing out a nursing home in Decatur that I allegedly had in mind. However, the truth is that this is a real fear for many ageing parents, not just in America, but around the world.
In Jamaica, few of us would consider tossing our parents into a senior living home unless we truly had no choice. In fact, I don’t know anyone in Jamaica who lives in a nursing home or whose parents live in one. Do we even have any? I’m actually not sure. So, how do we take care of our parents and grandparents when they get old?
We create multi-generational households. It has its drawbacks, but when done correctly, it works so well that this is a very common practice in Jamaica.
My Multi-Generational, Multi-Cultural, Interracial Household
In March 2016, my family and I decided to purchase a house together. We first looked for a duplex but were unable to find one, so the realtor recommended properties with mother-in-law suites.
I wasn’t a fan of the idea at first, but when we came across the home we currently have, we all knew it was “The One”. My parents moved in upstairs and we took the 628 SF mother-in-law suite.
I then spent a year renovating it. The only sockets for electricity were one by the entrance door and one in the bathroom, so I had to tear up the walls to rewire the whole suite. I also added a kitchen as we didn’t have one before. Then, finally, we laid down the new floors, painted all the walls, and bought new furniture.
We have separate entrances and we do sometimes go days without seeing each other, especially when I’m buried in work. Thus, we managed to combine the closeness of living together with the privacy of independent living spaces. Here are some of the extraordinary benefits we have enjoyed from this arrangement.
1. Save More Money
Multi-generational families all have their own ways of splitting the bills. In some families, the children may pay for everything, because the older family members are retired. If the older adults played their cards well, the house is already paid off, so the children will only pay utilities. In other homes, the adults may still be working and bills are shared equally.
In my home, everyone has a specific bill they pay for and the mortgage is split by square-footage and parking space. I also recently volunteered to take on a little more of the mortgage because I make more money now than I did last year. Even with this addition, I still pay a fraction of what apartment rent cost north of Atlanta in 2015.
In addition to mortgage and bills, we also share some major appliances. There is one laundry room between my flat and the main house, so we share the washer and dryer. When we bought these appliances, we split the cost between all of us. This allowed us to purchase high-end appliances that we might have never been able to afford on our own.
Because none of us is tackling mortgage and utilities on our own, we have all also been able to travel more. I’ve been to 24 states and six countries so far. My parents have been to fewer states but more countries.
2. Get Help With Emergencies
When living on your own, you may become ill and need to be taken to the hospital. You may lose your car and need someone to take you to and from work. Or, you could need extra money to pay for unforeseen expenses. Living close to family ensures you always have a helping hand.
This year, my Mom bought a car. Last year, I bought mine. Prior to that, only the men in the house had cars. Until we both got our own vehicles, my Mom and I only drove my Dad’s car, so we chipped in for gas, repairs, and once, even a speeding ticket.
Earlier this year, my Dad’s transmission went out and my car became the sole vehicle shared between three people—my Mom, my Dad, and myself. It added another 1,000 or so miles to my vehicle and we had to coordinate very closely, but it saved my Dad from needing to get a rental and not one of us was ever late for work in those weeks. If we had lived in separated places, this might not have been possible.
There was also one instance when I hit a curb, which turned out to be a storm drain and hurt my poor little Seth. The tire was totalled. There was no way it could be repaired and I had work the next morning. Hubby took me to work and by the time I got home, my Dad had gotten Seth fixed.
Another emergency we tackled as a group was when a tornado decided to pay our neck of the woods a visit. I woke up to the storm alert and didn’t take it seriously. I texted my Dad, “Did you see the tornado warning? What a good day to live in the basement! HA!”
Dad was not amused. I took the connecting staircase up and met him in the living room. It was chaos outside. We couldn’t see the tornado, but we sure could see the effects of it heading our way. “We need to bring your car inside,” he told me.
I took one look at the storm outside and decided this was not a driving exercise I wanted to tackle, so I passed him my keys. He went to move the car while Mom and I cleared out the extra parking space in the garage for him to back in. We had just a few seconds to work together and make it happen. I’m not sure I would have even chanced going outside had I been on my own.
3. Protect the Elderly
Nursing home neglect is a serious problem. Perhaps even worse than this are the cases of sexual assault and rape. According to CNN:
The unthinkable is happening at facilities throughout the country: Vulnerable seniors are being raped and sexually abused by the very people paid to care for them.
More than 16,000 complaints of sexual abuse have been reported since 2000 in long-term care facilities (which include both nursing homes and assisted living facilities), according to federal data housed by the Administration for Community Living.
But agency officials warned that this figure doesn’t capture everything — only those cases in which state long-term care ombudsmen (who act as advocates for facility residents) were somehow involved in resolving the complaints.
I came across this article while working on a blog post for a law client that had nursing home neglect as one of their practice areas. This article stuck with me for a long time. I no longer joke with my Mom about putting her in a nursing home when she gets old. Now, I tell her she’ll be living in the Granny Flat in my backyard.
“Make sure you put cameras everywhere, even in the bathrooms!” she told me the last time I mentioned this. “If anyone mistreats me, I want you to see!”
Being with family also helps to protect the mental health of ageing parents and grandparents. Forbes notes that loneliness is one of the main mental health problems older adults struggle with. They no longer go out as often and unless they and their friends have caught on to tech, they lose touch. Being around family helps to prevent that loneliness from setting in.
Older people also struggle with the fear of one day not being needed or no longer serving a purpose. When they can contribute to the household by caring for their grandchildren (whether human, canine, or feline), it gives them a sense of purpose. Some may also enjoy preparing meals—this is why they fatten us—and may enjoy being consulted so they can share their age-old wisdom.
4. Enjoy Free Food
Like I said, grandparents and older parents enjoy fattening us. However, there are a number of other ways you may receive—and even provide—free food in multi-generational households. Here are a few of them:
- Getting a plate when someone else cooks a meal
- Purchasing some or all grocery items together in bulk
- Receiving free extras from family members when they purchase groceries
In my home, I have a natural talent for picking out sweet watermelons without fail. So, I often buy a whole melon and leave it upstairs in Mom’s kitchen. I know in 24 hours or less, I will have a few plastic containers filled to the very brim with melon slices.
We also sometimes make each other a plate of what we’ve cooked, or just steal each other’s food right out of the pot. My Mom’s favourite line is, “I was just stirring the pot”. Whenever Mom drops by and offers to “stir the pot”, I know I’ll be missing a spoonful of mac-n-cheese or a plate of shrimp pasta. All I have to do is turn away for two seconds. Just two seconds and voila!
We also sometimes go shopping together at Sam’s Club or Aldi’s. This started out because Dad was the only one with a Sam’s Club membership, but now we sometimes go together just because. Other times, I can just tell my parents what to get me and have it delivered to my front door when they return home.
5. Never Be Alone for Holidays & Birthdays
The holidays are that time of year when many families get the opportunity to slow down and spend some time together. Some families take trips together around the world, while others make good use of the sofa and the backyard. When you’re older, however, the holidays are sometimes a solo affair. In multi-generational living, that’s hardly ever the case.
I actually don’t mind being alone on my birthday or for the holidays. In fact, I already booked my birthday trip to California and I plan to go solo. Mom was appalled when I told her this. “On your birthday? By yourself?!”
Even when your date stands you up, your husband is out of town, you burned the turkey, and forgot to make plans for July 4th, your family may have something in store for you. The older people become, the more family-oriented they tend to be and the more they value their social connections.
If you can’t stand to be alone, it’s great to have that constant company. If you’re like me, and need to unwind on your own from time to time, then you can always book a solo trip. This will be my second solo birthday trip. I spent the first one in New England in 2017 and had a blast. I’m looking forward to hitting the big 3-0 in the California desert.
Multi-generational living was introduced to America through new immigrant populations. As the NY Times notes, it is still most common within the immigrant community and may become more mainstream over time through us. Naturally, not all non-American cultures include multi-generational living as a component, but you will find this often in Hispanic, West Indian, East Asia, South Asia, Italian, and even Irish families.
If you’re considering multi-generational living, it’s important to note that this works best when the property is designed to provide privacy through separate living spaces and entrances and if you are able to set and respect some boundaries. These are not necessities, but it does help to make the transition a much easier one.
I will do another post on tips for multi-generational living one of these fine days. In the meantime, if you have any specific questions about how we make it all work seamlessly, drop your questions in the comments below. If you already live in a multi-generational household, feel free to share tips.
Here are some tweets you might enjoy that share titbits of what it’s like to have my parents so close by: