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When a parent moves in

When I survey my circle of friends, I see a reflection of the changing Canadian demographic: women approaching later midlife with substantial resources from professional careers and fewer family responsibilities. In other words, they are happily enjoying life, often alone for the first time as single empty-nesters.

"The trend is for older people to want to live alone," says Dr. Gloria Gutman, professor of gerontology at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, and past president of the International Association of Gerontology. "As one senior said recently to me, 'I never took orders from my husband when he was alive; I'm sure not going to start taking orders now from my children!' For many older women, moving in with adult children is the last choice they would make." (Gutman points to a difference for older men who often remarry when left on their own or seek to live with adult children for "companionship and home-cooked meals.")

The demographic of aging in Canada has changed dramatically during the past few decades. According to a study published by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the empty-nest phase of life now starts earlier and lasts longer. The study notes what it calls "increasingly accelerated rates of generational turnover." Translated, this means the time between a family's firstborn and lastborn has decreased sharply (23 years for the study's author's great-grandparents, 16 years for her grandparents, nine for her parents and two for herself).

So with all this time, money and independence at their doorstep, why ruin a good thing? What might possess parents and grown-up children to cohabitate, bringing back the same old challenges and tensions faced by college roommates or married partners?

Benefits for both
"There has to be mutual benefit, perks for both sides," Gutman says. This comes in the form of help with child care or mortgage payments for the adult children and help with health issues and continued independence from nursing homes for the senior parents (not to mention the opportunity to spoil their grandchildren regularly).

The issue is significant enough for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., or CMHC, that it gathered intergenerational families in five western cities to gauge the issues and support for such living arrangements. (CHMC currently offers a forgivable loan to create "secondary/garden suites" for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.)

For the study, Caring for Aging Parents: Senior Adults Living with Adult Children in Prairie Census Metropolitan Areas, 72 people participated in a series of focus groups. The parents and adult children were separated so they felt free to talk openly about their experiences. Vinay Bhardwaj was CMHC's research project coordinator and author of the study's report, still in draft form but expected to be published shortly.

Bhardwaj admits that it was difficult finding seniors and adult children willing to participate in the study. In the end, the majority of those who did were families for whom intergenerational living is working successfully. Most of the senior parents are still healthy (with an average age of 71) and needing only minimal assistance. The key motivator for the adult children to invite their parent to move in was "a perceived responsibility to pay the parent back for their earlier nurturing."

Payback time
In the CMHC study, this payback was a positive thing, with adult children wanting to return the love and care their parents had shown them growing up. But there's another kind of payback with a darker side, the kind that has a son or daughter paying back a parent against whom they've held lifelong anger or resentment.

Maureen Wilkin coordinates the seniors program for a Toronto neighbourhood centre. She has seen the kind of emotional turmoil brought about by resentful or angry adult children who now have the upper hand in terms of power or control. "It's a form of emotional abuse," she says. "A lot of baggage can show up when parents and children start living together after years on their own."

And it can cut both ways, she adds, with adult sons or daughters still feeling dominated and controlled by elderly parents.

Put the ground rules in writing
To minimize the potential for conflict, experts suggest the parties do a lot of talking and negotiating before the moving vans arrive. "Each side has to set out its expectations and issues," says Wilkin. "Everything from who does the cooking to whether mum or dad is allowed to have sleepovers."

Gutman goes so far as to advise that the parties draw up a written agreement, much like a marriage contract, setting out the terms of cohabitation. It's important to consult all parties, including spouses and grandchildren, because this is often where any points of tension will arise.

Finances are a huge issue for both sides. (In the CMHC study, one of the only negatives cited by the seniors was their feeling that they were paying more than their share.) Next to money matters, privacy is the biggest area of concern, and this is where the physical living arrangement needs some focus.

Shared space or a separate suite? Sometimes a combination of the two works best, as it did for Fern Haag, of Calgary, and her family when her mother-in-law came to live with them. "Grandma had her own kitchen so she could eat supper at 4 p.m. It never would have worked out if she didn't," says Haag. She says that the natures and personalities of the parents and children are key to living together. "I decided not to be confrontational, so it worked out OK," she says.

Still, Haag also says it was the experience of having her mother-in-law live with them that made her vow "never to have to be dependent on my kids."

Diana McLaren is a writer in Toronto.

-- Posted: April 17, 2006
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