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
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."
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
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