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Economy Unites Generations
Cash-strapped adults who long ago left home are moving in with their parents and other relatives to save money in the recession. These new housemates report sweet gratitude for family bonding as well as squabbles over toothpaste spit in the bathroom sink.
Consider Angy Lebowitz, a cheery 88year-old. Her Social Security and veteran's pension covered only two-thirds of her roughly $5,500 monthly bill for assisted living. Her savings were dwindling fast. Meanwhile, her niece's family took a huge hit when the stock market tumbled and had to put their Teaneck house on the market. Then they realized if Lebowitz moved in and they pooled resources, they could all help each other.
"It's a big undertaking but we're very lucky we have this opportunity to pull together," said her 68-year-old niece, Ellen Schwartz. "I hope we can balance everybody's need for privacy."
The steep recession, the collapse of retirement portfolios, the increasing needs of baby boomers' fragile parents and the high cost of residential care are pushing more of the elderly back in with younger families, said James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.
At the same time, he said, more middle-aged people who can't afford their own homes after losing a job or getting divorced are moving back in with their parents - a key safety net for New Jerseyans, who face the second-highest housing costs in the country, after Hawaii. Sometimes they move back to mom's house with their own kids in tow. It's too early for data to illustrate the trend in New Jersey, but Hughes points to widespread foreclosures as a clue. In 2008, there were 8,900 foreclosure filings in Bergen and Passaic counties, according to an analysis of RealtyTrac information by The Record. Another 1,900 were filed in the first quarter of this year. Many families who lost homes likely found shelter with kin.
"People used their house as an ATM and maxed out on credit and have no savings to fall back on," Hughes said. "Now that we're in a recession they're in deep trouble."
AARP surveyed 1,000 adults in March, and found 11 percent of people between 35 and 44 were living with parents or in-laws. Further, 34 percent of people who expected to move in with relatives cited a loss of income as the reason. Similarly, a recent poll by grandparents.com found that 12.5 percent of respondents lived with their grandchildren; of those, half said their grown children and grandchildren could not afford to live on their own.
‘Feel like a burden'
Lebowitz felt good about helping the Schwartzes out of financial distress, but said she would miss her friends at Jewish Home Assisted Living in River Vale.
"When I live with younger people, I'm going to feel like a burden," she said. "I'll have to think about how not to take over the newspaper, TV, conversation and the bathroom."
Her niece's 73-year-old husband, Al, plans to keep Lebowitz busy by driving her to Yiddish classes and chorus practices at the Southeast Senior Center in Englewood. "I'll be her employee now," he said.
He'll have to make safety improvements, such as putting a grab bar by the tub. Lebowitz is physically healthy but has short-term memory lapses. The Schwartzes hope her condition won't slip further and want to take care of her as long as possible.
Living with relatives is a tradition among many immigrants and poor families, but ifs an unexpected twist for strivers who had established independence and were forced to give it up.
Sigalit Flicker begged her parents to move from their Englewood rental into her Tenafly house for a year. Divorced with two children, she said she had to adjust to a reduction in alimony due to the recession's severe toll on her ex-husband's mortgage business. She could no longer afford her nanny so she needs her parents to baby-sit. She works as a "millionaire matchmaker" in Manhattan.
"Being 42 and living with your mom and dad isn't easy," she said. She's grateful her mother cooks dinner, but sometimes they clash on discipline. "My mom gets very mad that I let my kids sleep in bed with me," she said. "She yells at me they should be in their own rooms, but I miss them so much I want to cuddle."
Her father, Mordecai Paldiel, a Holocaust scholar at Yeshiva University, says it's hard to resist falling into father-knows-best patterns. "We still think of them as our children and having to change their diapers," he said.
There's one pure upside: Paldiel adores living with his grandchildren. "It's worth millions," he said.
Multi-generational living began to grow even before the recession, to 62 million households in 2008, up from 5 million in 2000, according to AARP. Elinor Ginzler, who studies housing for AARP, cites the increasing influence of African-American, Asian and Latino cultures that value living together so that elders can share their wisdom.
Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, argues that Americans have become more appreciative of living with extended family.
Early in the 20th century, marriage was romanticized and many people believed a healthy marriage was based on nuclear families. In the past 20 years, those views have softened.
"You had more working moms and retired parents who had the health and desire to help with the kids," she said. "All these things have come together to rebuild generational ties on a much more democratic basis, out of real friendship rather than loyalty."
Linda Eckhardt, a 70-year-old cookbook writer in Maplewood, is hosting her 44-year-old son while he sets up his own company after losing his corporate job last fall. Several of her friends in their 60s and 70s also had grown children move home in the past six months. "It's really common," she said. "It's like when the economy sneezed it blew out people."
Her son pays "rent" by helping her market her new e-book for the "Silver Cloud Diet." She has been proud to get a firsthand glimpse at his business savvy but they both had adjusting to do.
"My house is not very big," she said. "We have periodic dust-ups - like about spitting toothpaste in the sink and not washing it up. It's the little stuff that drives you wild."
Her son is going to move out as soon as he saves $10,000. He declined to elaborate with a reporter. When his mother handed him the phone, he groaned. "It's a challenge," he said tersely. "Good food and a challenge."
What about dating?
"Neither one of us has a sex life," his mother declared. "It's so annoying."
If grandma is moving in, or a grown child comes back home, here are key ways to prepare:
- Negotiate ground rules before the move to prevent dashed expectations and resentments. Do newcomers pay rent? Take on chores? Need a deadline for leaving? Share a room? Bring pets? Join every family outing?
- For seniors, make safety improvements. Put non-skid mats on the bathroom floors, toss out throw rugs aid add railings, for example.
- For more tips, see DoctorMarion.com. Also, aarp.org/famlly/caregrying has ideas on "Home Safe Home."
- "When someone moves in, the rhythm of the household changes," said Dr. Marion Somers, author of Elder Care Made Easier," "Does grandma need her own TV or does that make her feel isolated? If these things are talked about beforehand, everything can work out.
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