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When Grandma Is Your Roomie




When Aaron Moncivaiz returns home from his job at a Phoenix auto auction, the last thing the liberal-leaning 25-year-old wants to do is listen to the conservative talk shows his roommate plays on two different radios in their house.

Most 20-somethings in his situation would probably bang on their housemate's door and ask them to turn it down, but Moncivaiz just tries to make the best of it.

"She's 83 years old. I'm not going to change her views, so I just kind of listen," he says of his roommate -- his grandmother, Shirley Ann Harkness.

Moncivaiz moved in with Harkness, a special-education aide, in October so he could save up to move to New York City and pursue a literary career. She lived nearby and had an extra room for which she wouldn't charge him rent; he could reach the higher shelves in the kitchen for her and program the VCR. They gave it a shot, and so far they've worked out the important things.

"We have different bathrooms, so leaving up the toilet seat's not a problem," Harkness says.

In addition to saving money on rent, Moncivaiz says he's found that living with his practical grandmother is great practice for eventually living on his own.

"She saves everything. She uses everything. And if she has something she can't use, she finds someone who can use it," he says.

Growing up with grandparents

Moncivaiz is part of a growing trend of 20-something grandchildren living with their grandparents, says Mario D. Garrett, chair of the department of gerontology at San Diego State University and director of the university's Center on Aging.

Changing demographics are part of it, he says -- people are living longer, so grandparents are more likely to be around. College students are graduating into a slumping economy. And some of these graduates grew up with their grandparents: More than 6 million grandparents were living with underage grandchildren in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

"It has to do with economics initially," Garrett says. "But there's (also) a lack of professional caregivers, so people are looking after their grandparents, and I think those will be the two main factors."

Extra hand

Jennifer Blankenship, a 27-year-old bank teller, lives with her grandparents in Agoura Hills, California, where a one-bedroom apartment can easily cost $1,500 a month. She's been paying her grandparents about a tenth of that for the past five years.

"I love it, and since I'm there, the rest of the family feels more at peace -- like if something were to happen, someone would be there to take care of them," she says.

When her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's recently, Blankenship took over the family banking. She now shares driving duties with her 86-year-old grandfather, Douglas M. Ware. Although the former police officer appreciates having Blankenship's help, he's also a grandfather happy to be around his granddaughter.

"The best part of having her here is that she's a good sweet gal," he says.

And Blankenship tries her best to maintain her grandparents' rosy opinion of her. "When I had a boyfriend, there was a lot of fumbling around in the living room with the lights turned off," she says. "He refused to enter my room."

Tips for trying it

Thinking of living with a grandparent or grandchild? It's important to have open communication from the get-go, says Marion Somers, a New York elder-care expert and author.

"My experience has been that very often people go in with very altruistic, practical needs, and they very often don't communicate their expectations," she says.

She says there are several things both parties can do to make the most of their experience.

First, be very clear about your expectations, and put them in writing before moving in. Spell out the length of the grandchild's stay and hash out the little things in advance: Who will take out the trash and wash the dishes? Is smoking OK in the house? How will you respect each other's need for quiet during sleeping hours? While these things may seem like no big deal, for a senior used to living alone, they can mean big change.

When it comes to household entertainment, install separate phone lines and TVs, or find programs you can enjoy together. One reason Moncivaiz and Harkness have been able to make it work is that he has his own stereo in his room -- and a door he can close behind him.

Finally, grandchildren who move in might want to keep a tape recorder handy: Many young people say the best part of living with a grandparent is learning about family history straight from the source. Your daily presence means you'll have rare access to precious memories and words of wisdom.

Moncivaiz says he's learned a great deal from his grandmother, beyond anything he would have picked up from regular visits.

"You can look at a history book, but to have a part of history right in front of you is so important," he says. "It's a personal connection to the past."

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