Illustration: Raymond Biesinger
In June 2018, Carrie Seaton* was paying close to $2,500 a month in child care for her two kids. She and her husband faced a one-and-a-half-hour commute to and from work each day from Mission, BC, to Vancouver, and both had jobs at which late-night meetings were often scheduled at the last minute. They were physically and financially fatigued. So when her father retired, Seaton and her husband offered him their spare bedroom in return for his help. Fast-forward two years and Seaton’s dad has made himself indispensable in their now multi-generational home.
“Pappy makes all the meals. During the school year, he was also helping with getting the kids there and back. Essentially, we have a third parent. We wouldn’t be able to function without him,” she says.
While living with your parents when you’re in your thirties or forties might not feel like an especially grown-up choice, it’s one that many people are making. Multi-generational homes, where three or more generations of the same family reside, are on the rise, according to the most recent census report by Statistics Canada. (This data predates the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Between 2001 and 2016, multi-generational homes were the fastest-growing type of household and saw an increase of 37.5 percent. About 2.2 million people in Canada—or about six percent of the population—are living in a multi-generational home. According to France-Pascale Ménard, an analyst with Statistics Canada, the actual numbers are probably higher. Ménard says these totals don’t include families who are occupying multiple levels of duplexes and triplexes, which is also fairly common. (We also don’t yet know if COVID-19 has led to more families cohabitating for child care reasons.)
Many of us might picture Grammy or Grandad moving in with us eventually, so we can care for them as they age. But more realistically, it’s the adult, millennial children—the “boomerang generation”—who are knocking on their mom and dad’s door. And this time they’re returning with a spouse and little kids, too. For some, it’s an ideal arrangement that solves many logistical and financial issues. But it can also have its challenges when parenting styles clash, space is at a premium and adult children regress into old family dynamics.
Multi-generational living is not exactly new: Indigenous communities in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have a long-held tradition of cohabiting and maintain the highest percentages in Canada. Ontario and British Columbia have also seen significant increases, which can be attributed to a number of factors, says Barbara Mitchell, a professor of sociology and gerontology at Simon Fraser University. “In other parts of the world, multi-generational homes are pretty common, so high rates of immigration in Canada play a role as people carry on their cultural traditions.”
For many Asian and South Asian cultures, living in a multi-generational home is the norm. In fact, it’s a running joke among many South Asians that their kids are their retirement plans. The eldest son and his wife are typically expected to look after his parents once they can no longer manage on their own. Grandparents are an integral part of family life and they’re often found babysitting, cooking and maintaining the home. It’s also a wonderful way to teach respect for elders and pass on cultural traditions or a connection to ancestry that might otherwise be lost.
The rising costs of living, housing prices and limited real estate in metropolitan areas are also big factors in the growing trend.
Plus, it’s just math, explains Susan Gamache, a Vancouver-based psychologist and family therapist. “Increased life expectancy means that we have many generations alive at the same time,” she says.
For Jenna Durocher,* a human resources professional in Mississauga, Ont., it was the rapidly rising rental market and out-of-reach house prices that drove her decision. Counterintuitively, moving in with her in-laws was the first step to financial independence. Durocher and her husband, who have three kids (and a fourth on the way), have lived in three rentals over the last seven years. “We were looking to purchase a home but it was difficult to come up with a substantial down payment to avoid paying all of the insurance penalties,” she explains. The couple was feeling defeated by rental rates that were constantly increasing and the lack of stability (especially with three young kids in tow). And while Durocher wasn’t picky about the size of the house, she was looking for something close to work, with a fenced-in backyard and laundry on the main or upper level.
At the same time, her in-laws had been thinking of downsizing from the large five-bedroom home where they had raised their five children for the last three decades and investing some of the money into an income property. After much discussion, Durocher and her husband agreed to move into the home with his parents and purchase half of the property, freeing up some of the older couple’s equity and allowing the younger couple to achieve home ownership in a family-friendly neighbourhood they would have never otherwise been able to afford.
Some home builders—especially in cities like Brampton, Ont., where one in four people live in a multi-generational dwelling—are responding to demand, completing houses with two master suites and larger-than-average kitchens. Fully finished basement suites are also common; they’re ideal for extended family members who may need a little help getting on their feet, including newlyweds or recent immigrants.
At Seaton’s house, things started to become a bit crowded with Pappy in the upstairs guest room. When their lower-level suite (complete with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and sitting room) became available six months later, her dad moved downstairs. He was providing free child care, so they didn’t need the rental income anymore. The suite is fully integrated within the home and it’s all treated as one space, but it gives everyone a bit of extra breathing room over multiple levels.
For Durocher and her family, renovations were needed to better accommodate everyone. Since she, her husband and her mother-in-law all enjoy cooking and entertaining, they decided to update the small, original kitchen into a more open-concept space with a large island, creating more room for prep. The renos also included knocking down the wall between two bedrooms to create a large bedroom suite that would also function as a sitting room.
Of course, not all homes—or budgets—are created equal, and economics will dictate what privacy looks like and how it’s achieved.
Allison Holden-Pope, the founder of One Seed Architecture and Interiors in Vancouver, says she’s seen a significant rise in multi-generational homes over the last few years. With the high cost of housing, a rental suite is often required to help pay the mortgage, she explains. But some people don’t like the idea of sharing their space with strangers, and for them, a multi-generational home is preferred, because costs are shared with extended family members.
With a dwelling that’s purpose-built, or designed to be multi-generational, everyone should get a space that feels like a wonderful home, she says. Each unit should have large windows, lots of natural light and high ceilings. And if it’s possible, give each family their own separate entrance as well as a shared door (that locks). “The goal should be different than just taking a normal house and trying to fit two families into it,” she adds. “Having a sense of identity in your own place is still very important.” She avoids designing an “in-law suite” that’s really just a glorified guest room, and she doesn’t recommend relegating the suite to the basement, either.
Aging in place is another big consideration for anyone building a multi-generational home. Practically speaking, units for older parents should be designed as close to the ground floor as possible to avoid the need for mechanical chair lifts, which may feel undignified to some. (Holden-Pope also notes that it’s actually quite easy to plan for an elevator in the future. “You can use that space as a closet until the need actually arises.”) She encourages wide, open-concept layouts that allow for ease of mobility as well as wheelchair- or walker-accessible washrooms. And it’s important to think about whether an aging parent might need an extra bedroom or bathroom for a future caregiver, too.
Ideally, the whole family should be equally involved in the planning and design process from the beginning. “Sometimes it can feel like a family therapy session,” Holden-Pope says, laughing. “We always make sure that everyone gets heard and everyone’s opinion gets validated. Everyone won’t get what they want, but no one should lose a must-have.”
It’s not surprising that people living in multi-generational homes face challenges—all families do. But many of them can be chalked up to common roommate squabbles: owning up to dirty dishes left in the sink; figuring out intimacy (and conflict) when the walls are paper-thin; combatting clutter around the house; and making sure whoever finishes the milk replaces it. But other issues around co-parenting, boundaries and personal space can sometimes be trickier to navigate.
In an inter-generational household, where there are parents and grandparents (and sometimes even great-grandparents), raising kids can become complicated. That’s why it’s important for everyone in the house to understand their roles, says Deena Chochinov, a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver. “The children need to know who the parents are and who is in charge of their behaviour and setting the rules. The grandparents need to understand that they are not parenting the grandkids; they are grandparenting their grandkids, and that is very different,” she says.
In the first six months of living with her in-laws, Durocher had to have several conversations with her mother-in-law about trying to parent her kids—especially when it comes to schoolwork and her eight-year-old and six-year-old. “I’m more concerned about character and trying to build critical thinking and less so with whether they get their homework done,” she says. “I want to make sure they’re reaching their own potential.” On the other hand, her mother-in-law focuses more on studying and grades. Durocher realizes it will probably take multiple conversations—and patience—until she sees any change.
This is something that Deb Henry, a grandmother in Toronto, has to remind herself of on a regular basis. She and her husband share a home with six other people: her daughter and son-in-law and their three teens, as well as her elderly mother. Four years ago, they all chose to pool their resources and rent a bigger home together. “We felt we shouldn’t have to struggle to do everything on our own—we all have to support one another,” Henry says. She has, however, learned to practise restraint when it comes to child-rearing. “My daughter and her husband are great parents, but we raised our kids differently and at a different time. Sometimes when there were issues with the kids, I used to chime in. But I had to take a step back. It was a big learning curve for me because we’ve always been so involved in the kids’ lives.” If things are really chaotic, she escapes to her bedroom to give herself some space. The teens in the house are also learning to take their great-grandmother with a grain of salt. “She’s 83 years old and she’s stuck in her ways—she can be pretty vocal with her opinions about what they do,” Henry says.
For Seaton, sometimes it feels as if she’s travelled back in time to being a teenager. “I totally feel like a kid again,” she says. “My dad is always asking me what I’m doing and when I’m going to be home, even when there’s no bearing on child care. He’s also telling me things like how to shovel snow or cook rice, like I’m a kid who needs to be taught. I usually say, ‘Thanks, Dad,’ and move on.”
She also finds it difficult to set boundaries with her dad. Sometimes she thinks he’s too strict with the kids (forcing them to eat whatever he cooks and raising his voice when he’s upset). But when she tries to talk to him about it, she says he becomes pretty defensive. When she caught him smoking on the upstairs balcony a little while ago—something she’d already told him was not OK—he mumbled at her, “Oh, you and your rules.” But she says he hasn’t done it again—they’re working it out.
Depending on the house layout, figuring out ways to carve out time for yourself can also take creativity. Sometimes it might mean retreating to your bedroom or going for a solo walk around the neighbourhood. With three little ones around, Durocher says she’s never really alone, but she admits that she misses spending time with just her kids. To make up for it, pre-pandemic, she would take them to Tim Hortons for breakfast, to the grocery store or for a walk around the mall after dinner.
When Dave Beaudet and his wife considered downsizing from their townhouse a few years ago, at ages 65 and 62, they didn’t want to move into a condo. So the Hamilton, Ont., couple approached their daughter and son-in-law, who had no prospects of buying a home anytime soon, with an idea: What if they sold their townhouse and used the equity to pay for a larger place they could all share? The older couple could live on the bottom floor, where they wouldn’t have to worry about stairs, and the younger couple could have more space to raise a family.
Beaudet’s daughter was initially skeptical. Did they really want to listen to the screams and stomping of a growing toddler? Was this how they envisioned retired life? Beaudet says it hasn’t been a concern for him—he describes the sounds of his two-year-old grandson as “happy, happy music.” Both couples benefit from sharing costs and dividing duties around the house. Beaudet is relieved to know that, as he and his wife age, they’ll have someone to look after them, too. He can’t wait for his grandson to get a bit bigger so he can start passing along some of his own childhood traditions—just like his own grandfather passed on to him. “That’s how generations remember generations,” he says. “We are going to be pretty important people to him.”
The value of inter-generational learning like this is a key benefit that is often overlooked, says Mitchell. “Sharing ideas and skills is a way to bridge generations and forge strong bonds,” she explains. You could have elders sharing wisdom that comes only from life experience, and kids and teens can help older folks navigate technology, for example. You also have more people around to share the load of parenting—the aunt who spends hours engaged in pretend play, the uncle who introduces the kids to street hockey in the laneway and grandparents who rejoice in reading the same book over and over and over again when parents exhausted from a long workday might not feel as enthusiastic.
Seaton says the extra help has given her some time back to do more of the fun stuff that she felt she was missing out on. “Before my dad moved in, I was always rushing and exhausted. Now I can spend quality time interacting with my kids. That’s huge.”
There is plenty of pre-coronavirus research to support how intergenerational relationships are beneficial to lonely seniors, says Mitchell. “When younger people are more used to living with older people, it reduces things like ageism, which can lead to elder abuse and isolation.” And since mental health can have such a big impact on seniors’ physical health, the effects can go even further.
However, for families like Seaton, the unknowns around whether children are asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 are complicating matters. Although the illness is still new, it’s now well-documented that older people are at higher risk for more serious complications if they are infected. “We didn’t send the kids back to daycare or school this June because of the risk factor to my dad—he has diabetes and other underlying health conditions,” she explains. “We don’t think he would survive an infection.” Seaton has been doing all the grocery shopping and her dad hasn’t been leaving the house, which she thinks has had a negative impact on his mental health. “He’s more irritable and impatient,” she says. “He does help with breakfast and lunch, but the schooling and activities have fallen solely on my shoulders to carry while working from home, and it’s been emotionally exhausting.” But she’s still glad her dad is there. “There’s a definite sense of comfort in having your parents around, especially as they begin to get older,” she says.
No matter the circumstances that bring a multi-generational family under one roof, there are various strategies that can boost the chances of success. The first, says Chochinov, is discussing what everything is going to look like beforehand. “Figure out what the responsibilities are of the adults in the home, who makes what decisions and how to respect complex familial boundaries.”
Before moving in together, Durocher and her mother-in-law agreed that the only way the living arrangement would be successful was if they were open with one another. If something isn’t working, they have to be able to talk about it. They spoke about expectations around housework, and drew up a contract that outlined each party’s financial obligations and had it notarized by a lawyer. And because Durocher was moving back into her husband’s childhood home, they included his adult siblings in the conversation about boundaries. If anyone planned on dropping by, they had to check with everyone first. (Pre-pandemic, her mother-in-law’s constant entertaining had been a main source of conflict.)
Durocher says the key for her has been to remain firm but respectful with her mother-in-law. “I always position it as: ‘Here’s how the problem affects me.’ This shifts the conversation so she can take accountability for her actions, instead of me blaming her.”
Using clear, compassionate language when talking to our relatives can help, says Chochinov, the registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver. It’s easy to take for granted that they’re family and will forgive you, no matter what you say in an argument. Take care with the tone and body language you use.
Mitchell says that the majority of the cohabiting families she’s studied over the years have had positive experiences. But there’s also something called a “positive selection factor,” she says. “If you’re not from a family with supportive family ties, you’re unlikely to want to be a part of that kind of household to begin with.”
Gamache points out how special the multi-generational living dynamic is—she describes it as “a tremendous richness.” It's something families are learning now more than ever, as we navigate this prolonged period of isolation at home, most of us distanced from our loved ones. “When everything is rosy, people can feel pretty happy with only occasional visits with family. But when everything goes sideways, your extended family is your resource network. And we are finally coming around to appreciate the value of these things.”
*Names have been changed.