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Talk About Situational Stress: Multigenerational Living is on the Rise

Posted By Peter Y. Fifield, Thursday, October 13, 2011

My two sons attend a daycare in the same building as a nursing home which has a multigenerational program integrating the wee tots with the geriatric populations. They pass the time singing songs, playing games and I’m sure, laughing at each other’s idiosyncrasies. My wife and I purposefully chose this daycare for this reason. We felt that there, both the young and the old had a lot to offer one another and that it would be a wonderful learning experience for our two young boys who unfortunately do not live near either set of their grandparents.

My personal story is a bit unusual. I am the youngest of seven biological children; added to the fray, I have a very sweet adopted Cambodian sister. This bit is actually not THAT unusual but you might find the rest is a bit odd. At the ripe old age of TEN I moved into a nursing home. Fortunately for me, it was not due to early onset dementia but to the fact that my mother inherited a rather quaint old colonial home from my grandmother, complete and equipped with 12 elderly persons. Out of necessity to "be closer” to the business my father built an apartment addition on the "Austin Nursing Home” and Shazam!, instantly l was engulfed in a multigenerational living situation.

Although it took some getting used to, I adapted and quickly decided that going with the flow was easier than trying to swim upstream. The first thing I had to adjust to was the olfactory delight of Pine-Sol, old mothballs, smoked tobacco and rose perfume. The second adjustment came with an increased pain threshold for my cheeks were constantly red and sore from being pinched by any given resident at any given time. The worst part though was that with every pinch of the cheek came the gooey grossness of "you’re so cute”...Bobby or Donny or Jimmy or even Beth or Dot seemed to follow. Due to their old age, dementia or Alzheimer related memory issues, I was sentenced to be identified by some non-gender specific "given name” other than my own. I quickly learned to pick my battles and decided that responding with, a simple "yes ma’am/sir” was easier than trying to explain that my name was actually Peter.

The days of living in the nursing home have long since passed. Although the land has been subdivided and the nursing home handed over to new owners the multigenerational living continues in the "Fifield compound”. On my parents "compound” [the use that term is somewhat accurate] there are three quaint yet well-kept homes. In total they are occupied by five, count them five generations: my grandmother (at age 102), my parents, two of my sisters, two of my nieces and three of their children. Why is this such a big deal you ask? It really isn't but it has me thinking about what I have witnessed a lot more of here at work.

I now am a Behavioral Health Consultant for an FQHC in the Seacoast region of New Hampshire. Approximately 80% of our patient population is either uninsured or under-insured. Due to our unique population, even before this current national financial crisis, a significant number of my patients were managing through their financial difficulties. In our therapeutic setting I have observed a correlation between our country’s current financial crisis and what seems to be a spike in reported multigenerational living. More and more patients report "having to” move in with another family member. Whether it is a single mother moving in with a son or daughter, a couple moving back home with the parents after losing a job or a son or daughter who is "not a fully functioning adult yet”, they all have a similar story. The consensus seems to be one of distress, desperation and despair.

According to an article in US News Money the downward trend of multigenerational living has happened since the end of World War II when, at that time, about 25 percent of families lived in multigenerational households. Due to many factors ranging from a growth-oriented capitalistic paradigm and the "Mobile society” to more recent influences such as the current mortgage crisis and collapse of home values, a decline in multigenerational households has happened ever since. Regardless, since the latter part of the 20th century we have become imprinted to fly the coop and make it on our own.

From so many of my patients suffering from any form of depression and/or anxiety, I have heard them voice the cause of their guilt as "I used to be responsible” or "I should be succeeding in the world”. My challenge to them is to rethink success. Our egocentric need for privacy and drive for success may have caused us to forget the gift of sharing in an extended household and thus isolated our dwellings to the nuclear family. Interestingly enough it was not long ago that our ancestors lived in "dwellings” that didn’t even have rooms, it was just one open area. For that matter, the majority of the world still lives that way. The challenge then as I see it is how do we Americans learn how to play in the sandbox again with others (in our family).

There are many websites (this one with extensive links) that openly offer ideas about the rejoining of multiple generations under one roof. According to one website the current percentage of multigenerational is on the rise: 16%--that is 50 million Americans. I wonder what the cultural break down is here. My personal observation has been that many more ethnic minorities still commonly practice multigenerational living here in the US and abroad compared to their Caucasian counterparts. I wonder if the observed local "surge” has anything to do with the fact that I live and practice in an area that is 90% Caucasian. Regardless, the core issues seem to be the same. We need to relearn how to share and this is not as easy as it sounds.

Sometimes living in a single family home is hard, never mind living in a multigenerational family, but what seems to be the trade-off is the richness gleaned from the old and the young living under the same roof. I will never forget the lessons I learned from all 12 of my beloved grandparents at the Austin Home. Sometimes it was hard, sometimes it was outright embarrassing but with learned patience, tolerance and dealing with a lot of "could you repeat that I can’t hear you sonny”, it always worked out. The other day my wife went to pick up our two sons at day care and the one-year old was upstairs. She found him up there with one of the daycare workers nearby "talking” with Gunther, an eighty year old resident. She said, "You should have seen the smiles on both of their faces. It was priceless”!

Pete Fifield is an integrated Behavioral Health Consultant at Families First Health and Support Center; an FQHC in Portsmouth NH. In his off time he is the Managing Editor of CFHA Blog and makes all attempts to keep up with his wife and two sons.

The view expressed in the blogs and comments should be understood as the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the Collaborative Family Healthcare Association (CFHA). No information on this blog will be understood as official. CFHA offers this blog site for individuals to express their personal and professional opinions regarding their own independent activities and interests.

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