Six years ago, George Straley found himself unexpectedly single with two young sons and just a high school diploma. He felt like his small family was dropping off a metaphorical cliff. Fortunately, they found a soft landing, courtesy of his parents — Joe and Sandy Straley — who made room in their Salt Lake City rambler.
Before the pandemic, the family of five spent more time outdoors. They hiked together, and the boys happily cheered on their grandmother as she ran marathons and half-marathons in St. George and Moab. At home, they would gather around the table every night to eat and talk about their day. Sharing a roof with three generations has been challenging, because Sandy says she and Joe, both 65, had started slowing down a bit, their own family raised. “I don’t have as much patience or ambition as I did. But it’s been fun to have them here and watch the boys grow and see what they can accomplish.”
Multigenerational homes may seem like an old-fashioned tradition in theory, but they are a modern reality in practice. George and his boys, Galvin, now 15, and Georgie, 8, are among the more than 28.4 million Americans living with at least three generations under one roof, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Sometimes, homes even hold four generations. One in 5 Americans live in one of those household configurations, says Pew Research Center. Numbers have shot up even further courtesy of COVID-19’s financial toll as well as pandemic-created fears older adults will be isolated by social distancing. “There’s a link between recession and multigenerational living,” said Wendy Wang, a scholar and director of research for the Institute for Family Studies. “And in the pandemic, I think some families would want to keep their parents out of nursing homes, too.”
Three or more generations under one roof can be a family’s greatest blessing. Or its principal vexation. Sometimes, it’s both. Each generation differs from the one before in its values, customs and sense of what’s acceptable. Katherine Hertlein, a professor with the Couple and Family Therapy program in University of Nevada Las Vegas’ School of Medicine, points out that one of the developmental tasks of being a teen is to try to buck the system and break a few rules. That step in becoming independent is hard in families that are rigid, which often occurs between generations. “When you’re having to challenge a greater status quo, or many of those generational cultural values that have been handed down to you, that can create a lot more conflict in the family,” she says. Adult parents may be pressured, too, being told by their folks that, “You’re not doing it right,” she adds. “Parents in the middle have an especially challenging time, particularly if their living situation depends on keeping peace.”
Piyushi Dhir runs Help and Wellness, a physician-reviewed blog about adaptive and assistive devices. She has lived with three and sometimes four generations of family at once. “Spending so much time with their grandparents, our teenagers become wiser, more tolerant and find it easier to relate to grown-ups with respect and thoughtfulness,” Dhir says. “Grandparents seem to absorb the energy, enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge that teenagers and kids in general have in abundance, making them more physically and mentally active than if they lived alone.”
Back in their Salt Lake City rambler, Galvin’s found many of those bright spots — even in a troublesome year that sent kids online for school. He’s now a sophomore and a member of the swim team at the same high school his dad and aunts went to, which pleases his grandma immensely. His little brother attends the same grade school they all attended, too. Galvin knows some friends think his living situation is a “bit odd,” but he doesn’t actually mind. There’s always something going on and someone to talk to should he need it, he says.
Sandy and Joe hope they bring all that to their grandsons, and more. “The love and benefits of being together flow both ways,” she says.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”