On a Sunday evening a few weeks back, Shobana Ram was loading the dishwasher in her kitchen in the Queens borough of New York when her 85-year-old father-in-law rose from the dinner table, carrying his cane in one hand and an empty plate in the other.
“From the corner of my eye, I saw him stumble and lose his balance,” Ram recalled. “I saw the cane fly out of his hand. His head hit the corner of our granite countertop.”
She dialed 911 and thought, not for the first time, how fortunate it was that in 2016 she and her husband sold their house and bought one big enough to accommodate six people: themselves, their two teenagers and his ailing parents, along with the family dog.
Her mother-in-law, who has dementia, would not have been able to phone for help. In this case, after emergency room scans, her father-in-law was “miraculously OK,” said Ram, 48.
But, she added, “there’ve been so many incidents where we’ve felt if they’d still been in their apartment on their own, God knows what would have happened.”
In an Indian-American family, a household encompassing three generations isn’t uncommon. “There’s an understanding that parents could be living with us at some point,” Ram said.
Yet her family’s decision also reflects a growing change in the way Americans, including older people, are choosing to live.
A brief backward look: After the late 1800s, as two economists pointed out in a landmark 2000 study, most elderly widows lived with one of their children — so common a practice that it developed a nostalgic sheen, enshrined as the way things ought to be.
In 1940, however, that arrangement started crumbling. The proportion of older widows living with children declined from about 60 percent that year to 20 percent by the 1990 census.
Did Americans stop loving their mothers in 1940? No, but their parents began receiving checks from a just-enacted New Deal program called Social Security and no longer had to rely financially on their families.
“As elderly people’s income increased, they chose to live independently,” said Kathleen McGarry, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of the study. “When they could afford it, they purchased privacy.”
A decade or so ago, as demographers began reporting an uptick in shared and multigenerational housing, the trend again looked to be economically driven, this time by the Great Recession.
A Census Bureau report noted that the number of shared households had jumped more than 11 percent between 2007 and 2010. The spike came primarily from younger people — buffeted by unemployment, foreclosures and student debt — moving in with their parents or other relatives.
“It was a way to make ends meet,” said Laryssa Mykyta, co-author of the report, now a sociologist at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.
Let’s pause for some definitions. Though shared households and multigenerational households may overlap, they aren’t identical. When a householder lives with at least one adult who’s not a spouse, partner or college student, that’s a shared household; its members need not necessarily be related. A multigenerational household, as defined by the Pew Research Center (the Census Bureau uses a different standard), includes at least two generations of related adults, or grandparents and grandchildren.
Both phenomena increased during the recession — and interestingly, long after its end, they haven’t declined.
Multigenerational households, which hit a historic low of 12 percent of American households in 1980, reached 19 percent in 2014, the Pew Research Center reported. “You have to conclude that this is a phenomenon that has legs and will continue,” said D’Vera Cohn, co-author of the report.
In pre-recession 2006, for example, 20 percent of those 85 and older lived in multigenerational households. By 2014, the proportion had climbed to 24 percent.
Richard Fry, a Pew senior researcher, has uncovered a similar trend in shared living. Although younger people remain more likely than other age group to live in someone else’s household, the proportion of older people in those arrangements has also increased. Last year, 14 percent of adults in a shared household were parents of the household head, double the proportion in 1995.
What’s creating this reversal of a decades-long trend?
One could point to several factors, including rising housing prices, inadequate retirement savings and the costs of long-term care. But the primary reason, Pew researchers contend, is that “the country’s changing demographics encourage shared living,” Fry said. “It’s much more prevalent among nonwhite adults, and they’re a growing share of the adult population.”
About a quarter of non-Hispanic white adults shared a household last year, his analysis shows. But 40 percent of blacks lived in shared households, and 42 percent of Asian-Americans (who have higher median household income than the national average, underscoring that economics probably isn’t the primary driver).
So did nearly half of Hispanics. Shared housing is a more common practice among immigrants, another growing segment of the population. For multigenerational households, the numbers “tell a similar story,” Cohn added.
Sarita Gupta, co-director of the nonprofit organization Caring Across Generations, said, “I think this is a change in what the typical American family looks like.”
Three years ago, she moved her own parents, in their 70s and struggling to cope with her father’s Alzheimer’s disease, into her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her husband and young daughter.
“Even in casual conversation with friends,” Gupta said, “it’s amazing how many peers say, ‘I know one day in the future, my parents will be moving in.’”
Let’s not romanticize this practice. Those who’ve undertaken it caution that shared households demand tough adjustments — physical, financial and emotional.
Shobana Ram knows that her in-laws, who have a home health aide while her family is at work and school, are happier with them than in any assisted living. She sees her children learning important lessons, too. She and her husband tell themselves they’ve made the right choice, for now. Yet, “you’re dealing with people who have pride and their own ways of doing things,” Ram said.
She added: “You want to be respectful and sensitive, but you can get frustrated as well. It’s a delicate thing.”
Whether shared and multigenerational households continue to increase remains an open question. Perhaps, as immigrant families assimilate and minority group incomes increase, more will opt for separate homes.
Or maybe, McGarry said, those who initially doubled up for economic reasons will decide, “Hey, this works pretty well, let’s keep going.”
Susan Yarbrough thinks it does work pretty well. She got a call from her mother in Huntsville, Alabama, on her 80th birthday. “It’s time for me to move,” Betsy Yarbrough told her daughter.
“She wanted to make the choice to move, versus having a crisis and being forced to move,” said Yarbrough, 49, who works in medical education in Atlanta. She began shopping for a house both could occupy while maintaining elbow room.
She found a split-level in suburban Johns Creek, where her mother, now 83, has the ground floor bedroom, bath and den, while she lives upstairs.
Betsy Yarbrough contributes to the mortgage and utility costs. Her daughter does more driving to doctors’ offices than she’d expected, but now has a live-in dog sitter.
“I’m the first of my peer group doing this,” Susan Yarbrough said. “But I don’t think I’ll be the last.”