In the Boston suburb of Quincy, IT professional Matt Hansen and wife Carrie, a certified nurse’s aide, share their home with Matt’s 75-year-old mother, Eva. Space issues with the couple’s 16-year-old twins make the arrangement challenging, but in 2010 Eva Hansen experienced a mild stroke and resulting series of falls that rendered her incapable of living on her own.
“She had full control of her faculties and was not ready for a nursing home, but living on her own was neither practical nor safe,” said Matt. With the cost of an assisted living facility outside of the family’s means, Matt and Carrie decided to welcome her into their home. But differences in routine, activities, modern methods of communication–cell phones; IM; gaming; social networking; the Internet in general and the language of each–created more than overcrowding issues: It widened the gap between Eva and her grandchildren.
In San Francisco, Sue and John Lawry each lost their jobs in respective dot.com company-wide layoffs. After a time, renting out their home and moving in with Sue’s septuagenarian parents until new jobs could be secured was their only viable option.
“We were both out of work for an extended period of time and rather than lose everything, we did what we had to do,” said Sue, “though we felt badly about dragging our two boys, ages 14 and 16, nearly 150 miles away into unfamiliar quarters.”
With a challenging economy, more and more generations of families —grandparents, adult children, adult siblings, in-laws, teens and young children–are living together under one roof not out of choice, but out of necessity. While this was a common and widely-accepted living arrangement until the mid-20th Century, and is still practiced in some foreign countries, in the contemporary U.S. a disparity in ages, social practices, schedules, and lifestyles can create a lot of stress, with technology sometimes making for an even wider chasm. But did you know that turning what divides the generations into activities and experiences that bond us can create stronger, healthier family relationships from which everyone benefits–no matter what their age?
For the Hansens, twins David and Amy’s lives revolved around their love of music and sports, especially varsity basketball, which they each played. An accomplished musician, Amy practiced her clarinet every day and played in the school band. When a fundraiser for band camp was planned, mom Carrie suggested they get grandmother Eva involved in the effort.
“My husband was the best fed kid on his block growing up,” Carrie said. “And when we got married, my mother-in-law actually baked the wedding cake. At Christmastime, her home always looked and smelled like a big gingerbread house, so we put her to work with Amy – whose culinary skills needed a boost – baking dozens of decorative cupcakes, brownies, and cookies for the fundraiser.”
Because some of the fundraiser was virtual, Amy photographed the results of their baking extravaganza and posted it on her and the school’s Facebook pages, sharing the process with her grandmother.
“She knew how to email,” Amy said (of course many seniors actively engage in Internet-related pursuits), “so teaching her about social media wasn’t as big a jump as I’d thought it would be. In time she even got her own Facebook page, and I was her very first friend.”
At the same time, a couple of days of baking together and the success of all their desserts piqued Amy’s interest to the point that she enlisted her grandmother’s expertise in a part-time baking business to help raise money for college. “We’re a team now,” Amy said, “and I’d be lost without her.”
For the Lawry family, life with Sue’s parents was an adjustment. With Sue and John out of work and two active boys on the scene, the situation presented challenges many might consider insurmountable until Sue’s parents intervened.
“Our boys love the great outdoors,” Sue said, noting they are avid hikers, rock climbers, and love to camp. As their grandfather had been in scouting and was career military until his 1995 retirement, those initial begrudged multi-generational dinners turned into rousing, interactive nightly discourses on wilderness survival, proper equipment, adapting to harsh conditions, outdoor cooking techniques and more. Growing up three hours away, Kurt and Alec Lowry hadn’t spent much time with their grandparents except for holidays, and getting to know their grandfather in this way revealed a common bond and interest that continues to grow.
“Just before we were able to move back to San Francisco, the three of them went camping together for a week,” Sue recalled, adding they’d made a date to do it again.
While some see only the negative in generations squeezed together under challenging conditions, these are circumstances from which we can all benefit, and where our individual deficits may be filled by the life experiences of other family members–no matter what their age. Everyone has something to offer, and taking the time to discover and hone common interests–or to see how even disparate interests can work together to create a new product or pursuit– can result in a harmonious environment where people actually look forward to spending time with one another.