Multigenerational Households Multigenerational households, consisting of three or more generations
living together, are most common during the postlaunching stage. In extended- family systems, such as those in Asian societies, the family by its very nature is multigenerational. In the nuclear-family system of Western societies, multigenerational households are of two types. First is the postlaunching multigenerational household of married children and their offspring who live with their parents or return home after they have been on their own for some time. A second type of multigenerational household forms during the retirement stage, when elderly parents move in with their married children. The dynamics of these two types of multigenerational households may be extremely rich and rewarding or extremely stressful and disruptive. In most cases, there is a mixture of rewards and stress.
In general, families that have not coped well with major transitions in the past are likely to find that multigenerational living amplifies the strain. The stress will be less intense in those multigenerational families characterized by good health, emotional maturity, and self-differentiation. Other factors that can help alleviate stress include adequate material assets, financial security, a house of ample size, access to transportation, and availability of community resources. Among the more beneficial community resources are elder-care programs, day care centers for young children, and a network of extended family, friends, and church members who can step in to provide assistance when needed.
Establishing appropriate boundaries helps combat one of the most potentially troublesome areas within multigenerational households. The homeowners will quite naturally feel that it is their right to establish household rules and boundaries with their adult children, grandchildren, and elderly parents. These rules and boundaries are likely to concern questions of space, household responsibilities, child-rearing or elder-care practices, and time schedules. Although most of the space in the house may be understood as a common living area, it is wise to establish clear guidelines before living together. Taking time for mutual consideration of each individual’s needs will help with the negotiation.
During the Balswicks’ postlaunching period, our married daughter, son-in- law, and two young grandsons came to live with us for three years. Although we developed clear spatial boundaries from the start, we experienced some humorous moments. Much of the rather large house was open to everyone, but Curtis and Jacob had to be reminded that Grammie and Grampie’s bedroom and upstairs living-room areas were private space that was off limits when the doors were closed. We soon learned that our grandsons lived by the letter of the law, so when the door was open just a crack, they would rush in with all the exuberance of young children. One morning, as our grandsons were trying out Judy’s hairbrush, comb, perfume, and other items of interest while she was getting ready for work, it was necessary for her to explain that these things belonged to Grammie and were not to be “messed with.” After listening to Judy expounding on the boundary rules, Curtis piped up with a serious expression on his face, “And Grammie, when you’re in our room, you don’t mess with any of our things either!” It was a lighthearted moment, but Judy was quick to reply, “Yes, Curtis, that is right! Grammie and Grampie will knock before we come into your room and ask if we can play with your
things!” The boys had learned that boundary issues are a matter of mutual respect.
Other rules concern the responsibility for household tasks such as cleaning, yard work, and meal preparation. In the three years we lived as a three-generation household, our son-in-law took responsibility for house repairs, Jack did the yard work, our daughter cleaned the common living area, and Judy planned the meals, to which we all contributed by cooking and cleaning up. Similarly, when elderly family members move in, it is vital that they contribute to the household in any way they can. For some it may simply be doing a little dusting or clearing the table or gardening or making their beds; the very act of participating gives them meaning. Those unable to help physically can say a prayer or contribute through their presence at family gatherings. They should be affirmed for what they contribute to the family and be told how much they are appreciated.
An area of potential conflict and misunderstanding is caretaking. When it comes to discipline of children, for example, grandparents may tend to take charge. Having strong ideas about parenting since they have already been through the experience, they may find it tempting to criticize the parents’ methods. The task facing grandparents is learning how to share knowledge without undermining or disrespecting the parents. Grandparents must also acknowledge that adult children have both the right and the responsibility to raise their children their own way. A sacred rule for the Balswicks was to never interfere with our daughter and son-in-law as they were actively parenting but to share any concerns or suggestions with them in private. Of course, when they were not in the home, we clearly took the leadership role.
Different ideas about caring for elderly parents can also become a serious area of conflict between couples. Making good judgments about what is needed, without being over- or underprotective, is the key. When there are differences that can’t be resolved, it is wise to protect the marriage by bringing in substitute caretakers who can ease the load.
When an elderly family member moves into the home, it is essential to discuss some important issues. First, talk openly and honestly about feelings, expectations, strengths, and limitations as you anticipate caring for an aging parent. Get together with one or two close friends to talk through the hopes, fears, and doubts that having this particular parent in the home raises. Discuss the parent’s physical and emotional needs and your ability to meet those needs. Consider the role that your sense of obligation plays in the
decision to care for your parent and be willing to examine any resentment you may have. It is also vital to spend time reflecting on how the decision will affect your life and your significant relationships. Are there hidden expectations about the extent to which others (spouse, siblings) will be involved? What fears are there about becoming emotionally distant in your relationships as you focus on the needs of the elderly parent? Clearly voicing these concerns helps you be as realistic as possible about the decision. Periodic discussion about how things are going ensures that necessary and appropriate changes are made.
A second set of questions concerns the family as a whole. These questions center on the family’s relationship with the aging parent and the impact of the decision on each member. Do they all get along with the elderly individual? Are there particular concerns with any family members that put them at special risk? How will they deal with illness? What feelings of intrusion or resentment are present? These and other questions should be processed in a family meeting. Letting family members voice their fears and concerns as well as their positive attitudes about the decision allows everyone a chance to make it a successful venture.
A third set of questions deals with the adequacy of living space, privacy, and financial resources. Finally, investigating the community resources that can contribute to the well-being of the elderly members of the household will benefit everyone. Such community resources might include transportation programs, senior-activity centers, home-delivered meals, housekeeping services, and home health care.
The Retirement Stage
Couple Satisfaction and Challenge Most couples report retirement to be a satisfying phase of their lives.
Those who are most satisfied engage in rewarding activities and reserve time for themselves. They have fulfilling marriages, a sexual relationship founded on mutual expressions of affection, open communication, and the ability to resolve conflicts. Good communication and compatibility in marriage are most important in preventing stress during retirement. Highly satisfied couples are also fairly healthy, financially secure, and involved with church and friends. Couples in long-term marriages report more affection and
intimacy and fewer marital problems, conflicts, and negativity than do couples who have been married fewer years (Cooney and Dunne 2004).
At a time when approximately one out of every two marriages ends in divorce, it is particularly important to discover reasons for long-term marital success. A study of couples who had been married from forty-five to sixty- four years (Lauer, Lauer, and Kerr 1995, 39) reports that essential to success in marriage is an intimate relationship with a mate whose company one thoroughly enjoys. Almost as important are commitment, humor, and the ability to agree on a wide variety of issues. In their review of literature on long-term marriages, T. Cooney and K. Dunne (2004, 138) report that “the same things that make a given couple happy or unhappy early in marriage tend to make them happy or unhappy later in marriage.”
Of course, retirement brings with it some notable changes in the marital relationship. As the relationship becomes more equal in power, wives become more assertive, and husbands more concerned with interpersonal relationships (Long and Mancini 1990). Given the additional time that retired couples have to focus on each other and their relationship, it is not surprising that most of the research reports an increase in marital happiness after retirement.
But retirement also tends to highlight the negative qualities of a couple’s marriage. Role loss is an inevitable challenge. A workaholic (whether in the home or outside it) who has defined self-worth purely in terms of work will find retirement a difficult time of life. Also, involvement in work may have kept spouses from developing a more satisfying marriage. With time on their hands, a retired couple must confront unresolved marital issues head-on. An annoying habit that was previously tolerated may become unbearable when one must deal with it on a constant basis. Another difficulty for some retired people is insufficient financial resources to maintain their accustomed lifestyle. The most challenging part of retirement involves health and aging bodies. Illness and physical and mental deterioration can sap vitality and much of the joy of living.