The current economic downturn brings to light the obvious – the vulnerability of anyone who has not prepared to weather the financial storm. According to a recent report, Living Longer on Less: The New (In)security of Seniors, produced by The Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP), a research institute at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, 78 percent of all senior households are financially vulnerable. The vulnerability comes from inability to meet housing costs and healthcare costs, negative budgets, lack of available home equity and lack of adequate assets.
Many seniors will succumb to these vulnerabilities and be rendered dependent on state aid. A significant number of those who succumb to state aid do so because of prohibitively high healthcare costs, particularly long-term care costs, which are generally not covered by Medicare or any health insurance plans (other than long-term care insurance policies, which few seniors have).
Other societies have found answers in multigenerational living arrangements. Such a system did indeed flourish in this nation as well and continues to exist to some extent even today. However, it is all but lost to the majority of seniors, who throughout their lives expected to remain independent all the way to the end and not become a burden on their children. As a society we have succeeded in creating an expectation of self-reliance. The issues such an expectation creates are nothing short of heartbreaking in most cases.
Take, for example, a recent conversation I had with a dear friend of mine who has been caring for his wife for over 14 years. In his early 60’s, my friend’s wife was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He took care of her, encouraging his children to live their lives while he took early retirement to care for his wife.
As time passed, the care needs became more significant and he tried home healthcare and day health services, which met the needs for a while. However, in the end, with no dependable assistance from family members, my friend found no other solution than to place his wife in an institutional setting, which cost him over $90,000 each year. He searched for a legal solution to try and preserve his estate of about $700,000. At the present rate this nest egg would have allowed him to care for his wife for at least seven years, but for the current economic downturn.
Worried stiff about the dwindling resources, my friend opted to divorce his wife in order to obtain Medicaid benefits to cover her significant care costs and to protect his savings for his own future care needs. And this is not the sad part.
In our conversation my friend was lamenting the fact that his decision had alienated him from his children, not that they ever made time to help him with his wife’s care needs before he decided to divorce her. In fact, they had visited her no more than a handful of times throughout the past year, just as they did with him.
The previous Christmas none of his children invited him to their house, even though he had arranged for a gathering on December 27th with all of them. By coincidence, a few days before Christmas he happened to run into his son, daughter-in-law and family at a restaurant. In this chance meeting his daughter-in-law told him she was busy getting ready for a large crowd coming to their house on Christmas (her side of the family); as an afterthought she added that if my friend was bored at home he could drop in. Devastated, my friend chose not to say anything about it. But the episode looms large and gnaws at him each day. Are these the children he raised? Is this what life amounts to in the end?
Multigenerational living is not a solution for all families, not because we lack the capacity to live it but because the lifestyle is alien to us. Our drive to live independently and not be a burden on our children has become all too common. We are the sad victims of our own success. And unless attitudes change, silent devastation will continue to victimize most of us in a time when we are most vulnerable.
In my own family, my mother-in-law lived with us for 11 years. It was more of a culture shock for my wife than it was for me, chiefly because I was born in India, where multigenerational families are the norm.
My wife, a native of Spokane, Washington, was raised to focus on her own nuclear family. My wife and I often discuss this issue and come away with different observations. Her observation is that because she saw my willingness to coexist under the same roof, she was able to accept that arrangement and it worked out fine. In my opinion, the reason we were able to live 11 years, the last two years of which my mother-in-law battled cancer, was because she joined our home when she was able to contribute to our lives as well. She was able to form a bond with our three young children. She was able to assist with shopping, laundry and other household chores. The house was a home and she was a permanent part of it. When she grew weak, all our family members pitched in just as we would have if one of the children needed our time and attention. And in the end, we were all the better for it, though during the process we all made sacrifices. My mother-in-law gave up privacy and the freedom to go to casinos, movies, or just remain free from interfering toddlers; we were forced to include our mother-in-law on our vacations, we lost our privacy, and saw our children miss out on summer vacations with their grandmother in a distant town. But what we gained was immeasurable.
Our children learned values from an era that is bygone. They heard stories about grandma’s life as a little girl, becoming the first female student from her town to go to nursing school, and countless other moments that they will no doubt recount for the rest of their lives. They also got piano lessons from grandma, patient cooking lessons in the kitchen and lots of hugs and kisses for the asking anytime they so desired. We were richer from sharing in these stories and showing our children that multigenerational living is the norm, not the exception, in this family. Together we said goodbye to Vivian in her own bedroom when she said goodbye to this world. Our children learned the most valuable lesson we tend to hide from our children: that death is part of life. And though grandma is not here, she lives on in our hearts. There are still tears for grandma (and mother), but we have more happy memories than would ever have been possible if grandma had been a part-time family member, someone we visited every now and then.
In the end, it is a simple proposition. In today’s America multigenerational living is not a lifestyle that is the norm and it is misunderstood. We as a society have created an expectation for ourselves that we should be able to live independently and not be a burden on our children. We have also created an expectation that our children should be focused on their nuclear families to the exclusion of parents and other family members. Therefore, making sacrifices due to loss of freedom and independence when there are others living under the same roof is not easily accepted. Furthermore, the desire to live independent lives fails to create common bonds between the multigenerations that are coming together. So when incapacity strikes, it truly becomes a burden on the family because their bonds cannot sustain them during tough times.
If this is to change, it must begin with parents who change their attitudes about being a burden on their kids and instead focus on becoming more relevant in the lives of their children while they are mentally and physically able. Parents must shift their focus away from golfing and stop spending their golden years excluding family members. It must be understood that making occasional holiday visits and sending gifts on birthdays and anniversaries is not enough to sustain the bonds that will be needed to see a family through the tough times. We must redefine a family to include not only a husband, wife, partner and children but also parents, uncles and aunts. And that means living under the same roof. Today’s larger homes can usually accommodate such living.
We must learn to make sacrifices that will be necessary to make the transition. Classes need to be offered to make this happen. Children must see parents not as outsiders but as family members.
Multigenerational living will make old age more pleasant and meaningful, and financially more viable; it will lead to a society that can find meaning in relationships that matter most. Quality of life and financial expectations can both be met through this mode of living arrangement.