Living With Family

Household Alternatives Involving Family

Although a less popular alternative than in the past, about 7 percent of men and 17 percent of women ages 65 and older now live with family members other than their spouses, usually in the dwelling of an adult child. Over a quarter of women ages 85 and older occupy this type of living arrangement. The proportion of African American, Asian, and Hispanic elderly persons opting for this choice is much higher - about 16 percent of minority elderly men and 34 percent of minority elderly women (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, 2000).

An older parent living alone who is having difficulty coping with his or her frailties is usually the motivation for this housing choice. It is especially the alternative of choice for those adult children who feel guilty about not "doing enough." In the case of minorities, it may be motivated by their strong cultural values that emphasize multigenerational helping relationships.

This is often not an easily implemented alternative, and being a care giver is inevitably stressful. This living arrangement is most successful when adult children recognize their limitations and make good use of adult day care, friendly visitor programs, and respite care services to reduce their physical and emotional stresses.

An adult child can accommodate an older parent in one of three distinctive housing arrangements: a spare bedroom, an accessory apartment, or an Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity (ECHO) unit. These are more than bricks-and-mortar adjustments, and each can differently affect the social and emotional worlds of adult child and older parent alike (Golant, 1992).

Spare Bedroom

When adult children take in an older parent, often their own children have departed, thereby opening up a spare bedroom. This is the least demanding of the options for renovating a household. At most, architectural modifications will involve the addition of another bathroom or perhaps only adaptations to an existing one. This might include the installation of grab bars or the introduction of a seat in a bathtub. HUD's Fair Housing manual offers useful design specifications for such modifications (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1998).

This household arrangement obviously produces the most intimate of family relationships, but it has downside. It can result in dramatic assaults on the host family's lifestyles. The physical closeness will often infringe on their private time, and decisions must continually be made - for some thse will be wrenching judgments - when to include the older parent in the everyday activities.

Living in a spare bedroom also has pros and cons for the older person. Physical security and emotional closeness are a plus, but on the minus side, the bedroom becomes the only space that belongs exclusively to the older parent. Thus, the older person must always wonder when the family will welcome his or her presence. Conflicts will arise if an older parent feels put off when the host family refuses his or her help with household chores of if the family unrealistically assumes that an older boarder can assist with babysitting a grandchild.

Accessory Apartment, In-Law Suite, or Second Units

The host family can minimize some potential privacy and control problems by creating a physically separate living space for the older parent. Owners of single-family homes can convert an already existing basement, garage, sun room, spare bedroom, or porch into a self-contained suite with its own private entrance to the outside (like a studio apartment with kitchen and bathroom). The host family can also introduce extensive physical design adaptations to make this suite more accessible and easier to use. It can also install an intercom or a camera surveillance system to monitor the status of an older parent, though privacy issues might arise. HUD's Fair Housing manual again will offer useful information.

Again, there are downsides. First, such a conversion requires a building permit, and zoning regulations may not automatically allow this use in many single-family neighborhoods. Also, this is an expensive strategy, and dealing with subcontractors and workers is rarely fun. Nearby residents may communicated loudly their distaste of allowing boarders. The added residential space will also result in higher property taxes, home insurance, and utility costs.

When an older parent lives in such separate quarters, his or her entering or occupying the main family home may constitute a major event. New questions arise: Why are you here at this time? When do you plan to leave? Should you be here when I give my party? Thus, the accessory apartment arrangement may require more formalized visiting rules.

ECHO (Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity) Housing

The ultimate physical separation is achieved by installing a completely self-contained housing unit (prefabricated or modular structure or manufactured home with all utility hookups) in the backyard or side yard of the single-family house. This may be impractical in most neighborhoods, however, because the lot is too small or zoning regulations prohibit the introduction of a separate residential structure on a single-family lot. These regulatory hurdles are less likely to occur in neighborhoods that already have mixed (residential and nonresidential) land uses, are in rural areas, or are, paradoxically, in very high-end neighborhoods, where the occupants already tolerate such residential building as the quarters of paid household staff.

The ECHO option shares many of the same advantages and disadvantages of the accessory apartment, but it has two additional drawbacks. First, when the host family no longer needs this structure, there may be no buyers, and the original costs will be lost. Second, the care giver has to navigate between different buildings, especially if the older person has impairments demanding more supervision and hands-on care. This can make the monitoring and assistance tasks that much more convenient, time-consuming, and physically exhausting, especially during bad whether.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.