NEW YORK – When Alena Shifrin’s parents in 2014 moved in with her family of four in Mount Kisco, New York, she knew she’d have to expand her 1,200-square-foot home.
Soon the Cape Cod-style home about 37 miles northeast of Manhattan underwent a major renovation and grew to 2,300 square feet.
Having her parents living with her allowed her to keep a close eye on her mother, who had suffered a stroke a few years earlier. It also allowed Shifrin to take a job as a fitness instructor without worrying about watching her young children, then 9 and 5.
She had been a full-time, stay-at-home mother to accommodate her husband’s busy schedule as an orthopedist. Now, her father could drive her children to their activities.
But once the pandemic hit, the space started feeling cramped. And the family wasn’t alone.
While the number of Americans living in multi-generational family households has continued to rise in recent years, the pandemic seems to have further accelerated the trend.
Before March 2020 – when cases of COVID-19 began to surge and the economy sputtered – approximately 11% to 12% of primary residence buyers every year bought multi-generational homes. In the first three months of the pandemic, however, that number jumped to 15%, according to a National Association of Realtors analysis.
The association’s survey, based on 8,000 people who bought a home between April to June, found the top reason for buying a multi-generational home was to take care of aging parents.
As for Shifrin, her children were now 16 and 12, and they were attending school remotely. Her husband needed a quiet place while he treated his patients from home via telemedicine. Her fitness classes also had moved online.
“I was the one being loud. I have a little music and I’m singing and I’m like ‘let’s do this,’ and everyone’s home and it’s chaos and my parents are like, ‘It’s so loud. Why are you guys so loud?’” she said “Not to mention, everyone was trying to find the best Wi-Fi spot in the house.”
By November, right after Thanksgiving, Shifrin says she realized the multi-generational family had outgrown the house. The pandemic made the need to find a bigger home more pressing.
“I was just so desperate. I was like, we’ve got to get out. This is not healthy. Everybody’s getting miserable. It’s time to go,” she says.
Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics research for the National Associations of Realtors®, said taking care of aging parents and spending more time with them and relatives was a “top priority” for purchasing a multi-generational home.
Lautz added that other reasons included adult children moving back home and cost savings that result from multiple incomes purchasing a larger house together.
In 2016, 64 million people, or 20% of the U.S. population lived with multiple generations under one roof, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. That number was the highest since 1950 when three or more generations living under one roof composed 21% of all households.
John L. Graham, professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine and co-author of “All in the Family: A Practical Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living,” says the growth in multi-generational households is a cultural shift back to the way things once were and that the arrangement is mutually beneficial.
“It’s only in the last 50 years in the United States and the Northern European countries that people have tried out the nuclear family living,” he says. “It just doesn’t work well. Grandparents and grandkids are supposed to be near each other.”
Graham says families living together provide enormous psychological benefits, particularly for the elderly when they are around younger people.
“Especially during the pandemic, with a shortage of health care workers, the family is going to be the saving grace of home health care,” Graham said.
When the pandemic hit, Shobha Bhatnagar and her husband, Gaurav, found their adult children back at home in Scarsdale, New York, about 20 miles south of Shifrin’s family. Their daughter had returned from college to learn remotely, and their son, who was working in Brooklyn, moved back home with his partner. The couple’s mothers, who live in India, also were slated to join them later in the year.
While the family had planned to move to Connecticut to escape the high tax school district where they were living, they’d never thought of buying anything much larger than their 2,400 square-foot-house.
The pandemic convinced them otherwise.
The couple knew they no longer could plan to alternate the mothers’ visits and would need more space.
That’s when they found the house of their dreams. In June, they saw a 5,000 square-foot home in Stamford, Connecticut, with six bedrooms, a cottage and a pool for which they paid less than the smaller Scarsdale home. They said the best part about the house was that it had two bedrooms and two bathrooms on the lower floor so their mothers wouldn’t have to use the stairs.
“It was a place where each person could have their own space and be together to watch TV. The other thing was that they kept each other company and did not feel isolated,” says Shobha Bhatnagar, who co-owns a management consulting firm with her husband. “We were working extra-long hours. They would spend the mornings cooking and feeding us and then watch TV afterwards.”
The rise in multi-generational living can be attributed to racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. population, according to Pew Research. Among Asians living in the U.S., 29% lived in multi-generational family households in 2016, according to census data. Among Hispanics and Blacks, the shares in 2016 were 27% and 26%, respectively. Among whites, 16% lived with multiple generations of family members.
For Shifrin, having her parents at home where she could watch them was a major source of comfort during the pandemic.
“A lot of seniors are suffering depression from isolation because they can’t see their families,” she says. “I was able to make sure that my parents got their vaccinations, and I could drive them without worrying about getting them sick since we were all quarantining together.”
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