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Feeling at home again under the same roof

Culture, family, finances fuel multigeneration households

Rosa Licea-Mailloux (with daughter, Josephine) lives in a household of 13 in North Grafton. Besides her husband, Jonathan (left), they are (left to right) cousin Espy Silva, cousin Angie Silva, sister-in-law Maricela Licea, mother, Rosa, aunt Esperanza Silva, brother Gus Licea Jr., cousin Lili Silva, brother Marcos Licea, and father, Gustavo. One family member was missing. Rosa Licea-Mailloux (with daughter, Josephine) lives in a household of 13 in North Grafton. Besides her husband, Jonathan (left), they are (left to right) cousin Espy Silva, cousin Angie Silva, sister-in-law Maricela Licea, mother, Rosa, aunt Esperanza Silva, brother Gus Licea Jr., cousin Lili Silva, brother Marcos Licea, and father, Gustavo. One family member was missing. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / April 23, 2010

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In 2003, members of Rosa Licea-Mailloux’s family bought an eight-bedroom house in North Grafton. Her household now consists of her parents, husband, two brothers, sister-in-law, aunt, uncle, three cousins, and her own 3-year-old daughter.

Living in a multigeneration household is “partly a cultural thing,’’ said Licea-Mailloux, 33, a Boston attorney whose parents emigrated from Mexico in the 1970s. But the built-in advantages — like having help with child care, or being near her parents as they age — also make living in a large familial nest appealing, offsetting a loss of privacy.

The Licea-Mailloux family’s living arrangement is representative of a marked change in how the American family has organized itself over the past three decades, an evolution brought on by what one observer calls “a perfect storm’’ of demographic, cultural, and economic factors.

A report last month from the Pew Research Center found 49 million Americans, or 16 percent of the population, living in multigeneration households as of 2008, compared with only 28 million in 1980, or 12 percent. The surge reverses a sharp decline between 1940 and 1980, when the percentage of Americans living multigenerationally dropped from one-fourth to less than one-eighth.

The most common arrangement? The head of house living with his or her adult child and grandchild, an arrangement shared by 2.2 million Americans, according to an AARP poll that echoes the trend. An additional 1 million occupy households where the head of house belongs to the so-called sandwich generation, living with both a parent and child in the house.

Both studies offer a variety of reasons for families opting to move in — or back in — together in large numbers, among them a tough job market and rash of home foreclosures, along with the cultural influence in immigrant communities, and a desire to share the care of family members.

“The difference between this boom we’re seeing now and the postwar model is, back then it was almost automatic that grandparents moved in with adult children,’’ said Amy Goyer, who blogs on intergenerational issues for the AARP. “Once people got more mobile, this was much less of a given, though.’’ Today, Goyer said, family members increasingly rely on one another for support, whether it’s because more grandparents have seen their savings shrink during the recession or because more mothers work outside the home and need assistance with child care. “I’ve been hearing both enthusiasm and reluctance’’ from family members who are regrouping this way, she said, “but most focus on the positive side.’’

Even the White House has become a three-generation household, noted Goyer, with President Obama’s mother-in-law moving in last year.

Jane McMahon wasn’t necessarily thinking big picture when she sold her Springfield house in the mid-’90s and moved to Eastham. McMahon, 68, bought a small, two-bedroom Cape cottage, mostly to be near her three adult children. Suffering from a slow-progress form of muscular dystrophy, however, McMahon knew she could not take living independently for granted as the years rolled by and her disability worsened.

Her son moved in with McMahon not long after, followed by her future daughter-in-law. The high cost of rentals had priced them out of the local housing market and, she said, “they said they’d take care of me if I could give them more space and privacy, so that’s what we did.’’

Five years ago the cottage was torn down and replaced by a two family home that accommodates both McMahon’s physical needs and the couple’s desire for privacy. Last summer McMahon welcomed a granddaughter into the household.

“Now I have assisted living at its best, and they have their own two-story house,’’ McMahon said. “This is the way it used to be’’ — with older, more experienced mothers lending advice to first-time parents. Though unable to handle some child care duties, McMahon helps with laundry, bill paying, and other chores. Having a granddaughter around 24/7, she said, is “the best pain medicine I’ve ever had.’’

Returning closer to family is often the primary concern, said Joann Montepare, director of Lasell College’s Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies.

“People want that multilayered piece to their lives,’’ she said. “They’ve lived a distance from their parents; now they have kids of their own and want to live closer.’’

While living with an older parent or two can be challenging, she said, “people are also more open to the benefits of living intergenerationally, and in a rich way.’’

For Debbie Sheehan and her mother, Jan Liehe, it’s taken a concerted effort to face the rougher sides of multigeneration living to make the arrangement go smoothly. Sheehan, 39, lives in a four-bedroom Somerville house with her husband and two young daughters. Liehe, 71, retired from working and left her Ohio home four years ago, intending to help Sheehan with first-time motherhood.

Sheehan anticipated her mother staying around for a few weeks. But a combination of financial need — Social Security checks are Liehe’s sole income — and generational bonding has turned a few weeks into four years.

“The first few months were the honeymoon period, then we went through struggles and tensions,’’ Sheehan recalled. “In terms of privacy, it’s hard enough adjusting to having a spouse around. With a parent, though, there’s always that duality of being a child and a parent at the same time.’’

It took multiple family meetings for roles and responsibilities to become clear, both women said. “We knew we had to deal with this, or one of us would have to move out,’’ Sheehan admitted.

Said Liehe: “I’m very independent and always have been. To slowly lose that has been a challenge. But we’re working it out. And some day I’m sure the kids would love to have their house back.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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