How to live with your family and your parents in the same house



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My husband and I are members of the sandwich generation; we live under the same roof as our schoolage children and my aging parents. Three boisterous kids, two working adults, two active seniors and two ridiculously large dogs head in different directions yet still eat at, or under, the same dinner table every night.

When the conversation first began, my family was separated from my parents by several provinces. My husband and I worried what we would do if they had a health crisis. Who would take time off work? Who would look after our young children? How would we manage financially if we had to provide long-term care and support? After discussing many options we decided to invite my parents to live with us. Thus, began a dialogue between the four of us that lasted two years, with all four adults agreeing that a good result started with open communication.

My parents were healthy and capable but when they decided they were ready to move in with us we had already determined we could not put an addition on our existing home, a basement apartment was not an option and a home suited to the tastes of both couples was not available in our neighbourhood. However, our finances were in order and a knowledgeable realtor had been chosen.

My brother and his wife were part of the discussions, and we talked to our kids about the pros and cons of Bampy and Grammy moving in. With minimal frustration, we sold both family homes and purchased a new home with an attached in-law suite. My parents’ apartment is attached to our home by French doors that open into our dining area. These doors are left open most of the time, but if someone chooses to close them no one takes it personally.

We learned the hard way that communication is the key to solving issues when I was working on a writing deadline and failed to devote time to yard work. My mother and father missed the gardens they had left behind, saw I needed help, and took over. At first I felt guilty, because I didn’t want them to feel obligated to do the work, so I asked them to stop. After some honest conversation we realized that my parents are more than tenants and are happy to help out with outside chores when they feel physically fit and when they have time. They are contributing to the partnership, while my husband and I earn money to maintain it – more or less distributing responsibilities equally among all parties. Here’s what we’ve learned:

Discuss money. Be honest and remain emotionally detached. Talk about parents paying monthly rent or making a lump sum contribution.

Think long-term. Don’t take on a mortgage you can’t handle if your parents are no longer living with you, unless you are prepared to sell your retrofitted home and move back to a smaller property, or rent an attached apartment to strangers.

Be creative. You may decide to remortgage your home and turn an unused basement into an apartment for mom or dad; shop around for a mortgage that allows for flexible payments without penalty. If your parents are paying rent, take the monthly rent money and immediately put it back into your mortgage.

Create privacy. Good fences make good neighbours; in the case of intergenerational living, closed doors will suffice. Physical boundaries need to be established early on.

Savour each day.
Appreciate the time you have with your parents. Plan as best you can for the future, but try not to waste time worrying about it. Unless you have a crystal ball there is no way to predict if one parent will outlive the other, or if your parents will eventually require your full-time care. Now is the perfect time to make friends with your parents – squeeze every memory you can out of the time you share.

How do we know we made the right decision with my parents? Each morning our youngest son greets my father with, “Happy new day, Bampy.” My father then replies, “Happy new day, Caden.” And we give thanks for the gift of being sandwiched in between.

Don’t forget the details

Pat M. Irwin, president of ElderCareCanada.ca, offers advice on housing and care options for the elderly. “When your parents move in with you, it’s not parenting,” she says. “They are adults, not toddlers. The successful relationship is a partnership.”

She offers the following tips to help families prepare for the big transition when moving mom or dad in:

Choose your team

  • Your family and extended family – their support and willingness to participate in the project is key.
  • The family doctor and specialists – if relocating to a different city, finding physicians can be a challenge
  • Contacts in social services, community care and private care to help prepare for changes, provide support and activities such as day programs or friendly visiting.
  • If required, an architect to design the space and a contractor to implement the construction.
  • Information on vendors of special equipment such as stair lifts.
  • A sympathetic bank manager.

Do the math

  • Obtain any necessary financing commitments in advance by way of a loan, line of credit or second mortgage.
  • Investigate property tax credits, grants such as CMHC’s Home Adaptations for Seniors or Residential Rehabilitation Assistance programs (visit www.gc.ca), senior supplements such as GAINS, and veterans funds.

Write it down

  • Research all bylaws, codes, permits, estimates, warranties and guarantees.
  • Document position descriptions and employment agreements for caregivers.
  • Clearly document the parent’s contribution to renovation costs and/or ownership of the property, especially when property is held jointly. Remember that this renovation will increase the property’s value.
  • Provide your siblings with clear documentation of the costs incurred and your expectations for their support in terms of time and funds.
  • Make alternate plans in the event you, or your spouse are relocated, or decide to move.
  • Decide what your parents should contribute to ongoing maintenance.
  • Negotiate house rules when space is shared to cover smoking, noise, pets and entertaining.
  • Make sure there is an ‘escape clause’ if things just don’t work out, or in case of major life changes.

Keep in touch

Remember that your parent’s needs will change, especially due to illness or the health of a spouse. Be honest about care; if it becomes too heavy, maybe going to an accredited facility is best to provide what’s needed, rather than struggling at home. Be sure your parent has independent assessments at regular intervals, to notice what you might miss when you see them every day.

Vicki L. Morrison is an Ottawa-based writer and mother of three kids under nine. Her family is adjusting to their new arrangement.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2012.

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