More Americans Are Moving Back Home

Amanda Gentle and millions like her are proving Thomas Wolfe wrong. You can go home again.

Like so many other Americans, Amanda was hit hard as the financial dominoes fell in 2008. The value of her house dropped while property taxes soared. When she was laid off from her job, she could no longer keep up. The bank eventually foreclosed on her Indianapolis home. So, at age 35, Amanda did what numerous other 20- and 30-somethings are doing: She moved back in with her parents.

"It was difficult," she readily admits. "I had a successful career, and I went from being on my own, in a good place, to basically starting over."

Amanda is not alone. About 8.7 million young adults ages 25 to 34 became part of multigenerational households in 2009, a 13 million increase from 2007. Now, more than one in five young adults lives in a multigenerational household. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of multi-gen households grew about 30 percent during the past decade. And a Pew Research Center report found that 51 million Americans lived in homes of two or more adult generations in 2009, compared with 42 million in 2000. That's a 21 percent increase in less than a decade, but more importantly it reflects a turning back to what used to be, well, normal.

"We had a 50-year experiment of thinking of families as two parents and two kids," Together Again co-author John Graham says. "What's happening right now is that the 50-year nuclear family experiment is ending."

In fact, according to Graham, the nuclear family concept wasn't ever that terrific in the first place: "We're not designed to live that way. We're designed to thrive in extended family units."

And it's not just the young who are coming home to roost. Many elderly parents of boomers are moving in with their children as well. When Hurricane Irene raked the Eastern Seaboard this past summer, 79-year-old Lois Bechtel grew uneasy as the winds increased and the rain pounded her Stamford, Connecticut, home. Instead of weathering the storm alone, the retired executive secretary describes how she dashed a few steps into the adjoining house to be with her daughter's family, safe and secure. "If I lived on my own, I'd be by myself in storms or other emergencies," Lois says. "Now I know that if I get sick, they're close by. It's a comfort."

"Having grandparents around provides a richness and a deeper dimension to children's lives," says Nancy K. Schlossberg, author of Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose. "When grandparents are living in the house, the grandchildren will hear and know things about the family that they wouldn't have if they lived hundreds of miles away."

Lois lives in an attached "in-law apartment" that allows her privacy when she wishes. According to a 2010 Coldwell Banker trend survey, homebuilders are on the multi-gen bandwagon, incorporating in-law apartments and adding other features for extended family members, such as separate entries, multiple kitchens and second master bedrooms.

When moving in together, family members should figure out what kind of space and other physical accommodations need to be made. In one family, a laundry room was moved to the first floor so a grandmother wouldn't have to walk up and down stairs and stress her achy knees. Other families may need to install stand-up showers or grab bars in the bathroom and switch hard-to-twist doorknobs for lever handles.

Prior to her move-in this past January, Amanda and her parents sat down in the living room and discussed expectations, including chores, financial responsibilities and how long she would stay. This could have turned into an ugly high school flashback. Instead, having new structure in her life was soothing. "After all the stress of being laid off and losing my house, it was very comforting to be with my family," she says. "I'm used to being very self-sufficient and independent, but it was nice to take a deep breath for a moment and get back on my feet."

Money is often the trickiest consideration. As a guiding principle, each household member should contribute according to ability. "If you can't contribute financially to the household, cut the lawn, do the dishes, or fix meals," says Schlossberg.

Best to work the finances out beforehand. When Cathy Tankana, 66, retired and moved from Hawaii to California to live with her son, daughter-in-law and their two daughters, she used her savings to contribute to the down payment on her son's home. They agreed in advance to divide all costs, from mortgage payments to utilities 75-25 (where Cathy pays the 25 percent share). She also helps out by baby-sitting a few times a month. And they agreed to share in preparing and eating meals together several days a week.

It's all about planning. "Like having roommates when you were in college, you have to figure out how to live together," Together Again co-author Sharon Graham Niederhaus says. "You have to be aware and handle conflict, ideally before it occurs."

On the positive side, there are plenty of special moments -- connections across the divide of generations -- that will never be forgotten. Cathy relates the story of her youngest granddaughter, Leighton, being briefly hospitalized this past winter. "I told my son and daughter-in-law not to worry," says Tankana, who volunteered to pick up her older granddaughter, Skylar, from school. "When I got there, I explained to Skylar that her sister was in the hospital, but she was going to be fine, and that today it was going to be 'just you and me.'"

Written by Doug Donaldson for The Saturday Evening Post.