Intergenerational Living: The Ins and Outs of In-law Suites


When I was a teen, my parents had a home specifically built so that my grandmother could live with us and still maintain her privacy. For us, it was simply a move so that Grandma could move in, nothing newsworthy at the time.

Nowadays, with our current tendency to follow trends and label them, sociologists would call what my family did decades ago "intergenerational living," and Grandma's special living area would be considered an "in-law suite." In this era of supersizing, some intergenerational living arrangements even involve detached smaller homes on the same lot as the family abode.

Intergenerational living can offer pluses for many families, but it's not a situation that people should consider entering into without doing their due diligence, first.

Think before you move in together

Kathryn Watson, Founder of Find Houston Senior Care, and author of "Help! My Parents Are Aging," says that these arrangements should be entered into only after careful thought.

Watson says that you should ask yourself, "What is your vision of what moving your parents into your home apartment would look like? Does it match their vision? If mom is thinking you are all going to have dinner around the table and that does not fit into your lifestyle, you need to both be aware of that."

Watson suggests consulting with an outside party as a way to help everyone think through the whole concept, even to the point of having the third party interview each person separately about his or her expectations of a proposed new household arrangement. (Learn how to Prepare Your Family for Your Parent to Move In)

"Knowing what each other is expecting can help you work together to find common ground and set boundaries," Watson says.

Watson also says we must expect the unexpected. "Learn all you can about living with someone who has had a stroke, dementia or Parkinson's disease. Talk to people who have experienced this challenge."

Watson also strongly maintains that people should consider their siblings. "If you are planning to use your parents' money to pay for this extra addition on the home, you need to make sure everyone is in agreement and that you make written plans. Get an elder law attorney. You may need to set up some trusts. Even though you and your siblings may be on the same page today, a lot can happen in five or 10 years."

"Know what you would be willing to do and not do," Watson adds. "Are you willing to be the transportation provider for an elderly parent who can no longer drive? Would you be willing to quit your job if you were needed for caregiving duties? Would you be willing to give up vacations and nights out with your spouse?"

Watson is emphatic when she says, "Good intentions are just that—good intentions. A mother-in-law suite may be the perfect solution and a great option for your family but make sure you go in with your eyes wide open." (Read more: Living with Aging Parents: Do You Regret the Decision?)

What are the practical considerations?

Architect Aaron D. Murphy, owner of ADM Architecture in Poulsbo, WA, took time to chat with me about some of the physical requirements of providing additional living space so that a parent can move in with their adult children.

Murphy said that four things should guide decisions:

  1. Property setbacks: How far back is your home set on your property?
  2. Community zoning: Will your community allow you to make this addition or will the addition be considered a two-family dwelling, something which your home zoning may not allow?
  3. Personal lifestyle: Families must consider and understand everyone's needs for privacy vs. interaction and convenience.
  4. Money: Is there enough money to make a change? Freestanding homes can be expensive, while additions generally cost less, but both require a substantial investment.

Murphy said that around 70 to 80 percent of the people who invest in a unit get about 2/3 of their invested money back after a sale, at least in his area. He stresses the fact that you must take into consideration the years of use and the money saved by making the changes. This involves the cost of nursing home or in-home care. If your elders can live in the unit for many years, you'll obviously save significant money in nursing home costs or in-home care, especially if you can provide your parents' hands-on care as their needs increase.

The main point is, once again, to think things through. Whether because of cost or compatibility, there will be trade-offs. Don't jump in too quickly.

Been there done that

Tony Rovere, who has developed a blog called, says he became an unprepared caregiver after his mother's heart attack changed their lives.

"I had moved in with my mother to watch over her as her health declined," Rovere said, "but was forced, due to a job transfer, to move away.

"Neither my brother nor I were ready to have ‘the talk' with mom about her needing to go to a facility, so moving our mother into my brother's basement apartment seemed like the only choice we had. Once the decision was made, we then needed to make the apartment handicapped accessible for her. We installed grab bars in the bathroom, a shower bench to enable her to slide in and out of the shower on the bench and a raised toilet seat so she didn't have to stoop so low going onto the toilet, among other things.

"As it turned out, Mom wasn't happy with the situation and neither were my brother and I. But at the time we didn't know where to turn, nor did we have any idea about the resources that are available to people in our situation.

"My brother confided in me his fears that he would one day come home to find our mother dead on her couch from a heart attack."

Sadly, that's what happened. The brothers made the move out of love but didn't have a support system in place and hadn't thought through all of the possible scenarios.

"In hindsight, we aren't happy with the decision we made," Rovere said.

In-law suites are wonderful for some, bad for others

As with everything to do with elder care, we all have differing situations. My family's decision worked well, but then there was nearly always someone home with my grandmother. She lived with us for seven years until she needed around-the-clock nursing care. Those years provided good memories for my family.

Yet this isn't the case for all families. My mother didn't work outside our home, something that isn't the case for most families today. Without someone home most of the time, we couldn't have kept Grandma with us so long.

In-law apartments or suites work well for many families. At least the numbers indicate that a lot of people are giving it a try. If you're leaning toward the idea, take the advice of Kathryn Watson and go into this with your eyes wide open. Base your decision on realistic expectations, know your boundaries and don't expect everything to go smoothly.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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There is so much to take into consideration when changing the footprint of one's home, especially since an in-law suite would need to be on the main level, not multi-level like building a two story addition.

The cost of an addition can be quite expensive depending on where someone lives. In my area, it could be up over $40k. Plus an added yearly cost on one's real estate tax. Higher electric, water, and gas bills.

And later down the road, the re-sale value of a home with an in-law suite, because now that home could become to most expensive in the neighborhood because of the added square footage.

Lot to think about. But worth it if the some can be used generation after generation.
We cared for my dad 5 years in his home (with my daily 6 hour visits), and almost 4 years in our home (until his death by dementia). His only request had been not to be placed anywhere but with family. It was Hard, but worth everything we endured. At the same time, we know what we would have done differently, etc. Now that my MIL has been diagnosed, and is need of care, it was accepted by all that we would be her caregivers. She hadn't seen or even heard from her other children in 2 years, and they were not interested in helping, especially being 1000+ miles away. She only has enough funds to live in assisted living for 4, 5 years max, after which she'd be moved to a medicaid nursing home, (something she's said she never wanted). She's in Good physical health, and her mom lived with this disease for over 10 years, so we are trying to prepare for her potentially long-term care. Our solution was to build a small in law home on our property, care for her every need, investing funds (my husband's experienced), and hire what we cannot provide, eventually. Our plan takes her to her end of life, comfortably. Mom was fine with this, until my husband shared his idea with his siblings. To his face, they both said "go for it", however behind his back, they call mom, accusing my husband of "stealing, taking advantage, wanting to leave her homeless while we raise the value on our home", etc. She's so confused (can no longer figure out finances or cook, etc), and now she's forgotten the fact that we've been here for her for almost 15 years. We'd love to keep her in her home, yet 45 min away, its gotten to the point where she needs care, she won't accept "strangers" in, just wants her son to keep going there to help her log into her computer, etc. She's already fallen prey to scams, giving away thousands, and now has invited a man she met online to come stay with her, and "go over her legal documents with her, helping her" (because she no longer knows she can trust my husband who has been her POA for 12 years). Yet she can't remember not to turn her heat on in 85° weather. My dad was exhausting, however I am thankful MY supported me in his care.
*MY siblings