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

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When I was a teenager, my parents had a new home specifically built with separate quarters so my grandmother could live with us and still maintain her privacy. For us, it was simply a decision that would allow Grandma to move in—nothing newsworthy at the time.

Nowadays, with our tendency to label trends, sociologists would call my family’s arrangement “multigenerational living,” and Grandma’s special living area would be considered a “mother-in-law suite” or “mother-in-law apartment.” Analysis of census data conducted by Pew Research Center found that 64 million people, or 20 percent of the U.S. population, lived in multigenerational households in 2016.

A growing number of families are embracing this trend as an alternative to independent or assisted living facilities for their aging relatives. In this era of supersizing, some intergenerational living arrangements even involve smaller detached homes on the same property as the family abode.

There are both advantages and disadvantages of multigenerational households for seniors and adult children alike, so this is not an arrangement that should entered into lightly. It’s crucial to do some research and have honest discussions with all family members involved before making a move to a larger home or building an addition for Mom or Dad.

Setting Expectations for a Multigenerational Household

Kathryn Watson, founder of Find Houston Senior Care and author of Help! My Parents Are Aging, says that living with aging parents should only be agreed to after careful thought. Many families are drawn to the premise of helping their parents or in-laws age in place but don’t actually know how to live in a multigenerational home. She encourages families who are considering intergenerational living to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What do you envision sharing a home with your parents would be like?
  • What does your parent envision for this living arrangement?
  • Do your expectations match up, overlap some or differ greatly?

Family expectations can vary widely, so it’s important to ensure everyone is on the same page early on to prevent tension, disagreements and even regrets.

“If Mom is thinking you are all going to have dinner around the table each night and that does not fit into your lifestyle, you both need to be aware of that fact,” Watson urges

Consulting with an objective third party, such as a senior housing advisor or a geriatric care manager (also referred to as an Aging Life Care Professional), is an excellent step for helping everyone think through the whole concept. Even having the third party interview each person separately about their expectations for this new arrangement can be very revealing. If it is determined that living under the same roof might not be the best idea, this third party can then suggest other elder care alternatives.

“Putting all these expectations out on the table can help you work together to decide if this is a viable option and will allow you to find common ground and set boundaries early on,” Watson advises.

Expect the Unexpected

It’s difficult to plan for something one doesn’t fully understand. Most adult children haven’t lived with their parents in many years, aren’t familiar with the challenges their parents face on a daily basis and have never had firsthand caregiving experience. Surprises (usually unpleasant ones) abound when a family moves in together without doing some research and hashing out the details first.

Get a feel for your parents’ current health status and needs. If one or both have medical issues, research them to see if and how their conditions may progress. Living together might be suitable right now, but things can change very quickly for seniors. You don’t want to find out after the move that Mom’s needs are more significant than you had expected or that Dad’s illness will eventually require around-the-clock caregiving.

“Learn all you can about living with and caring for someone who has had a stroke or been diagnosed with a progressive condition like dementia or Parkinson’s disease,” Watson suggests. “Talk to people who have experienced this challenge firsthand to really get a grip on what the future may look like.”

In the same vein, it’s important to use this information to determine how much care and supervision you and your family will be willing and able to provide now and in the future. For many seniors, living with an adult child is akin to being able to avoid long-term care forever. In their minds, paid caregivers and senior living facilities aren’t necessary because their whole care team lives under the same roof or just next door. This is something that MUST be clarified before everyone agrees to this new living arrangement.

“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 needed to provide a higher level of care? Would you be willing to give up vacations and nights out with your spouse? Would your parent be open to hiring in-home caregivers or moving to a senior living community if their needs surpassed your abilities?”

Even if your parents are currently in good health, these are still important factors to consider and discuss. A realistic approach to aging and elder care is crucial for ensuring everyone is in agreement when it comes time to make difficult decisions. Fortunately, adequate preparation can make these choices a little easier.

Put Everything in Writing

Moving everyone to be under one roof and building an addition onto a home sound relatively straightforward, but there are legal and financial implications to think through as well. For example, if you’re purchasing a larger home with your parent(s), how will this asset be titled? How will the mortgage, insurance, maintenance, taxes and utilities be divvied up? If an addition to your current home is necessary, who will pay for it? Some of these decisions may disqualify seniors from Medicaid and other benefits if they are done incorrectly.

Once you’ve decided that living together is a good idea, it’s wise to consult an experienced attorney to work through the details and put everything in writing. You’ll want to get some sort of signed agreement stipulating the terms of the living arrangement, such as contributions to household expenses, payment for care and other services provided, etc. Not only will this ensure that all the details have been seen to and everyone is on the same page, but it will also create an official record describing the nature of these financial transactions that will satisfy Medicaid, should your parent ever need to apply.

Documenting this agreement may also help families avoid spats down the road.

“Even though you and your siblings may be on the same page today, a lot can happen in five or 10 years,” Watson warns. “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 on board and that you make written plans. Get an elder law attorney. You may need to set up some trusts.”


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Practical Considerations for Building a Mother-in-Law Suite

Aaron D. Murphy, architect, Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist and owner of ADM Architecture in Poulsbo, Washington, believes that four main factors should guide the decision-making process:

  1. Property setbacks. How far back is your home set on your property?
  2. Community zoning laws. Will your community allow you to make this addition? Will the addition change your home from a one-family dwelling to 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. Does an addition meet these needs, or would another alternative be a better fit?
  4. Money. Is there enough money to build an addition? Freestanding homes can be expensive, while additions generally cost less. However, both require a substantial investment. How will this construction affect the value and resale potential of the property?

Murphy says that 70 to 80 percent of the people in his area who invest in an add-on unit get about two-thirds of their investment back after a sale. He also stresses the fact that you must take into consideration the years of use this addition will get and the amount of money that may be saved by building it. This involves weighing the potential costs of other long-term care options, which can amount to thousands of dollars in monthly expenses. For example, the Genworth Cost of Care Survey 2020 estimates the median cost of in-home care is $24 per hour, assisted living is $4,300 per month and nursing home care is $7,756 per month ($8,821 for a private room).

No one knows exactly how a parent’s golden years will play out. If you’re fairly confident your elders can live in the unit for quite some time and rely on family or in-home care for assistance, this will at least delay their need for a long-term care facility and result in significant savings.

In-Law Suites Aren’t for Everyone

Each family is different and each has its own dynamics, careers, medical issues and goals to take into consideration when making care decisions for aging members. My family’s decision to have my grandmother live with us worked well, and that time together provided us with many fond memories. She lived with us for seven years until her needs increased and she required around-the-clock nursing care.

Yet, this isn’t the case for all families. My mother didn’t work outside our home, which isn’t as common for families these days. Without someone at home most of the time to provide supervision and assistance, we wouldn’t have been able to keep Grandma with us as long as we did.

In-law apartments or suites work well for many families, and research indicates that a lot of people are giving this arrangement a try. If you’re leaning toward the idea, go into this with your eyes wide open. Base your decision on realistic expectations and careful planning. Know your boundaries and don’t expect everything to go smoothly. Those who don’t do their research or make these preparations tend to regret living with their aging parents/in-laws.

Sources: A record 64 million Americans live in multigenerational households (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/05/a-record-64-million-americans-live-in-multigenerational-households/); Genworth Cost of Care Survey 2020 (https://www.genworth.com/aging-and-you/finances/cost-of-care.html)

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