Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Personal Perspective on the Multi-generational Family

The March 28 Into Practice bulletin included an item on a recent Pew study on the growth in the number of live-in extended families (The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household). Reading it, I was brought back to my own family experience. Growing up in the late '60s and '70s, my family was part of the 27% who lived in a multigenerational home. We had my great aunt, my grandparents, my parents, and my four siblings living in our home in southwestern Pennsylvania. The house often felt very crowded, there were challenges getting along, and there were times I longed to be an only child, but most of the time, I enjoyed the experience of having different perspectives and viewpoints on the world.

My maternal great aunt lived in our home off and on throughout my entire childhood. She was an independent woman with very strong views, which she expressed at any opportunity. She and my mother shared this character trait and tended to be on opposite ends of most topics; this made for interesting conversations in which I readily participated. As I interacted with my peers in school, I realized early on that I had a very different view of the world than they did. I remember comparing my perspective on the political scene, government in general, human rights and environmentalism to the perspectives, or lack thereof, of my peers. After all, how many nine-year-olds wanted to discuss the political wrangling happening in DC or the impact of industry on the health of our planet? These are the kinds of discussion I had with my great aunt, a conservative republican and my mom, a moderate democrat. Even at nine, I was a proud liberal democrat. I owe my political activism, then and now, to my mother and great aunt and the conversations we had.

My grandparents moved in when they began having health problems. They needed support to take care of their basic needs in this last chapter of their lives. I was very aware that my grandparents were dying and they came to our house to be with family and to be taken care of. As my grandparents moved along this last journey, I participated in their lives; I listened to their stories about their lives and I told them what was going on in my life. These were challenging times and they certainly helped shape my life. My interactions with my grandparents further separated my experiences from my peers. I understood very early that life is finite. This led me to analyze risks in a way that was very different from my peers. My friends would often say things like 'you only live once' and I would reply 'yes and it is up to us to make sure we have lived well.' I certainly took my share of risks, especially in adolescence, but they were not impulsive risks but rather calculated risks.

I know my great aunt and grandparents experienced both the benefits and challenges of living in a multigenerational family. The study mentions some of the benefits of multigenerational homes, especially for older adults. But I feel compelled to emphasize the benefits young people can experience in the multigenerational household. Some of the benefits I value from my multigenerational household experience include an active involvement in politics and social justice. I am comfortable with entire human life span, including the aging and the death process, which I experienced as a gift to be shared. I have a tendency to think about history and look to history to apply lessons to current situations; this comes from that story telling of lives past. There was a lot of adult/youth interaction and a lot of family time. While I struggled making valuable adult connections in my community, I knew I had them in my family.

Our society is moving back to a way of living in the world together that used to be the norm and it is important that we as service providers understand the special impact the multi-generational lifestyle has on the entire family. There are any number of ways we can help families adjust to the multigenerational household so they can benefit from the experience. Many families will struggle with this adjustment without support, especially if the move towards a multigenerational household is due to economic issues, legal or custody issues, or other stressful circumstances. Families may need help dealing with the circumstances that led to them becoming a multigenerational household. Families will need to establish boundaries, particularly around income and budgeting, parenting, and household expectations. They may need to gain an understanding of the different ways the generations think, perceive the world, and communicate. At the very least, we need to help families navigate the tricky task of keeping the peace while meeting their needs. These are interesting times.

~ Cindy Carraway-Wilson

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