Has the concept of single-generation households being the preferred option run its course? More and more people are beginning to feel strongly that it has. We may be seeing a significant reversal in the trend of how people choose to live, fueled by factors like COVID-19 lockdowns and a rapid increase in the cost of living.
It wasn't that long ago that multigenerational living was commonplace in the United States. The idea of two to three generations living under one roof was more or less the norm before the implementation of Social Security. Factors like increased longevity and modern retirement communities also have helped to move society away from the concept of multigenerational living. However, we may now be seeing a reversal of a trend that has been in place for decades. According to Generations United, the number of multigenerational households in the United States has increased by 10% since 2007. A total of 51.4 million Americans are currently living in multigenerational households. We can only expect this trend to continue as families deal with increased financial pressures brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. Experts estimate that one if five adults in the United States either moved or knows someone who has moved as a result of the pandemic.
It's true that many people who find themselves in multigenerational living situations unexpectedly are often initially forced into these arrangements due to financial hardships. However, this may be a case of a less-than-ideal situation resulting in a positive outcome. There are many financial and social benefits of multigenerational living. For older adults, living with family often means enjoying companionship while reducing living expenses. Also, in-house companionship can potentially help to reduce a person's long-term care costs. Here are some of the benefits tied to multigenerational living:
Of course, the most obvious benefit for older adults living in multigenerational households is that this setup helps avoid the very real ramifications of isolation and loneliness during retirement. Currently, about 36 million Americans live alone. That means that 28% of all households in the United States are single-person households. One shouldn't necessarily assume that every person who lives alone is lonely by default. However, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the ways that those who live alone face increased isolation. What's more, older adults who don't drive or have access to reliable public transportation may not be able to see others regularly.
This is the question that gets to the heart of the matter. There is what can be described as an unseen epidemic of loneliness among senior citizens in the United States. This is ultimately a physical and mental health crisis once you understand the strong links between loneliness and wellness. Research shows that social isolation among the elderly is linked with increased risks for high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer's disease and mortality. We also know that loneliness is a serious concern for older Americans. They see sudden life changes stemming from retirement, the death of a spouse, distance from friends and family or loss of mobility.
The good news is that aging isn't automatically linked with loneliness. There are many ways to combat the risks associated with loneliness by creating opportunities for meaningful, productive activities. Studies also show that older adults who stay engaged can improve cognitive function. The evidence makes it seem entirely possible that the current social setup for the way "retirement" is handled in the United States could be setting up senior citizens for poor mental health.
According to research done by Dr. Elana Portacolone, there are specific worries among older adults that tend to fuel the “isolation” crisis. Many older adults fear that they will be forced to move from their homes and lose their independence if family members notice a cognitive decline. As a result, many seniors use self-isolation tactics to avoid being “found out” by their families. What's more, they often go without the care that's needed as a way to avoid being forced into a full-time care setting.
“The primary takeaway from this research is that interventions to increase older adults’ social integration should address their behaviors and their overall surroundings. We need to concentrate our attention on the influence of social policies, institutions and ideologies on isolated older adults' everyday experience," says Dr. Portacolone. This sentiment gets to the heart of why multigenerational living is potentially so beneficial. Being integrated into the home life of an extended family can provide an older adult with the confidence to seek the care they need without the fear of losing independence.
Yes, it can be easy to focus on how older adults can benefit from multigenerational living. However, this certainly isn't a situation where the oldest family members reap all of the benefits. Younger generations benefit from the knowledge, wisdom and practical help of the older adults in the household. Older adults may also be able to provide financial support to younger members of the family. Also, older adults can assist with tasks like cooking, home-based education, child care and much more. This is why it's so important to reframe the narrative from looking at multigenerational living as a "last result" to viewing it as an option for creating increased social support for household members of all ages!
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