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When Mom Moves In: Creating Boundaries and Expectations

Elizabeth Pope
March 28, 2018

Multi-generational households are on the rise in the U.S. Learn how families are addressing the change in home dynamics.

The decision to move a parent into your household can follow a crisis. Maybe mom had a stroke and you've got the biggest house. Or a move can follow months of discussion about dad's failing health or shaky finances.

Either way, experts say combining households affects every member of today's Sandwich Generation from toddlers to great-grandparents. Pre-planning, clear boundaries and open communication can help preserve harmony even under difficult circumstances.

Last year, Lorin Anderson's* mother-in-law lost her job and could no longer afford her suburban Chicago condo. The younger couple argued for six months that moving into their spacious Vernon Hills, Ill., home was her only option. "The move was 100 percent against her will, but she finally realized she had no choice," recalls Anderson, the mother of three young children.

Anderson expected her healthy 75-year-old mother-in-law to help with the children, then ages one, two and four years old, but that didn't work out. "Even though she loves them, she isn't a hands-on grandma," says Anderson.

Five months later, to everyone's relief, her mother-in-law moved into senior subsidized housing. Looking back, Anderson admits to feeling stressed and resentful: "Even though my husband was super-supportive, I felt I had a fourth child who made no contribution to the household." Anderson's weekly soccer game was her only mental and physical escape valve.

Multi-Generational Households on the Rise

Like the Andersons, other families find expensive housing costs, a struggling economy and an aging population are pushing them to join forces across generations. A recent AARP study shows the number of multi-generational households has jumped from 6.2 million to 7.1 million in the last two years -- a faster growth rate than the previous eight years combined.

The move can bring rewards as well as stresses. Besides saving money and keeping an aging loved one safe, many families say a blended household forges closer bonds between the generations. Children will always remember Grandma baking cookies for them and attending school plays.

But joining a younger household can be an emotionally-laden role reversal for the senior, says Jody Gastfriend, vice president of Care Management at Care.com and LICSW (Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker). "Even in the midst of a loving family, an aging parent may feel a real sense of loss of independence and autonomy," she says. That sense of loss may crop up in odd ways, such as resistance or controlling behavior around food or housekeeping routines."

Expectations and Communication

Moving a parent in with you changes the family dynamic and requires planning ahead and honest communication about ground rules and boundaries, says David Horgan, co-author of "When Your Parent Moves In". "You can't treat an elder like a house guest, always putting on 'company manners'," Horgan says. "At the same time, you've got to preserve the core family's unity while not making your parent feel useless or invisible. It's a delicate balancing act, but have those hard conversations as soon as problems arise." Ex: "Mom, sorry but we're not having sit-down dinners every night."

Horgan, whose late mother-in-law lived with his family for six years, says many adult children expect Grandma will be a live-in babysitter -- only later realizing she needs care as her health declines. "If your parent has any medical or mental conditions, talk to doctors, visit local care facilities and find out everything you can about the prognosis of the disease," he says. Before making the big move, consider moving in with your parent for a week or two to make sure you can manage his or her care on your own.

Getting the Help You Need

Home health care aides can help relieve over-taxed caregivers, but some aging parents resist outside help, warns Gastfriend. "Your mother may resist having a home health aide so you can go shopping" she says. "Parents have the right to make bad decisions, but we don't have to enable them. Be careful about sacrificing your own needs, because that often leads to resentment and burnout." Family caregivers should also beware making a frail elder the focus of attention, ignoring a spouse or children.

Blended households may require an attorney's assistance to anticipate problems, mediate family disputes and prepare written agreements, particularly when money is involved, says elder law expert Harry Margolis. "If Mom's money is used to compensate the caregiver or build an addition or even buy a bigger house, that can lead to a lot of suspicion and resentment later on," he says. In those cases families should get legal advice to avoid disagreements over final estate settlement, he adds. And an elder care lawyer can also help protect a parent's assets and preserve eligibility for Medicaid coverage of nursing home costs in the event of long, debilitating illness.

Despite the ups and downs, welcoming an aging loved one into your home can have unexpected benefits. These days Lorin Anderson's mother-in-law is thrilled with her new senior housing apartment and can't thank the young couple enough for sheltering her. "For the first time she sees that we were always looking out for her best interests," says Anderson. "Now she even offers to babysit."

*Note: Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Comments
Leigh in Ocala, FL
July 15, 2017

My husband and I decided to move in and care for his mom after her live in caregiver wasn't working out. She lived with her for 2 1/2 years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's and Dementia. We thought things would be easier for her if she stayed in her home and the changes were as minimal as we could make them. I am on summer break from my job as an ESE assistant at a public school. I'm feeling trapped almost 24/7 because my sister-in-law offers very minimal help. She is aware how exhausting it is for me since she spent about a week with her prior to us moving in. My husband and I are a team. I told him I'd do what needs to be done in order to keep her out of a home until he thinks it's time. I'm even considering taking a leave from my job so she gets the consistent care she's had since We moved in. We don't know much about diseases or the best way to get information needed to handle situation properly. She manages nightly trips to bathroom and back to bed on her own most of the time. Every morning she finds her way to her favorite chair in living room, turns her lamp on, and looks at word search books until I bring her meds. That makes us wonder why it's so hard to go from her favorite chair to bathroom and back when she knows we're awake and around. She's always asking where bathroom and chair are and even how to get out of bathroom. We're wondering if it's for attention or normal behavior. We're trying our best but any advice would be greatly appreciated. A good book to read, support group, etc. Thank you.

User
April 7, 2015

Need only part time care for a spouse who has mild balance problems and is beginning to suffer short term memory lass. Just need a chance to get out on my own at least once a week. He strongly objects to the idea of needing a \

User
Oct. 23, 2014

Hi My mom just recently passed away and now that leave my Dad. He is 77 and in excellent shape and health (for now). I promised my mom about a year ago that when she passed (she has been sick for awhile) that we (my husband and I) would take care of him. My dad can not afford to live alone. I have offered to have him live with us in another province and he has taken us up on this. We have bought a new home (not built yet) and he will be moving in once the home has been built (May 2015). My anxiety has skyrocketed because he is a bit difficult to deal with, he gets extremely defensive quickly. For example: We have a place in Florida and I said to him that I wanted to make sure that we were all on the same page and if my husband and I want to go to Florida alone he shouldn't get upset, his comment back was I haven't 100% decided if I am going to move in with you. Its him being defensive. I guess what I am wondering is how the heck am I to deal with this diplomatically. I'm scared that he is going to blow a gaskit because I have said the wrong thing and trust me I will say and do the wrong thing. I get a bit upset because this is our new home and I just want to live in peace. I needs some words of wisdom from someone already in that boat that can steer me in the right direction. Thanks for your time.

User
June 2, 2014

Dotty, my grandmother suffered a stroke which affected her mobility a little, but the worst result was terrible confusion-therefore my mom was faced with the same decision of whether to provide or to locate around the clock care. My mom, who is an only child (as is my dad, and myself as well) said the same thing about not sacrificing her lifestyle too much to grandma's physician and I'll never forget what he told her...as a matter of fact, I've used it several times in family counseling as I am a minister. He said \

User
May 28, 2014

We are in the midst of having my mother (85) move in with us...this after my dad passed away last year. She can not maintain a home and is extremely lonely. She has lost about 40 pounds and at this point can not afford to lose anymore weight. She livd through the depression/war and has never adjusted to the fact that she no longer needs to save every single thing. She does not waste anything...not even water...we live differently. I throw away dirty bags, tinfoil, containers and she is having a hard time with this. I don't want to upset her but I don't want to save every bit of water I use to boil vegetables, etc., every twist tie, every clip, every tinfoil. I hate clutter on my countertops and she has a bad habit of putting things on the empty space that have a special place to go. This will be an adjustment for her and us to get used to each others life styles but I'm hoping in the end...she is happy, comforted by our love and that we can all co-exist without me sacrificing my lifestyle too much. I would appreciate any comments from people that may have experienced anything like this.

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