Moving in together

Michele Knife Sterner knew the questions and comments she’d hear before her family had even finished unpacking their boxes.

“You’re moving in with your parents? Why?”

“I could never do that. You’re crazy.”

“Your poor parents. They just can’t get rid of you.”

The chorus of naysayers, however, couldn’t prevent Sterner and her family — including her husband, Oak, and their daughter, Kaziah, 8, and son, Felix, 4 — from joining households with her parents in Marshall.

This spring, the nuclear family of four became a multigenerational family of six.

“Living with your parents gets a bad rap — and I think that’s sad,” Sterner said. “I wish more people would see the value of being with their family.”


Living together is back

Americans didn’t always look down on multigenerational households.

At the start of the 20th century, a whopping 57 percent of people ages 65 and older lived in homes with their children, grandchildren or other family members, according to a report from the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit research organization. 

During the Great Depression and throughout World War II, it was normal for families to live together to make ends meet and support each other through tough times.

Then came a period of abundance and independence in American history. By 1990, just 17 percent of older Americans were living in multigenerational households. 

During that time, living separately from extended family members became a sign of financial success and independence, said Sterner, an associate director in the Academic and Diversity Resources Department at Southwest Minnesota State University.

“But we’ve lost our culture — and some of our values — because of this distancing from our relatives,” Sterner said. “People feel alone. They feel separated.”

That trend has been reversing, however.

Longer life expectancies, rising health care costs, a rise in immigration, couples marrying later, Baby Boomers retiring in droves and the lasting effects of the economic downturn have all been citied by researchers as factors. 

Boomerang kids — college students who return to live with their parents instead of setting up their own households after graduation — are another part of the uptick.

According to a Pew report, the number of Americans living in multigenerational households had been increasing by about 2 percent a year from 1980 to 2006. But, in 2007, multigenerational housing surged dramatically along with the Great Recession.

“Without public debate or fanfare, large numbers of Americans enacted their own anti-poverty program in the depths of the Great Recession: They moved in with relatives,” a 2011 Pew report said. “This helped fuel the largest increase in the number of Americans living in multigenerational households in modern history.”

By 2009, the number of Americans living in multigenerational households spiked to more than 51 million, including 20 percent of Americans ages 65 and older.

Susie Dickson reads to her grandchildren, Tatum (left) and Brax, in the family's multigenerational home in Harwood, N.D. Photo by Quinn Iwen


Emotional bonding

But the economy is only part of the picture. Stories behind the families who embrace the multigenerational lifestyle are as individualized as the family members themselves.

And the benefits of living together go far beyond financial, said Quinn Iwen.

Iwen had always been close with her mother, Susie Dickson. But after Dickson went through divorce, she needed help finding her footing — and Iwen was right there to help. Iwen, at the suggestion of her husband, Chad, invited Dickson to live with them.

It was a gesture that still brings Dickson to tears. She was thrilled, but a bit tentative, at first.

“I felt, and feel, blessed,” Dickson said. “I’ve always been close to my kids, but I didn’t want this to ruin that special relationship.

“Just the opposite has happened. We have really made this work.”

Dickson moved in when Iwen and her husband were expecting their first child, Tatum, in 2010. Since then, they’ve welcomed their son, Brax. When it came time to build a new home north of Fargo in Harwood, N.D., they made room for Dickson, too. She has her own bedroom, bathroom and living space.

Today the family is going strong. In fact, they get along so well they even take vacations together. Every year, they rent a two-bedroom cabin on Floyd Lake north of Detroit Lakes.

Dickson said she’s found strength after her divorce in multigenerational living — not just in the feeling of togetherness that it provides, but also the joy of sharing a household with her grandchildren.

“My grandchildren repaired me after my divorce,” she said. “I wouldn’t have made it through without them. I can’t imagine life without them.”


Sorting out the finances

Figuring out how to divide up finances is an important step for many multigenerational families.

When Sterner and her husband decided to move into her parents’ house, for example, they all sat down as a group and discussed what bills would need to be paid. They decided to split certain costs such as utilities and heat. But they kept other bills — cell phones for them, landlines for her parents — separate. Both generations plan to start saving money, too, and their new arrangement should make it easier.

Multigenerational living arrangements aren’t always half and half, however. For the Cromwell family in Moorhead, the tradeoffs are different, though just as valuable.

Last year, Bethany Cromwell asked her parents, Dan and Colleen Weir, if she and her husband, Richard, and two children could move in with them after deciding to relocate to Moorhead.

Bethany and her husband, both teachers, hadn’t established full-time positions yet, so they knew they couldn’t help much with household payments. Instead, they do a larger share of things around the house like shoveling snow and mowing the lawn.

Colleen Weir says knowing her daughter and son-in-law are at home gives her an unexpected benefit — a sense of security, especially when she and her husband travel.

“My husband and I are gone quite a bit, and it’s nice to have someone at the house,” she said. “We don’t worry about leaving home. We know they’ll take care of things.”


Freedom and flexibility

Bethany Cromwell says moving in with her parents has made her a better mom.

“I wouldn’t have enough time to talk to my kids everyday if it weren’t for my mom and dad,” she said. “I would’ve been so wrapped up in my daily activities — working, taking care of the house, running the kids from this to that — that I just wouldn’t be able to spend quality time with them. Now, we all talk and take care of the kids.”

Spouses who’ve become the primary caretakers of ailing partners can get some relief, too.

Sterner’s mom, Karen, for example, battles diabetes, and it’s taken a toll on her mobility as well as the couple’s ability to get out and about. It’s been tough on Sterner’s dad, Mike, because he loves to get out socialize. Since their families moved in together, Mike gets to go out a lot more and Karen has someone to hang out with at home. “It’s a win-win,” Sterner said.


Passing on culture, values

By nature, multigenerational housing arrangements promote a greater understanding family history and interpersonal relationships. 

Children get to witness all sorts of dynamics in a multigenerational household — from the obvious multigenerational family dinners to subtle grown-up parent-child relationships and communication with in-laws, plus grandchild-grandparent bonding.

Sterner has been especially happy to see how her children have learned more about their heritage since moving in with her parents. Her mother is a full-blood American Indian Sicangu Lakota and she freely shares her culture, customs, language and stories with her grandchildren.

“I think the impact my parents have had on my children is incredible,” Sterner said. “Just the other day, my daughter was watching a Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner cartoon and my mother commented how that is a traditional Lakota story where the coyote is the trickster.

“That shared knowledge and continuation of culture is one thing my children will get from my parents.”