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Multigenerational Living: A Step Back to Healthy Communal Life

multigenerational household
The love that rebuilds civilization comes when we live together. This is an opportunity to make a serious, radical, countercultural sacrifice of one’s own selfishness, a sacrifice that can change the family culture. It is not an easy decision or an easy life. But it is good.

Surprisingly, multigenerational living is a topic of interest in modern America. Realtors are noticing more buyers seeking homes that accommodate extended family members. Whether the cause of the uptick is the visible crisis of isolated elderly people dying alone in nursing homes during COVID-19, or the economic situation that is making it harder for young people to buy homes and for older people to retire, the topic is trending.

Multigenerational living has been a part of my own life. My aunt and uncle took my aunt’s father into their home when he was no longer able to live on his own. As he lost the ability to drive, prepare food, manage his own daily maintenance, and even remember who his loved ones were, my aunt entertained no thoughts of a nursing home. As my great uncle forgot the names and identities of his family members, as he started experiencing World War II flashbacks in the middle of the night, my aunt continued to make the sacrifices necessary to live with and take care of her father. When asked why, she would say, “That’s what we do.” It was the expectation in my family that, just as parents take care of their weak, inconvenient, vulnerable children for the first years of the children’s lives, grown children have a duty to take care of their weak, inconvenient, vulnerable parents for the last years of the parents’ lives. I’ve seen examples of this cultural expectation in the lives of my friends, colleagues, and neighbors as well.

But reference to such anecdotes risks missing the point. The families I know who live with multiple generations are southern Italian families who immigrated to New York. There is a danger of stereotyping multigenerational living and devotion to parents, as endemic to immigrants (and their descendants) from Mediterranean or Middle Eastern countries. Surely this arrangement is not for us Americans, with our pioneering spirits and rugged individualism.

But the American development of suburban life, coupled with a culture of individualism, is not normal. Most people in most cultures, throughout most of history, lived in a multigenerational family situation. As one immigrant author reflecting on his own family experience put it, “Multigenerational living isn’t immigrant culture. It’s human culture, and always has been. Modern American society is the abnormality in this scenario.” It is only in an immensely wealthy and individualistic world that multigenerational living could seem foreign rather than the norm.

If multigenerational living should be the norm, a question remains. In an age when many now have the means to avoid multigenerational living—to purchase a home in the suburbs to contain just a few people, and to hire outside caretakers to deal with aging and infirm family members—is multigenerational living a positive good to be sought rather than a sometimes useful arrangement? Is this a vision that should be articulated and promoted as normative, as the way people ought to live? While multigenerational living involves personal sacrifice and a serious change in mindset and culture, there are good reasons, both theoretical and practical, that this lifestyle should be restored in American culture.

Restoration of Community

America suffers from extreme individualism, “the idea of the solitary, self-sufficient human self.” Of course, a certain amount of self-reliance is good and necessary; nobody is advocating that adults live in their parents’ basements or expect support from others when they could be caring for themselves. The point is that society breaks down when people see themselves primarily as individuals rather than as a part of various social units with deep connections to, and obligations to care for, others.

I am a husband and father, a son and brother, an uncle. I am an attorney, a writer, a public speaker. I am a Catholic. I am a resident of Pennsylvania and a citizen of the United States. These aspects of my identity come with obligations of care. I am not an individual absolved from social responsibility—I have duties to care for my wife and children, my coworkers, my fellow parishioners, residents, and citizens. Society breaks down when individuals live as if they only had to care and be responsible for themselves. 

Multigenerational living is a healthy antidote to a lack of community, through the bonds of relationship. Too many people live alone. Even those who are married and have children too often live scattered throughout the country or the world, far from their parents, adult children, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. After the nuclear family, the extended family is the next unit of society. Living among extended family creates close ties that bond people to their ancestors, their homes, and their communities. Intentionally choosing to live in the same town as one’s extended family, and particularly in order to have several generations of family members living in the same home or on the same property, is a radical but healthy way to recapture the reality that one exists, thrives, and loves in relationships, not as an isolated individual.

Multigenerational Homes: Practical Living

In the wake of COVID-19, many suffered and died in isolation, away from family and the human connections central to a healthy life. Multigenerational living is a practical antidote to the anti-life culture; while many elderly people do indeed require medical care that goes beyond the ability of their family members to give, it is important to embrace multigenerational living as normal, rather than defaulting to nursing homes as the place for all aging parents to spend their last years. Multigenerational living allows people who have spent their lives working, raising families, and being part of their communities to spend their final years on earth surrounded by love and care.

But while caring for the aged and infirm and keeping them out of nursing homes is certainly a good and healthy trend, it is not the only (or even the primary) reason to embrace multigenerational living. Even if an elderly person is not sick and does not require nursing care, it is simply not good for an elderly personfor any personto live alone. God was very clear about this: He declared in Genesis that “[i]t is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him,” thus declaring that family life, rather than solitude, is the ordinary and good way for man to live.

Moreover, multigenerational living, especially living with one’s elderly parent(s) in the home, is a matter of both filial piety and justice. What better way to honor father and mother than to live with and care for them in their last years, especially considering that they cared for us when we were at our most vulnerable? This arrangement reveals a beautiful symmetry and order in human life, where the times of vulnerability and care shift as children become adults and adults become elderly. 

While multigenerational living arrangements require a good deal of sacrifice, they also have numerous practical benefits. First of all, shared resources lessen the financial burden on families. An elderly parent living in the house, while he may have only modest savings or a small pension, can contribute to the mortgage, the utilities, or the property taxes. This is especially important in the age of the two-income trap, where many families would like one parent to stay at home to care for and educate the children but can’t afford to sacrifice one income. When more people with income or assets live under the same roof, there is an ability to share expenses, and this allows for greater financial freedom.

People will also highlight the obvious benefit for a young family of having a grandparent live in the house: free childcare. What young parents wouldn’t want a live-in babysitter in the basement, making date nights, evening events, or even just a walk around the block after the kids are in bed easily attainable, without the ordeal of identifying, hiring, and transporting babysitters? But the obvious practical benefitsless need to pay babysitters or daycares, more shared expenses that lower the family budgetcan miss the deeper benefits of living together.

One of the great malformations of modern culture is the age insulation caused by small families and the public school system: kids grow up spending most of their time exclusively with other kids that are exactly their own age. As Ben Sasse pointed out in The Vanishing American Adult, this is an unnatural and problematic way to raise children. As kids grow up, face trials, and experience suffering, they are meant to be exposed to a wide variety of age groups. Kids a few years older can mentor them through the experiences they themselves faced; older people provide wisdom, experience, and calm, a living reminder that the little trials of youth do indeed pass. But when kids face troubles and have only their peers to talk tobecause they don’t have many siblings and don’t live around any adults other than their (busy, working) parentsthey are more likely to face difficulties growing through the trials and rites of passage that lead to healthy adulthood.

Multigenerational living is the healthy, natural, traditional version of “it takes a village to raise a child.” A living arrangement that is open to housing elderly parents or other extended family can be a recipe for raising healthy children. Being part of a multigenerational household allows children to grow up with a natural mix of young and old in their lives; parents have the help of extended family members to deal with their small children; grandparents have the benefit of living their golden years surrounded by youth, by family, by love.

A living arrangement that is open to housing elderly parents or other extended family can be a recipe for raising healthy children.

 

Multigenerational Living Is Good, but Not Easy

A brief note on the challenging realities of multigenerational living is necessary to avoid painting a rosy, unrealistic picture. The multigenerational family situation is good, but not easy or convenient. It is easier to have complete privacy, to have fewer people in the home for whom you are responsible. But family life is not meant to be easy or convenient. No sane parent will say that having children added ease and convenience to his life. Children require sacrifice, flexibility, and infinite patience. Our parents made that sacrifice so that we could be born, formed, and able to live good lives. In turn, multigenerational living involves sacrifices of time, convenience, and space in order to care for others. 

It is important not to romanticize what multigenerational living is really like. First, it is worth noting that in some cases the arrangement is entirely impracticable. Especially today, when the revolution of modernity has swept through so many lives and families, bringing all kinds of sins, vices, and problematic ways of living, this arrangement is just not always possible. Some family members, even one’s parents, may have habits and issues that make it impossible for them to live healthily in a multigenerational family community. While the modern world may overemphasize the importance of asserting “boundaries” in unhealthy relationships, in some cases, such boundaries are needed.

When it is feasible, people should seriously consider adopting this family- and community-centered life over the American “get out on your own and be your own man” individualistic mentality. Overall, the movement toward multigenerational living is where restoration of community and the end of loneliness becomes possible. This may be a radical proposition to American ears, but the radical isolation and loneliness plaguing today’s culture need a radical remedy. For conservatives who speak often about rebuilding community, restoring the centrality of the family, and rebuilding culture: this is where the rubber meets the road. Restoration comes through love and friendship. The love that rebuilds civilization comes when we live together. This is an opportunity to make a serious, radical, countercultural sacrifice of one’s own selfishness, a sacrifice that can change the family culture. It is not an easy decision or an easy life. But it is good.

Image by Nina L/peopleimages.com and licensed via Adobe Stock.

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