When a Parent Moves in With the Kids

Adult children and elderly parents should have a thorough discussion, from privacy concerns to division of chores, before combining households.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the November 2010 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here. (opens in new tab)

When Mike Repak's father was ill, neighbors checked in on his mother, Marie, at her home in Rochelle Park, N.J. She had mild dementia and needed rides to get around. After Repak's father died, Repak, an estate-planning lawyer, and his wife, Debra, a teacher, considered moving Marie, then 88, into an assisted-living facility near them.

But the couple decided they wanted her to live with them and their two teenagers. "It was going to be a big adjustment for her without Dad around," says Repak, now 53. "We wanted her to feel like she was part of a family."

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of Kiplinger’s expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of Kiplinger’s expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

The Repaks built an addition to their home in Churchville, Pa., with a living room, bedroom and bathroom. The couple and the kids often ate with Marie in her living area. "It was nice for our children to see that families can take care of their members," says Repak, whose mother spent the last two years of her life with them. The couple hired a home health aide to make her meals and take her to doctor's appointments while they were at work.

Twentysomething "boomerang" kids who are moving back home seem to get all the headlines. Less recognized is another trend: seniors moving in with their adult children and even their grandchildren. Twenty percent of individuals 65 and older lived in a multigenerational household in 2008, up from 17% in 1990, according to the Pew Research Center.

Melding households can be a positive experience for everyone. The family can bond while playing games and eating meals. "Look at this as an opportunity," says Amy Goyer, AARP’s family expert. "You have a chance to enjoy your mom or dad in their later years. This is a way for children to know their grandparents in a way they wouldn't otherwise."

But before moving in with your adult son or daughter, you'll need to decide whether you'll feel comfortable living in someone else's home. You'll no longer rule the roost as you did when your child was a child. "Do you get along? You may love someone, but do you like them?" says Sharon Graham Niederhaus, co-author of Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living (M. Evans & Co., $17).

Also imagine day-to-day life with grandchildren, and maybe pets. "If you have no tolerance for noise, do you want to move into a house with children or teenagers?" says Jennifer Prell, president of Silver Connections, an elder-resource network in Cary, Ill.

Meanwhile, the adult child needs to be prepared for the drain of time, energy and possibly money that could come with having one or two parents move in. The new arrangement could also put a strain on your marriage. And if a parent needs caregiving, you'll need to be realistic about what that entails. "Families generally underestimate the amount of care that Mom is going to require," says Kerry Peck, an elder-law attorney in Chicago. "Even if Mom moves in relatively healthy, that could change overnight."

Talk Through All Issues

Before making a decision, the two generations should discuss all the issues, from privacy concerns to the division of chores. Sit down and ask, Goyer says, "What are everyone's expectations? What are you uncomfortable about?" Once the families are combined, meet regularly to air any concerns.

If Mom likes to cook but her son-in-law runs the kitchen, perhaps she can cook on weekdays while he cooks on weekends. Maybe Dad gets a TV in his room, so the adult children -- or the teens -- can use the family room to watch their favorite programs. Perhaps you prefer a light meal at 5 p.m., while your daughter-in-law and son eat a big dinner at 7 p.m. In that case, plan to eat one meal together each week.

The adult child needs to set boundaries. For instance, is Grandpa allowed to tell the teenage son to turn off the TV and do his homework? And what if the teenage son talks back to Grandpa?

The older parent, too, must set limits. Maybe Grandma is glad to babysit once a week, but she doesn't want to become a granny nanny. And she's likely to make friends or find a close companion. "Granny might not move in and want to start knitting," says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a membership group. "She may want to go dancing or have a male friend." Consider creating a private entrance. Or perhaps Mom can schedule her bridge games when the kids are at school.

Until November 2009, Laurel Files, 71, lived in a condo in Chapel Hill, N.C., about a ten-minute drive from her older daughter, son-in-law and their two young children in Durham. When the family considered buying a bigger house, her son-in-law asked her to buy it with them.

In November 2009, Files and her 17-year-old adopted daughter moved in with the family. "My only requirement was that I live on the ground floor, so I wouldn't have to run up and down stairs," she says. She has the master suite and her own bathroom.

The busy family and Files, a professor at the University of North Carolina, often go their own ways. They eat many meals together, and she participates in the family's weekly movie night.

When Files had hip-replacement surgery in June and couldn't drive for six weeks, the family members shopped for her. "It confirmed that it was a good decision," she says.

The family divides chores by doing whatever needs to be done. Files's older daughter, who is 43, does most of the laundry, but Files offers to help. "I say sometimes I feel I'm in your house, and she says sometimes I feel I'm in your house," Files says.

Files's grandchildren, who are 7 and 10, will ride their scooters in and out of her room. "It's like living in the Toys "R" Us annex here," Files says. She notes that she tends to be orderly, "but it's an adjustment I was willing to make."

Hit the money issue head on. "Have a candid conversation with Mom or Dad," says Thomas Scanlon, a certified public accountant at Borgida & Company, in Manchester, Conn. "Are they able to sustain themselves? Or will the child need to subsidize some of their expenses?"

It's likely that a parent who has sold a house will be able to pay expenses. Together you should determine a fair amount for the parent to pay for meals, utilities, cable costs and phone bills, and even for a home addition. "It makes the parent feel not as much as an intruder, but a partner in the space," says Ronald Fatoullah, an elder-law attorney in New York City.

Files, her daughter and son-in-law placed all their names on the deed and mortgage. Her daughter handles the bills, and Files pays half of everything. The only area they don't track is spending on groceries. "I shop sometimes. They shop sometimes," Files says.

Another issue is figuring out what to do with the parent's furniture and other possessions. "If a senior moves into a son or daughter's house and tries to take it over with their stuff, there's going to be a problem," says Prell. A parent should consider putting his or her possessions in storage for a six-month trial period of living with the adult child.

The adult child can hire a geriatric-care manager to assess the home as well as the kind of care an aging parent may need. Find a care manager through the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers at www.caremanager.org (opens in new tab).

Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Retirement Report