Three generations build a happy household under one roof

schandler@newsobserver.comJanuary 24, 2014 

  • Making room for mom

    If an older generation is part of your multigenerational living plan, you’ll want to make sure your home is built or modified to let everyone live comfortably for as long as possible. Builder Todd Lincoln, owner of RT Lincoln and Associates in Chapel Hill and an aging-in-place specialist certified by the National Association of Home Builders, offers these tips:  

    • Have at least one entry with no steps or lip on an accessible route leading from the driveway or a sidewalk.

    • All interior doorways should be at least 32 inches wide for easy passage, even for someone in a wheelchair or using a walker.

    • Have a bedroom and bathroom on the ground level.

    • Lighting should come from multiple sources and include task lighting and night lights.

    • Flooring should be smooth enough to accommodate a walker, but not slippery.

Love, openness and compatibility all figure into how the Merritts and the Borens of Wake Forest have built a happy multigenerational household. But it also helps that their house has two man caves.

Brian Merritt, 56, and his wife, Renee, 55, live in the home’s finished basement, which includes a bedroom, bathroom, living room and library (or “man cave,” as Renee called it). The upstairs bedrooms belong to the Merritts’ daughter, Amber Boren, her husband, Chris, and their two children. But what’s really magical about their house, the family will tell you, is the middle. The ground floor is where the family comes together to eat, talk, watch TV and play with 2-year-old Dakota and 4-month-old Titus.

That togetherness is the reason the families decided to merge their households.

“It started in a conversation that Christopher and I were having a few years ago, how we liked the idea of families that lived in the same vicinity and maybe having farmland and everybody had their little house scattered around,” said Brian Merritt. “Both of us had a desire to do that. We started to think about it, and pray though it, and figured, well, maybe there’s an opportunity here.”

The Merritts moved into the Borens’ home in Knightdale for a year to test-drive the idea. It was a bit “confined,” Brian Merritt said, “but we made it work really well.”

So the families started searching for a house to call their own, and in 2012 found a new development in Wake Forest that offered a 4,000-square-foot floor plan that seemed perfect. They liked the first-floor common area, with a single kitchen that would serve as a sort of household headquarters.

“But when we need to separate, when we need time, we have it,” said Amber Boren, 29. “Other houses may have been bigger, but the floor plan didn’t have that necessary separation.”

Renee, now retired, takes care of the grandchildren while Amber and Chris are at work, and Amber, who likes to cook, prepares a lot of the dinners, with the men pitching in to clean up. There’s a calendar on the wall to track comings and goings, and everyone takes care of household chores such as yardwork as needed.

When problems crop up, the family solves them – together. Once a week (at first – now less often as everyone has settled in), there’s a family meeting around the dinner table and “(we) make sure we lay our issues at the table and it’s neutral ground,” Renee Merritt said. “‘This is what’s bothering me,’ not to be hurtful or a hindrance on anybody, we just want to make it all work that way.”

Multigenerational living isn’t for everyone, the family readily admits, and it’s not always easy.

“I would say 95 percent of people don’t have the best relationship with their in-laws,” Amber Boren said, “so it was truly designed for us because we do blend so well. There are days when this house, as big as it is, it’s very tight quarters. But then other days, we couldn’t imagine life any other way.”

Merging generations

Nationwide, about 51 million people have joined the Merritts and the Borens in forming a multigenerational household, though it’s not always solely by choice.

The Pew Research Center, citing 2009 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, says the number of people living in multigenerational households increased by 10 percent, from 46.5 million to 51.4 million, between 2007 and 2009, a span that coincides with the worst of the economic downturn.

Homebuilders have taken notice, with many touting floor plans and remodels specifically designed to allow multiple generations to live together and extend the years older generations can live without institutional care.

Lennar started offering its NextGen homes in the Triangle in 2012, after the “home within a home,” as the company calls it, found success on the West Coast and a demographic study indicated nearly 30 percent of Triangle residents over 65 were living alone.

Middle-aged adults wishing to bring their parents into the household are the biggest buyers of the NextGen homes, said Trish Hanchette, Lennar’s Raleigh/Durham Division president.

In addition to the main living space, NextGen homes offer a suite – bedroom, living room, bathroom, laundry space and kitchenette – that is connected to the house but also has a separate front door.

“It’s kind of a suite, and it’s kind of tucked to the side, and it’s really there to make sure that you can have a feeling of privacy,” Hanchette said. “If you want to be alone, you just shut a door to the main family living space, or if you want to be out there making cookies with your grandkids, you just walk through the door and walk right into the main living room.”

Several local homebuilders and remodelers are touting staff trained in aging-in-place and universal design concepts that can make an existing home comfortable for sharing.

“Until the baby boom generation came around and we had the upward mobility of the Industrial Age, multigenerational housing was always something that we did in this country,” said builder Todd Lincoln, owner of RT Lincoln and Associates in Chapel Hill.

Lincoln, who grew up in a household that included his grandmother, has worked on remodels large and small to help clients bring aging family members into the home. Sometimes all an existing home needs is small touches – like wider doorways, walker-friendly flooring, a walk-in shower or entrances that don’t have steps or a rise – to accommodate a family member who may need a walker or wheelchair to get around. Other people opt to add an entire master suite on the ground floor. That’s an expensive proposition, but when weighed against the cost of assisted living, the investment can work in the homeowner’s favor, Lincoln said.

Big benefits

Even when money isn’t the driving force, people like the Merritts and the Borens are finding plenty of benefits to multigenerational living.

For working parents, grandparents can offer a quality of child care that’s hard to beat, and grandparents enjoy daily involvement in the little ones’ lives. But the payoff goes far beyond just the practical.

“A lot of times, older people, we kind of shunt away after a while, and I want them to be taken care of as long as they want a place to live,” Chris Boren, 43, said of his in-laws. “I want the same to be passed on to our generation. I want our kids to do the same with us. I’d like to see this tradition continue, where the families grow and live together.”

Chandler: 919-829-4830

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