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First granny marks return of extended family

The transition to the Obama administration will affect all Americans, but especially Marian Robinson, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden and Dorothy Rodham.

That's because Mrs. Robinson, who is Michelle Obama's mother; Mrs. Biden, mother of Vice President-elect Joe Biden; and Mrs. Rodham, mother of incoming Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, all may be moving to town with the rest of the family.

Mrs. Robinson, 71, played a crucial role in taking care of her grandchildren, Malia and Sasha Obama, while President-elect Barack Obama and his wife were on the campaign trail. There is talk she may take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Mrs. Biden, 91, already lives in her son's household in Delaware and may move to the Naval Observatory. Mrs. Rodham, 89, also lives with her daughter and former President Bill Clinton in homes in Chappaqua, N.Y., and the District.

These are three high-profile examples of a trend (or perhaps a neo-trend, as multigenerational households were very common in America until post-World War II) in American families. Call them what you will - many-feathered nests, boomerang parents - but there is evidence that arrangements such as these are on the rise.

Between 2000 and 2007, the number of people aged 65 and older living with their adult children increased 50 percent, according to the national statistics. The 2000 census showed that of the 35 million American adults aged 65 and over, about 1.4 million of them lived with their children. Meanwhile, the 2007 American Community Survey showed that there are currently 37.5 million seniors and 2.1 million are living with their adult children.

Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State University in Olympia, Wash., and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, says the growth reflects a number of things: adult children and their parents maintaining closer relationships, single parents relying on their own parents for help with child care, and people living longer and needing elder care.

Also, one cannot discount the economic realities of many families these days, says Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities for AARP.

"There are problems that could be the older parent experiencing financial stress," she says. "Or the adult children can be up against losing their home. Either one can produce reasons to think about combining households."

There were a variety of reasons the Keys family of Fairfax Station did just that. Four generations are living in their custom-built home: Ginger Keys, 60, and husband Gary, 62; Mrs. Keys' mother, Dorothy Armstrong, 83; the Keys' daughter, Penny Toro, 35; and Mrs. Toro's children, Leilani, 5, and Judah, 4. Mrs. Toro is there temporarily while her husband, a Navy reservist, is deployed to Iraq.

Mrs. Keys says she feels "blessed" that she can help her mother and her daughter.

"I am an only child," she says. "My dad passed away about 12 years ago, and it was always understood that my mother would probably come live with us at some point."

When the Keys built their home in 1999, they designed it all on one floor, with handicapped-accessible bathrooms so Mrs. Armstrong could age in place. Five years ago, after a shoulder injury, Mrs. Armstrong moved in full time.

"We were not going to let her be by herself after her husband died," Mr. Keys says of his mother-in-law. "This works because everyone wants it to work."

Mr. Keys says family meetings and addressing a problem before it becomes a big deal go a long way in keeping everything organized and peaceful in their home.

Mrs. Keys says she feels lucky that there is a lot of space in her home - five bedrooms and four bathrooms.

"I think you have to give everyone their own privacy," she says. "Mom can go back to her room if she wants. If my daughter is disciplining her children, we make ourselves scarce."

Torryn Brazell is thinking about putting an addition on her Vienna home with the plan that her mother, Marylynn Phelps, will move from Indiana to live with Mrs. Brazell, her husband and two sons.

Mrs. Phelps, 68, is a government contractor who goes on months-long overseas assignments. Mrs. Brazell thinks it would be great to have her mother live in Virginia in between trips.

"My sons, Ty and Bannon, are her only grandkids," says Mrs. Brazell, 45. "We want to be together. My mom wants to be able to meet them at the bus stop. The Catholic religion is also very important to her. She wants to teach them traditions."

Still, shared space and private space will be important. Mrs. Brazell says they will either find a new house with a private in-law suite or build an addition that features universal design in case Mrs. Phelps has any physical issues later in life.

Those are excellent plans, Ms. Ginzler says. Thinking ahead can help save squabbles - as well as money - down the road.

"Start the family conversation early, way before mom or dad gets sick," she says. "Think about whose house you will live in. What is the physical space like? You can share a roof and have a large degree of independence or you can have limited individual space."

Another thing to keep in mind: Make sure everyone is onboard, including spouses and children.

"There is no one formula for this," Ms. Ginzler says. "Each family unit needs to spell things out. You want to talk about everything and make no assumptions. Today's families are going in all directions: Does grandma think you are all going to sit down to dinner every night? What about bringing her pets? Which room will she take?"

Meanwhile, the Keys say they are "delighted" to have young children, as well as Mrs. Armstrong, in their home.

The one-floor layout makes it easy for Mrs. Armstrong to get around, as well as for young Judah to practice a little indoor scooter riding.

"This is perfect," Mr. Keys says of having his extended family under one roof. "I am able to play and run around with the kids. We crank up the music and have a great time."

About the Author
Karen Goldberg Goff

Karen Goldberg Goff

Karen Goldberg Goff has been a reporter at The Washington Times since 1992. She currently writes feature-length stories on a variety of topics, including family issues, pop culture, health, food and technology. Follow Karen on Twitter.

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