- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

What’s the one thing that doesn’t change despite the latest developments in bathroom plumbing, smart-house technology and paint? According to Bill Slenker, a longtime developer of master planned communities in the Greater Washington area, it’s family. That’s why, in the past 12 years, he has only built multigenerational housing.

“I think it’s the wave of the future,” says Mr. Slenker, owner of Slenker Land Corp. “Family ties are becoming larger and larger.”

As the population expands and baby boomers age, multigenerational housing has become an increasingly viable option for many Americans. In fact, more and more families — grandparents, parents and grandchildren — are choosing to live together or in very close proximity. Figures from the 2000 census show that 3.9 million American households consist of three or more generations living together, a jump of about 60 percent over 1990 numbers.

“That’s the largest increase in a particular family structure,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a coalition of children’s, youth and senior organizations that promotes intergenerational living, policies and activities.

Why the shift from the late 20th-century ideal that included separate houses for the younger generation and sprawling, self-contained communities for the elderly? Answers often vary.

A 1996 survey sponsored by AARP found that more than three-quarters of those 50 or older preferred to live among people of all ages.

“A growing number of people don’t want to just live [with] people of the same age,” says Evelyn Howard, president of Howard & Associates, a Bethesda-based market research firm specializing in senior housing.

“Places like Leisure World, while attractive to some, aren’t what everyone wants,” Ms. Howard says.

Sometimes the reasons are economic.

“People often live together so they can pool their economic resources,” says Jaslean LaTaillade, an assistant professor in the Family Science Department at the University of Maryland who works with multigenerational families.

An already aging baby-boomer population coupled with strains on the overall economy and on individual purses means multigenerational housing increasingly makes a lot of sense.

However, its benefit goes beyond mere economics.

“Whether you opt for multigenerational housing for economic reasons or by choice, it can really provide a mutual benefit,” Ms. Butts says. “The generations will have opportunities to share stories, history and culture in ways that they couldn’t if they lived far apart from one another.”

However, your multigenerational housing may not be the same as that of your neighbor. The multigenerational umbrella includes parents opening homes to retrofitting children, grandparents moving in with middle-age offspring, and the emerging trend of “grandfamilies” — grandparents raising grandchildren as the primary caregivers.

In the Greater Washington area, many couples with school-age children move in with their parents who live in long-established neighborhoods with good school districts. They soon find that they’ve done more than just move into a neighborhood where the homes would have been financially out of reach otherwise.

“People realize how great it is that children will grow up knowing their grandparents,” Ms. Butts says.

Other factors influencing the decision to “go multigenerational” include divorce, the death of a spouse and extended life spans of the older generation.

Multigenerational housing may be more traditional than you would think.

It was only recently, after all, that families started separating, with the different generations living in varied locations and circumstances throughout the country. Even as recently as the early 20th century, families routinely made room for granny or granddaddy, who would occupy a downstairs room and dispense wisdom from below.

Young marrieds might move in with their parents, maybe building an addition or two onto the existing house as the family grew. Then as now, too, grandparents might find themselves the primary caregivers for their grandchildren.

“We have individualism drummed into our heads so much that we forget about interdependence,” Ms. Butts says.

If you balk at having grandma and grandpa live in your house, you can still ensure they’re fairly close by. Increasingly popular are 55-and-older communities within communities, meaning that the grandparents are just a short drive or even a walk away.

Marketing of these communities, such as Del Webb’s Falls Run in Fredericksburg, Va., or Mr. Slenker’s various Central Parke enclaves around Washington, reflects the benefits that such close proximity, with just a bit of distance, will bring.

At Mr. Slenker’s Central Parke at Lowes Island in Loudoun County, members of the 55-and-older generation can retreat to their own 22-acre oasis within the larger Cascades development.

“We found that 25 percent of the 200 55-plus home buyers actually already lived in the Cascades,” Mr. Slenker says. “They wanted to downsize, but they wanted to stay close to their family and friends. The absolute driving force is family.”

Half of the 55-and-older community — known in the real estate trade as active adults — at Central Parke have mature children living in the Cascades.

Communities like these are planned for a population that is projected to increase in years to come. They are both age-segregated, in terms of location, and age-integrated in terms of community activities.

Such communities are smaller than the sprawling retirement villages of yesteryear but large enough to allow for the inclusion of some important amenities.

“Boomers are very experience-oriented,” Mr. Slenker says. “They like a community feel, but they don’t want to lose their individuality.”

Generally speaking, active-adult communities are designed to be smaller and quieter, with few through roads and less traffic than in other sections of the community.

It’s safe to stroll the streets without being knocked down, and frequently there’s a nearby clubhouse offering a variety of clubs, coffees and other activities to keep seniors active.

Central Parke at Victoria Falls in Laurel, another Slenker-developed active-adult enclave, recently opened the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Victoria Falls, a joint venture with the University of Maryland that provides non-credit courses in a variety of subjects.

Other multigenerational possibilities include making space for parents or children in existing homes, either by building additions or reconfiguring what is already there.

The overall design of a home may also contribute to a blended household’s success. Simple things such as added soundproofing and the existence of clear places for individual and shared space can help make intergenerational living easier.

If you are planning to open your home to your parents or grandparents, safety becomes key.

Adding grab bars in bathrooms, shoring up handrails on staircases and even replacing steps with ramps can go a long way toward ensuring that your house is welcoming and accessible for everyone who lives there.

Homes designed to facilitate multigenerational living often feature universal design elements such as wider hallways and lower light switches to make it easier for inhabitants who may face increasing physical and mobility issues. There may be a seat in the shower, and usually there are no steps to the front door.

These days, such amenities are designed cleverly so they blend in with the decor. An unsightly ramp, for example, could be reconfigured as a winding garden path.

Some building codes don’t allow for accessory units in single-family-home neighborhoods on the grounds that they could be used as rentals. Still, many jurisdictions are rethinking the issue and rewriting laws to allow construction of “granny flats.”

Many new homes designed for intergenerational living feature more than one master bedroom. Turns out that such homes can be attractive for younger couples as well.

“There are a lot of people who confess that they like this arrangement because of, well, snoring,” Ms. Howard says. “And an extra bedroom can always be used for guests.”

However, before you rush to purchase a home where you can live as part of a generational sandwich, consider this: There can be more than a few stresses when it comes to living with your relatives.

Who’s the boss? Who pays the bills? Who’s the baby sitter? Who’s going to fix that pesky door that keeps squeaking? How long are you planning to stay? Tensions over questions like these and many more that come from living in close proximity from day to day may be exacerbated when the change to multigenerational living is sudden or forced after a job loss, divorce or other form of family stress.

Multigenerational living can be particularly hard on the generation caught between caring for aging parents and taking care of their own children.

That’s why it’s important to try to resolve certain issues before moving in together, Ms. Butts says.

“Conversation is really important,” she says. “It’s important to have clear expectations before families move in together.”

Having an equal share in the success of the larger blended household may not necessarily translate into a financial stake.

“There are different ways to contribute,” Ms. Butts says. “People don’t necessarily have to provide money. They can do other things.”

So if grandma is particularly good at, say, cooking, maybe that can be her responsibility. If grandpa is good with the boys, maybe he can assume some responsibility for their care.

The key is to establish clear expectations and a clear sense of roles and responsibilities, Ms. LaTaillade says.

“People need to think about the adjustments they will have to make,” she says. “It’s important to be flexible and be open in communicating needs and desires. And just because you’re having difficulties doesn’t mean that there’s a loss of love.”

Of course, the downturn in the real estate market has affected the multigenerational housing niche.

“Moving to a 55-plus enclave is a discretionary move,” Ms. Howard says, “but these days, a lot of people can’t sell their homes. If you can’t sell your home for what you think you’re going to get for it, you may just stay in place.”

Still, developers such as Mr. Slenker are optimistic about the future, in part because aging — and family — are two issues that can’t be ignored, whatever the vicissitudes of the market.

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