Multigenerational Living

By Marilyn Murray Willison

May 11, 2017 4 min read

I just love it when I learn about an experiment that has turned out to be a win-win for everyone involved. Don't you?

Back in 1982, the Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly organization in Chicago, or H.O.M.E., started as an experiment in innovative housing options for low-income seniors. Pat Crowley House was the first multigenerational home operated by H.O.M.E. It pairs senior citizens with college students (there are now three homes). Seniors pay 80 percent of their income to cover the cost of food, rent and toiletries. In exchange for regular chores, such as tidying the seniors' rooms, cooking meals for them on weekends and helping with laundry, the young resident assistants get free room and board.

The arrangement has been so successful in Chicago that in response to soaring housing costs in New York City, New York University will soon start a program that will let students live in local senior citizens' spare bedrooms. The home stay program will cut students' housing bill -- currently $14,000 per year -- in half. And it will initially consist of 10 mature juniors, seniors or graduate students.

The Pat Crowley House was originally conceived to find a practical housing option for low-income seniors. Students of DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, The University of Illinois at Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago exchange 20 hours a week of light housekeeping, grocery shopping and computer lessons for a free private bedroom. During the past 34 years, this intergenerational housing experiment has proven to be a much more healthy, familylike setting, and it has helped cash-strapped students at the same time.

The residents' rent payment covers 56 percent of the houses' costs, and an additional 5 percent is covered by a Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund grant. The rest of the money comes from donations. Similar to the situations seen on the "Forever Young" reality show (on which five people over the age of 70 live in a house with five people in their 20s), the residents of the Pat Crowley House develop their own version of family. Each resident gets his or her own bedroom, but bathrooms, living spaces and snacks in the refrigerator are shared. A cook prepares meals five days a week, and trips to the movies, museums and stores are agreed-upon organized activities.

Here are seven suggested tips for successful multigenerational living:

1) Treat your living arrangement the same way you would treat a family-based partnership.

2) Outline each person's expectations and responsibilities as soon as possible.

3) Take one another's needs into account, and remember to communicate clearly.

4) Look for things that you might have in common with someone of a different generation (books, movies, music, TV shows, etc.).

5) Be open to learning things from a housemate who is much older (or much younger) than you.

6) Share special times (birthdays, holidays, etc.) with housemates of different generations.

7) Learn how to ask for help and accept it. For example, he can help you with the computer, and you can help him with a needle and thread.

This sort of experimental living arrangement is almost guaranteed to work its way across America during the next decade. Why? Historically, 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population has been age 65 and over. But that number is expected to grow to 20 percent within the next 40 years, according to Renae Smith-Ray of the Center for Research on Health and Aging. As she told the Chicago Tribune: "We're going to need to begin thinking outside the box much more regularly to deal with the needs of our aging population. This type of housing arrangement is one terrific example of that."

Marilyn Murray Willison's column, "Positive Aging," can be found at creators.com.

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