Erma Boothby doesn't have to go far to see her daughter or grandson - they're right upstairs.
The 89-year-old Bellingham resident is one of many seniors who are living with younger generations - either to save money or simply because it suits them better than a care facility.
Boothby says living at home works perfectly for her. She has her own space in a basement apartment in the home, and she helps out around the house watching her 10-year-old grandson, Jake.
"His parents get one night a week off and I get lots of time with my grandson," she says. "We've become very close."
According to the American Association of Retired Persons, multigenerational households, those with more than just a parent and child, are on the rise - from 4.3 percent of American households in 2000 to 5.3 percent in 2008 to 6.1 percent in 2010. Experts say the economic recession has driven different generations of families to move in together more and more.
Eden Alexander, a geriatric care manager at the Elder Law Offices of Meyers and Avery in Bellingham, says many families go out of their way to keep an elderly parent at home rather than move them to a facility. It's a move that can benefit the aging parent as well as the younger generations.
"You feel like you're doing the right thing," Alexander says. "You feel like you're returning the love you received as a kid."
CONSIDER THE IDEA EARLY
But Alexander cautions it's not a move that should be taken lightly. Ensuring a safe space for a parent with mobility issues can require expensive remodeling, and seniors with mounting health issues can require medical attention that a family isn't qualified to provide.
Also, providing food, cleaning and transportation for an elderly parent can be taxing on an adult child, especially if they have professional lives or children of their own to tend to.
Given the magnitude of the decision, Kate Massey, a family caregiver support specialist at the Northwest Regional Council in Bellingham, says families should discuss such living arrangements ahead of time, before a medical emergency forces a decision.
"A lot of times these decisions are made in moments of crisis or when there's not a lot of time to prepare," Massey says. "Someone is in the hospital and it's time to take them home and all the family members look at each other."
While many families live together in harmony, it's not unheard of for close quarters to lead to misunderstandings and arguments. That's why it's prudent to set up ground rules and expectations for the parents and their adult children before moving in together.
Issues to be addressed, Massey says, include, "Are you going to eat together? Who is going to be cleaning? Who pays for what? Who fixes what?"
Massey also says having seniors take on tasks around the house can help them avoid feelings of being a burden. Perhaps they can cook for a night or two each week, or watch the children after school.
"People like to feel useful and like they're contributing," Massey says.
If a senior has trouble with their balance or with getting around, Alexander suggests having an occupational therapist come to a prospective home and identify ways to make it more accessible.
Private companies offer wheelchair lifts that can get a senior up or down a set of stairs, but if at all possible it's preferable to have a bedroom on the ground floor of the home.
Though remodel jobs can get spendy, Jacqueline Scott, president of Legacy Kitchen and Bath in Lynden, says making a home more accessible for seniors can be an investment in the future selling price of the home.
Scott, who has helped make dozens of bathrooms more senior-accessible, says she is often approached by people in their 50s who want to be able to stay in their own homes as they grow old.
"They say, 'Help me plan this space so that I don't ever have to leave,'" she says.
While living with family can sound more appealing to seniors than moving into a facility, Massey says there can be downsides, particularly if the senior is unable to get out and about in the community. In a care facility, seniors live with people their own age who may share their interests. Making the same social connection can be more difficult while living at home.
"A lot of times I hear a senior say, 'I'd like go see my friends but they can't drive either,'" Massey says.
She says seniors who live at home should explore opportunities to get out and stay active, such as a senior center or an adult day health program.
Boothby says she's been able to develop friendships and stay active thanks to groups at Birchwood Presbyterian Church. She often uses Whatcom Transportation Authority buses to get around.
"Old people tend to sit indoors and get in front of the TV and not get any activity," Boothby says. "This gets me out and walking around."
Scott, who moved her elderly father into her home before he passed away, says she cherishes the memories from having her father so near.
"It's payback for the raising your parents did for you," she says. "You finally get to do something for them."
MAKING A HOUSE A HOME
Moving an elderly parent into your home can require some remodeling, especially if they have mobility issues. Renovations can include:
Grab bars near toilets, bathtubs and showers to help a senior get up and down from a wheelchair.
A level-entry shower or walk-in bathtub, and a hand-held shower head.
A 5-foot radius in the middle of the bathroom, room enough to maneuver a wheelchair.
36-inch-wide doorways, wide enough for wheelchairs.
Source: Legacy Kitchen and Bath, Lynden
Caleb Heeringa is a Seattle freelancer writer.