CROWDED HOUSE: Could you survive living with so many family members in your house?
CROWDED HOUSE: Could you survive living with so many family members in your house? myrrha

Can you live in a multi-generational household?

THE number of Australians living in multigenerational households is creeping upwards.

The 2019 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey reports the number of people living in multiple-family households has risen by 1.2 percentage points to be the household type for 3.7 per cent of Australians in 2017.

The reasons for this are predominantly finance (55 per cent) and the provision of care (28 per cent) according to the University of NSW's City Futures 2015 research report Living Together: The Rise of Multigenerational Households in Australian Cities.

The senior research fellow Dr Edgar Liu there is stigma with this type of living arrangement. said: "It's not uncommon to hear comments like 'young people sponging off their parents'," Dr Liu said. His team unearthed examples where the young person, by staying at home, allowed the parents to keep affording to own the family by contributing to the rent or mortgage.

"If it involves older people, there is the assumption that they are an endless source of free child care, without considering that they also have their own lives that they may want to live; it also costs money to house and feed the older people, so it's never really 'free'.

"Our participants noted genuine surprise from people if they found out that their older parents didn't actually need assistance, so there is still that stigma where you should only live with your parents/in-laws if there is a genuine need rather than just because you want to. This is especially the case when people found the company being the most valued aspect of multigenerational living, rather than physical and emotional care."

Seniors News asked four families what it was like living in their multi- family household.

All about family

IN the hinterland of northern NSW, 65-year-old retiree Maria* can have up to five generations, and a few friends, living in her house at any time.

It started with her ailing father-in-law and has grown from there. Luckily the house is very large and surrounded by acreage.

"Basically, they can't get on their own feet out there with the cost of everything and give the children a good life," Maria said.

"The house is built with the intention that everyone has their own private domain. It works lovely; we are a family. They are independent of me even though they are so close.

"Each has their own dwelling. They have their privacy and the kids have stability."

It's all about family, said Maria, who has a Maltese background.

"We were raised knowing it's our responsibility to care for the elders."

Maria and her husband, who bought the house 20 years ago, retain full ownership.

"They contribute to the upkeep of the mortgage," she said. "They have taken their inheritance while I am still kicking."

When it comes to looking after the property, Maria said the rule was two hours a week from everybody who could stand.

"They choose what work needs be done; if you see it, do it," she said.

"Many hands make light work. When you are reliant on it being your home, you have a tendency to care for it."

Having the family around has meant Maria and her husband have the freedom to travel while their home is looked after.

"You are supported in every way whether you are present or absent," she said. "We're family. You've got to get on.

"We've grown up together so we are used to each other," she added.

"You don't have the difficulty of trying to share your home with strangers or long-term friends."

When it comes to family conflict, Maria said the trick was to "keep a lid on people's privacy" and not get involved too much.

"What I have learnt in the long run is, if you give enough time for the pressure to release, the parties usually find a way."

It's not a fairytale existence but, Maria said, living in this household meant she didn't miss out on important family moments.

FAMILY LIVING: Judy Gordon (right) with the three generations, and one large dog, who live in the family home.
FAMILY LIVING: Judy Gordon (right) with the three generations, and one large dog, who live in the family home.

Practical solution

JUDY Gordon, a 66-year-old retiree, lives in southwest Sydney house with her adult son, daughter-in-law and their two young children.

"We talked about doing something together for ages," she said.

Two years ago they found the perfect two-storey house that needed just a few renovations.

"I wanted a separate space and they also have a 50kg dog and three cats," she added.

The house is owned jointly.

"It's been done legally," Judy said. "I own 50 per cent and they own 25 per cent each. If anything happens to me, my share would go to Scott, my only child, as per my will."

If the couple splits, Judy says "it won't work".

"I have told them they can never get divorced."

She pays half of the rates and mortgage, and one-third of the household bills. She also keeps a record of what she has spent and what is owed to her.

Judy has her own self-contained area which is adjacent to the garage and laundry.

"You need to have enough space of your own," Judy recommended.

She has an internal, lockable door so her grandchildren can visit at any time.

"I mind them two days, so I see a lot of them. Now we have joined a gym so I go off there with my son.

"The kids love it when I eat with them so they always want me to come upstairs or I do a baked dinner and they all come down here."

The blended family doesn't have structured times where it gets together.

"As I get older, it will be good for me to have them close," Judy said.

"I'm not planning on going to a retirement village. We look at this as long-term."

The downside would be if there was more than one child or you didn't get on, Judy said.

"We don't have cross words. We have worked this out cooperatively.

"They don't take advantage of me."

MULTIGENERATIONAL LIVING: For some households it provides mutual support.
MULTIGENERATIONAL LIVING: For some households it provides mutual support. Tomwang112

Expected solution?

MARY* lives in Sydney with her husband and three daughters aged 23 to 27 and 86-year-old mother Esme*.

Mary, 59, is the only sibling living in Australia; the others live in Singapore. Her parents came to live with Mary when her father had a heart attack and the arrangement has continued since then.

It has meant Mary could continue working full-time.

"It's mutual support," Mary said. "She was supportive of me when I had my children and I am now supportive of her while she is ageing and so are my children."

While Mary ensures Esme's medical appointments are done, home help looks after the personal care.

The home has a separate area downstairs with an ensuite for Esme but the living area is upstairs where the family eats together on weekends.

Mary and her husband own the house.

"She has very much given me everything she has," Mary said.

If Mary's family and Esme were still living in Singapore they probably would have the same arrangement.

"It may be partially cultural but I haven't taken to it as a cultural thing," Mary said.

She found it beneficial for her children to spend time with their grandmother learning about their Singaporean heritage.

The limitation is, as Esme ages, Mary has started to make arrangements which ensure Esme has someone looking after her when the family goes away.

Sandwiched between her young adult daughters and her mother, Mary admits: "I do have responsibilities".

"I think it has advant- ages and disadvantages.

"I don't think I would do the same with my children. It's not necessarily because it hasn't worked but because we all live in a fast-paced environment.

"I am an independent person so I wouldn't want to feel I am dependent on them or that they are responsible for me.

"Having said that, this has worked reasonably for me."

MULTIGENERATIONAL LIVING: Colleen Robinson and her daughter Belinda Uhlmann.
MULTIGENERATIONAL LIVING: Colleen Robinson and her daughter Belinda Uhlmann.

Hit the jackpot

BELINDA Uhlmann, 47, and her mother, Colleen Robinson, 83, are tight and happy.

They live in a Brisbane home with Belinda's husband Paul and their two young daughters.

Belinda said her sister, Del, would have done the same for her mum "in a heartbeat".

Del and her husband already had the experience of her and her husband living with Del's her father-in-law, but it didn't work for them.

"It disintegrated; they couldn't sustain living all together," Belinda explained.

"Unfortunately, there were too many personality clashes."

After Colleen's husband died in 2002, she struggled to live alone for six years in their townhouse.

"I was finding the stairs were a bit of a problem," Colleen said.

Over several years, Belinda, Paul and Colleen discussed living together.

"I am lucky as my husband grew up with his grandfather in exactly the same situation," Belinda said.

"We had lots of discussions (before Colleen moved in) about the future and the plan for Mum to be here forever," Belinda added.

It took them quite some time to find an affordable and suitable house.

Finally they found a two-storey house with what Colleen needed to stay independent and private, including an outdoor sun area.

The family lives upstairs and Colleen has the downstairs area.

Ownership of the house is split equally three ways.

"I went to the solicitor when we were getting organised," Colleen said.

"There's a statutory declaration we made as the bank wouldn't let Mum go onto the loan because of her age," Belinda said.

"Mum is very adamant about paying her way. She felt she didn't want to mooch."

Colleen does her shopping and has someone come in to clean for her.

Sometimes she eats with the family upstairs, but not always.

The plan is for Colleen to live there forever.

"If Mum needs that money to go into a facility where she needs more care, then that is her money," Belinda said.

"It wouldn't be just the third she has put in because we have been here about nine years, it would be what the third of the house would be concurrent to the price."

The former aged care nurse fiercely retains her independence wherever possible but, if personal care is needed down the track, the women are adamant neither wants Belinda to take on that role. Instead they will get in a carer.

"I want to be honest about this, I would not be comfortable toileting Mum," Belinda said.

"Mum and I are very good communicators and we are very honest with each other so I would love Mum to be here for the long run and we will find ways around that when the time comes," Belinda added.

"I consider all my children my friends now," Colleen added.

"But we're still her children, don't you worry; she tells us what to do," Belinda joked.

Colleen said she had thrived as a result of actively engaging with her family.

"I don't feel as old as my age," she said.

"It's been wonderful for my girls," Belinda added.

She thinks the same arrangement could work with her daughters and herself when she is much older.

*Names changed at the request of interviewees.

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