Many seniors say 'no, thanks' to living with their adult kids

07/08/2012 12:00 AM

07/08/2012 2:45 PM

In a spirit of gratitude and giving back to the parents who raised them, Bill and Jackie Merz's daughters have extended a generous invitation.

"They both live in Chicago now," said Bill Merz, 75, a retired Sacramento State psychology professor. "One was willing to put an extra floor on her house and install an elevator for us so we could live there. The other wanted to convert her basement for us.

"I told them we'd have somebody shoot us before we did that."

The Merzes, who live in their own home at Eskaton Village Roseville, adore their extended, close-knit family, which also includes two sons in California and 11 grandchildren. But the idea of living with the kids in their older age leaves them cold.

"My first reaction was, 'I don't want you telling me what to do,'" said Jackie Merz, who is also 75 and a retired teacher and counselor.

Most older adults tend to be a bit more euphemistic about it: Typically, they say that they don't want to be a burden to their kids, or that they don't want to impose. But statistics show a plainer truth. In huge numbers, seniors relish their freedom, and they want to live on their own as long as they can.

In the Sacramento region, U.S. census figures show that almost three-fourths of people 65 and older live in same-generation (as opposed to multigenerational) households. National figures are even higher, with nearly 80 percent of older adults living in their own households – more than triple the number from the 1940s.

A recent survey from the research firm Gallup & Robinson highlights that sense of independence. While 53 percent of people below age 65 said they would take in an aging parent who needed their help, only a quarter of people older than 65 said they would accept an invitation to live with their grown children.

Those attitudes fly in the face of a stubborn cultural cliché, in which the grandparents, kids and grandkids grow older together under one roof – a holdover from the days when there was no choice but for the generations to live together, like it or not.

"I think the stereotype exists because we continually look retrospectively," said Bill Merz. "It becomes a museum piece. Look at TV shows and movies about Christmas, the nuclear family they show.

"It hasn't been that way since World War II. GIs didn't come back from the war and move to Mom and Dad's neighborhood. They moved to the suburbs or across the country."

It's been a long time since the grandparents lived one farm away, just across the prairie.

Along with postwar geographic mobility, the advent of Social Security seven decades ago provided a reliable retirement income, which for the first time allowed millions of older people to continue living in their own homes. And that financial stability has grown in the years since.

In the quarter-century ending in 2007, the number of low-income and poverty-level older Americans decreased to 36 percent from half of all seniors, according to Administration on Aging data.

Today's economy, not sentiment or obligation, largely drives multigenerational households – but with a twist, aging experts say. With the recession hitting families hard, many grown children have moved in with their elders, or invited their parents to live with them – not because the older adults need help but because they themselves do.

"I unfortunately hear pretty often from our clients that their adult children have moved back in, and the parent who's in their 80s doesn't want them there," said Rosanne Bernardy, executive director of the Ethel M. Hart Senior Center in midtown Sacramento.

"I never hear our clients say, 'I really would like to live with my children, but they don't want me to.' "

Relishing 'me' time

They've earned their freedom. For many seniors, retirement and older age are "me" time. After a lifetime of diligence and responsibility – raising children, working and taking care of their own elders – they cherish the time to themselves.

Take Carmichael resident Jeannie Obrien, 71, a retired real estate appraiser who's divorced. She volunteers at the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, belongs to a photography group, gardens, reads and spends time with her friends.

And she loves living alone.

"We've passed our prime, but we're out enjoying what we've never been able to do," said Obrien. "I don't have to check in with anybody. I'm out and about and doing my own thing."

Even so, she has a standing invitation to live with her son in Sacramento. And in a decade or two or three, depending on her health and how vulnerable she feels living on her own, she might take him up on it.

"It's a reciprocal thing," she said. "I've helped him when he needs help, and he'll help me."

The key, aging experts say, is knowing when to make the move – and when the upside outweighs what many older adults think of as a considerable downside.

After living on their own, content in a comfortable routine, older people often find their grown children's households chaotic, noisy and confining.

It's not necessarily one big, happy family.

Grandparents can resent being thrust into the role of live-in baby sitter. Grandchildren can resent giving up their own freedom, and perhaps their rooms, to accommodate their elders.

"My daughter was in junior high when her grandfather lived with us," said Dale Masters, a Northern California manager for national elder care referral agency A Place for Mom. "She couldn't make noise in the house. She couldn't have her friends over, because her grandfather was there."

And older adults who move across the country, or even across the state, can face the uprooting of lifelong social networks. To live with their loved ones, they give up their neighbors and friends, their fellow church members, their doctors – the people who populate their daily lives.

The resulting sense of isolation can lead to a downward spiral into depression and illness.

"Missing that socialization with their peers is huge," Masters said. "Folks tend to slide faster when they don't have it."

In her 2008 study on widows 65 and older who live alone, gerontologist Elaine Eshbaugh found that the biggest predictor of deep levels of loneliness in older women is the lack of close friends their own age, not a lack of caring family members.

"Their friends and peers are very important support systems for them," said Eshbaugh, a University of Northern Iowa associate professor. "They prefer to rely on their friends, not their children.

"And if it comes to needing care, they prefer to go into assisted living or nursing care rather than moving in with their families."

Downsides to family care

Despite that, many elders extract promises from their families that they won't be sent into nursing facilities if they become frail – and many younger family members feel guilty if they don't invite older relatives to live with them.

Relatives remain the caregivers of choice for older adults. As a 2010 AARP Public Policy Institute study found, more than 61 million younger family members provide ongoing care, often in their homes, to aging loved ones, with their unpaid efforts amounting to $450 billion in services.

"When families promise they won't put their parents in a nursing home, they're really promising to take the best possible care of them," said Masters.

"But they can't be three awake shifts. Some families do a fantastic job, but they're not professional caregivers. It's a lot of stress all the way around."

They may miss medical crises – in particular, hydration and medication issues – until it's too late. And as Eshbaugh pointed out, older adults are more likely to be abused or neglected by a family member than the staff of a care home.

In Roseville, Bill and Jackie Merz plan to move into Eskaton's assisted living care one day if their health interferes with continuing to live on their own. They've planned for older age, and they have each other.

Ever since striking out from their native Chicago for California in 1970, they've prided themselves on the choices they've made for their family.

"We can't imagine asking our age 50-plus children at the height of their careers to take care of Mom and Dad," said Jackie Merz.

"We wouldn't have our children saddled with us," said her husband.

And their kids understand.

"I said, 'You know you'll always have a home here with us,' " said daughter Mary Merz, 50, an attorney in Chicago. "And their response was, 'No, thank you.' "

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