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Multigenerational Homes Are a Source of Stress, Comfort During COVID-19

Teen Vogue logo Teen Vogue 2/17/2021 Taylor Weik
diagram © Rose Wong

Sanjali Narayan knew 2020 was going to be a transitional year — it was supposed to be the year she’d finally graduate from Loyola Marymount University and search for her first full-time job. What she didn’t anticipate was having her time at college upended by a global pandemic, forcing her to complete her degree virtually at home in Los Angeles while living with five other family members.

“It’s only recently that I’ve developed a deep gratitude for having a space I could go to be my own person,” the 21-year-old says about missing school. “It’s been challenging trying to work differently. I used to study with friends or at a café, and now I’m working alone while my family is downstairs and my grandma keeps knocking on my door.”

Narayan, who lives with her two older brothers, parents, and grandmother, is one of the 64 million reported Americans — 20% of the U.S. population — who reside in multigenerational homes, which are defined as two or more adult generations or grandparents and grandchildren younger than 25 living under one roof. Young people living in multigenerational households have faced unique obstacles during the COVID-19 pandemic, worrying about the health of their older family members while also trying to maintain their sense of independence and plan their futures.

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. census data, the number of multigenerational households has risen since the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. While this may be a newer development for some families, multigenerational households are more common among people of color — the study also found that 29% of Asian Americans, 27% of Hispanics, and 26% of African Americans currently reside in multigenerational households, compared to 16% of whites.

Narayan, who is Fijian and South Asian, grew up surrounded by her brothers and extended family, but adapting to her new reality was a struggle because her grandmother has dementia. She often has to explain to her grandma, whom she calls Aji, that there’s a virus going around so she understands why she can’t go outside.

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“The only person who really leaves the house for work is my older brother, so he wears a mask when he comes home and tries to limit his contact with my grandmother to keep her safe,” Narayan says. “She usually forgets about the coronavirus and will try to approach him for a hug when he walks through the door. She gets her feelings hurt and asks him if he thinks she smells bad, because of the mask.”

Kezia, who is 17 and preferred not to use her last name, is also familiar with the precautions needed to protect older family members. Her family, including her mother and brother, moved into her grandmother’s house in New York City just months before the pandemic because of a health scare.

Kezia and her family regularly wipe down everything that comes in and out of the house, including groceries and meals that their extended family drops off when they check in on her grandmother. Because her family rarely leaves the house, Kezia isn’t too concerned about getting sick. The main challenge, she says, has been learning how to better communicate with her family.

“My brother and I are Gen Z and it’s pretty clear that our generation is different from our mom’s generation and our grandmother’s generation,” Kezia says. “I’ve had to try to find ways to bridge the gaps. I’ll also try to use my skills as a young person to do things like help my grandma use Zoom so she can go to church virtually.”

Many teens and young adults living with many other family members have found themselves spending most of their time in their bedrooms, the one place they can have privacy. This is an especially urgent need among those living in confined quarters, like Isabell Cardenas.

The 25-year-old was living with her parents in her childhood home in Ventura County, California, during the pandemic when her older sister lost her house. Now, her sister and 13-year-old nephew share a room in their three-bedroom house while her boyfriend and their daughter live with his family down the street. Their belongings are currently being stored in a trailer and their backyard shed.

“Nobody in here knows how to knock,” says Cardenas, laughing. “As an adult, I need a little privacy. I also used to commute to my job at an ad agency and I’m so used to silence in the car and my cubicle. Here, my family can be pretty loud sometimes.”

Donna Butts, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Generations United, is all too familiar with the tensions that can arise when families fail to set boundaries. The organization, which has focused on building and strengthening intergenerational connections since its inception in 1986, has been responding to the global pandemic by offering programs and resources designed to keep grandparents safe and encourage bonding between older and younger generations.

“Multigenerational families will have to have conversations about shared space and private space in order to foster healthy relationships,” she says. “It’s also beneficial to address everyone’s habits because they’re not likely to change. Young people tend to be night owls and older people are more likely to be early birds, for example. It’s good to get that all out on the table and discuss expectations so resentment doesn’t build.”

Cardenas rarely leaves her home or her room, especially now that her sister, who is a nurse, has been assigned to the COVID unit at her hospital. As a way to cope with being cooped up in one room most of the day and maintain her mental health, she is learning to play the guitar and piano and has connected with strangers on Facebook who are looking to cowrite songs for fun over Zoom.

“Getting to meet up with someone and write a whole song in the span of a couple hours has been so much fun,” Cardenas, who is a lover of country music, says. “I’m realizing there’s so much more I want to be doing with my life.”

Despite the stress of caring for older family members and the monotony of seeing the same people every day, some young people may have found that their relationships with their families have grown stronger. Though Kezia shares a room with her brother, she says the two of them have been voluntarily hanging out more and arguing less.

“I was very surprised when I took a step back and was like, ‘I can actually tolerate you now,’” Kezia says. “We know it’s trivial to fight about petty things when people are getting sick and dying. We used to just wake up, go to school, come home, and repeat. Now, my whole family talks more and are able to have deeper conversations. We’re getting to know one another better.”

Narayan has developed a routine of taking her grandma with her on long drives so they can get out of the house together. She’s also begun writing poetry about her because it’s in her most difficult times that she thinks about how her grandma has persevered in her life.

“Living in an intergenerational home can be hard relationship-wise because we have such different ways of thinking,” Narayan says. “My grandma, for example, expects me to wake up early every day like her and is always worried about the fact that I’m not married yet. But I’ve had to remind myself that we grew up under different circumstances and that those differences should be celebrated.”

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