- The model of multi-generational homes is the historical human default, and there is no good reason why this model can’t be much more widely employed here, in the richest society on earth. Tweet This
- We can and should reconsider the American fetishization of independence, and the related sense that interdependence is a matter of shameful weakness. Tweet This
Nursing home residents currently account for more than 40% of total American Covid-19 fatalities. It stands to reason—these residents are sitting ducks for the ravages of the virus, housed in standing reservoirs of our society’s most vulnerable citizens. It is, nevertheless, an alarming statistic, and a grim reality to picture—the fear, loneliness and despair that must course through the elderly population, as the virus runs rampant through a facility, tests are scarce, and bodies are carted out, unmourned, day by day. Staff members are often perilously undertrained, undertested and underresourced. Perhaps most terribly, loved ones are barred from visiting. It’s no way to live your final days, hours, minutes on this earth.
This is a particularly gruesome illustration of a much larger problem—the isolation of America’s elderly. A recent AARP survey that found 1 in 3 Americans age 50 to 80 report feeling lonely. This is both a moral failing, and a public health hazard. Social isolation is terrible for one’s health, as great a risk factor as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and obesity.
It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way; there is no law mandating that older Americans be shunted off to spend their final years alone. The model of multi-generational homes, where older parents spend their final years living with their children and grandchildren, is the historical human default, and there is no good reason why this model can’t be much more widely employed here, in the richest society on earth. Some elderly people, of course, are simply too sick to be cared for at home; in some cases, there is no alternative to a professional nursing facility. But plenty of older Americans would be perfectly able to spend their final years with family.
There is promising new evidence that Americans are increasingly open to housing multiple generations of family under one roof. In 2012, 18% of Americans lived in multi-generational homes, after steadily climbing from the all-time low of 12% in 1980, and spiking during the Great Recession. The current numbers are still far short of the 25% of Americans who lived with multiple generations in 1940, but contemporary architects and homebuilders are responding to this steady growth by rethinking the way a home can be laid out. As the New York Times reports:
architectural historians, statisticians and builders themselves are pointing out that the new household—and the house that can hold it—is much like the old household, the one that was cast aside after World War II by the building boom that focused on small, tidy dwellings for mom, dad and their two children.
One way that government can help with this transition is simply to get out of the way. Many municipalities make it difficult to build a home with a so-called “mother-in-law apartment,” for example. Michael Litchfield, author of In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House into Two Homes, reports that: “We still have zoning that was put in place in the 1950s, when farmlands turned into suburbs overnight, with houses designed for mom, dad and 2.3 kids.” This is a change that would be relatively easy to make, and political leaders should make it.
Unfortunately, though, removing counterproductive policies and setting up infrastructure will not, on their own, solve the problem of elderly isolation. The greatest driver of the recent increase in multigenerational living is not grandparents moving in with children and grandchildren, but adults between 25 and 34 (especially men) moving back home with parents, motivated by difficult economic circumstances. Increases, albeit smaller, can be seen across all demographic groups, with one vital exception: The share of Americans between the ages of 65 and 84 living in multigenerational homes actually shrunk between 2010 and 2012, the only age cohort for whom this was true.
The root of this problem is largely one of inculturation. Older Americans came of age during the postwar boom, when the material interests of appliance companies, car manufacturers, real estate developers and landowners coincided with some of the oldest American ideologies to enshrine independence as the ideal form of life. It was repeated so often it came to seem obvious. The boomers ran their lives, and raised their children, in line with these assumptions. Now, at the end of life, to spend your final days with your children and grandchildren seems both like an admission of failure, and a terrible imposition on the independence and mobility of the younger generations.
But these are particular, historically situated beliefs, nowhere embedded into the fabric of nature or necessity. We can and should reconsider the American fetishization of independence, and the related sense that interdependence is a matter of shameful weakness. It can’t be said often enough: in point of simple fact, we are all weak and we all need each other. This is not a cause for shame, a problem to be managed or technologized away. It is a good and beautiful part of being human.
Ian Marcus Corbin is the Co-Director of the Human Network Initiative at Harvard Medical School.