Nov 24, 2008

Grandparents in the Backyard

With the free fall of the stock market and the erosion of house prices, it's hardly a secret that many thousands of older Americans have taken a big financial haircut -- some so big that in many cases the option of living for many years in a pricey assisted living facility is no longer possible.

But for reasons of health, loneliness, or finances many older Americans cannot practically live on their own. Enter the Amish concept of the Groosdaads Haus, often a small bungalow built next to the big family house to which older Amish family members move at the start of what non-Amish might call their retirement years. But since the Amish stay active around the farm and in helping their grandkids until extreme old age, it must be understood that for them, "retirement" is a relative term.

For many non-Amish families facing a severe economic crisis, I believe the Amish system of living close to one another, but at the same time maintaining a substantial degree of privacy, offers many hopeful lessons. Not only does this allow families to share expenses but also to be well-positioned to help each other in myriad ways, small and not-so-small.

Marilyn Gardner of the Christian Science Monitor quotes Tim Spatola, a recent widower, as having preferred to move in with his daughter, son-in-law and their six children as opposed to going to an expensive retirement community. But from both his and his son-in-law's points of view, the key to the arrangement's success was that Mr. Spatola paid to add an addition to the house so as to preserve the younger generations' independence and privacy.

Unfortunately, most contemporary American houses are not designed so that older folks can easily move close, but not in, as the Amish do. But since I believe that maintaining privacy and independence are huge keys to successful, long-term intergenerational arrangements, I suggest that like Mr. Spatola and the Amish, it makes sense for families to first build on (or remodel) or, if necessary, move to a house with an existing in-law unit, and only then welcome Grandpa and Grandma. Adding a room or two with a separate entrance, converting a garage, and yes, in some cases, even building a cottage in the backyard can keep many families happily and affordably together.