Multigenerational living can teach children compassion. Thinkstock

Census Bureau statistics and reports from organizations such as the Pew Research Center are confirming what anecdotal evidence already seemed to prove: Multigenerational households are on the rise. As of 2009, 16.7 percent of Americans lived in a multigenerational household. (See sidebar for more statistics.)  

What the numbers don’t show — what they can’t show — is what a blessing it can be for younger generations to have a senior family member living with them. 

Here are just three examples: 

Generational lessons

Renee and Phil Haney of New Iberia, La., welcomed Renee’s mother, Claire, into their home in 1995 after Renee’s parents separated.  

“Mama passed away on New Year’s Eve 2008,” Renee Haney said, adding that for the last nine months of her life she was in the hospital and then a rehabilitation center and nursing home. The family had hoped Claire would be able to come back home to them, Renee said, but she needed more care than the family could provide. 

Now, looking back, Renee told Our Sunday Visitor she can see what those years in a multigenerational household taught her own three children. When Claire moved in, the Haneys’ two sons were in high school and their daughter was in college. “It was a wonderful experience for all of them,” Renee said. “They learned compassion. They learned that, with family, you’re there for them. You step up to the plate. And they learned to have a positive attitude. Mama would say ‘I don’t know whether to laugh or cry’ and we’d say, ‘Laugh!’ They learned that in tough times you laugh and you hold on to your faith and God sees you through. 

“Another valuable lesson all of us learned was the meaning of faithfulness and commitment,” added Renee. “In spite of the decisions my dad made [that led to the separation], my mom always maintained contact with him and he was always included in family gatherings. In 2001 he suffered a stroke and spent the last five years of his life in a nursing home. She visited him every day and they were able to come to peace with each other. She never said an unkind word about him.” 

And just as the younger generations learned about living, they discovered more about dying: “God was so good to her and to us in her manner of dying,” Renee told OSV.  

It was a peaceful death for the woman who had loved to dance and had taught that to her children and grandchildren. “She died on New Year’s Eve,” Renee said, “and we said, ‘She’s no longer dancing on earth.’” It seemed obvious to them that their mother and grandmother had a prior commitment that evening ... and she wasn’t going to miss it.

A way of giving back

After David Kane’s father died three years ago, his mother began spending a few months at the homes of several of her eight children. The first time with the Kanes — David, his wife Ann and their six children — of Raleigh, N.C., was for six weeks. The second time was for four months. 

“We want to have her stay with us,” said Ann Kane, whose family attends Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Raleigh. “It’s a way of giving back to someone who has given so much to us. 

David Kane’s mother now needs professional care and lives in a Catholic-sponsored assisted-living facility, but Ann Kane called her time with the family “a blessing.” 

“Our children’s view of life has expanded. Now they know there’s more in front of them than just their little video games,” she told OSV. “They listen to stories at the dinner table, especially when their dad and their grandma start talking about ‘the old days.’” 

Abounding blessings

Madonna and Brian Farrell and their six children now call North Carolina home, but her memories of living in a multigenerational household go back some 40 years, when her maternal grandfather came to live with her parents and siblings on the family farm in Iowa. 

“I turned 5 that year,” she said, “and I only have a couple of clear memories of Grandpa during the time he lived with us.”  

Still, those few years made a lasting impression. 

“As far as it influencing me, I’ve often told Mom and Dad that they can live with us when they can no longer stay in an apartment,” Madonna Farrell told OSV. “Family taking care of family seems like the right thing to do. Now that Brian and I are parents of a child with special needs, of course we think about what will happen to Laura one day. But her two oldest siblings have already assured us that Laura can live with them if need be. That’s a great comfort to us, knowing she’ll always have family.” 

Bill Dodds and his wife, Monica, are the editors of My Daily Visitor magazine and the founders of the Friends of St. John the Caregivers (www.FSJC.org), an international Catholic organization that promotes care for family caregivers.