As Families Weather Tough Times, Trend of Multi-Generational Homes Grows

3.6 million American families are making room for older parents in their homes.

Sept. 23, 2008— -- Janis and Andy Mink got married, raised a daughter, sent her off to college, but are still not empty nesters. Three years ago, Janis' 87-year-old mother, Marie Hendrickson, moved in.

"I worried about her in the winter living by herself," Janis said. "What if she slips? What if she gets hurt? Who can help her?"

The Minks are just one of the 3.6 million American families making room for older parents, according to numbers released today by the Census Bureau. With more Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads, some parents who need care or have outlived their savings are moving in with their adult children.

"I really think we are going to see an increase in multi-generational households, based on need -- based on what's happening in our economy on foreclosures, on people having more difficulty staying in their homes or maintaining their homes," said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an advocacy organization.

And it's not just elderly parents who are moving in; the census finds a 75 percent increase in parents under the age of 65 who are now living with their adult children, as well as a 24 percent increase in live-in brothers and sisters.

In many immigrant families, multi-generational households are the norm; it represents an old-world approach to economic challenges facing families today.

"Family structure in the U.S. is evolving," Butts said. "It is evolving in some ways back to how families used to live. That is, they're living in multi-generational households."

The trend is due, in part, to the fact that people are living longer, and many want to be near family, or have special care-giving needs. All of those factors are compounded by the burden of the economy.

While moving in under one roof offers a practical solution to ease economic troubles, it can create a whole new set of conflicts. Family relations can be strained over issues, like paying the bills or determining who is in charge.

Susan Avery, executive editor of, not only studies the trend, but lives it. Her mother moved in 11 years ago.

"It really is: who's going to be the disciplinarian in this house? Who gets the last word?" Avery said. "Those are the things we're finding when inter-generational families live together."

For the Minks, the conflicts have been few and far between.

"We only have troubles when it comes to how long the broccoli should be cooked for Sunday dinner," Andy Mink said about life with his mother-in-law. "I prefer it crisp and firm, and my mother-in-law likes to cook it."

Hendrickson is financially independent and helps pay taxes on the property she shares with her daughter and son-in-law.

"There can be some really positive things as we're coming back together," Butts said. "And we're acknowledging the fact that we are interdependent, that we do need each other and we can help each other."

Hendrickson is feeling the benefits.

"Having someone here 24-7 is really nice," she said.

Hers is a portrait of a new American family -- choosing to take on life's challenges together.