NPR

When Grandma's House Is Home: The Rise Of Grandfamilies

The number of grandparents living with their grandchildren is up sharply. (Getty Images/Ikon Images)

In a shift driven partly by culture and largely by the economy, the number of grandparents living with their grandchildren is up sharply. According to recent U.S. census data, such families have increased by about a third over the past generation.

"Once the recession occurred, we actually saw a real uptick in the number of kids living with their grandparents, and now the numbers are close to 8 million," says Gretchen Livingston, who has studied the trend for the Pew Research Center. "To put that in perspective, that means that about 1 in 10 kids are living with a grandparent."

Sometimes Grandma comes to live with the family — and sometimes Grandma is the family. In about a third of these families, there is no parent present. Grandfamilies are so common that you'll see public housing complexes designed with this in mind: wide walkways, everything on one floor, guardrails — and then outside the window there's a playground.

Donna Butts of Generations United says that while many families love the arrangement, there can be challenges, especially for the older generation. (Read a new report from Generations United on the state of grandfamilies in the U.S. here.)

"They usually aren't expecting to be taking care of the children, so they're not prepared financially. Their home may be great for a retired person or a retired couple but not for little toddlers. Many of the grandparents — about 58 percent — are still working, so trying to juggle taking care of a child," Butts says.

This often happens at the time grandparents are in their peak saving years for retirement, so if they're spending that money taking care of grandchildren instead, Butts says, it can have a serious long-term impact.

There's also a cultural dynamic at play, Butts says: Even if some people don't have to share a roof for economic or other reasons, you see some families — often Hispanic and Asian families — who want to. Those families are twice as likely to live with multiple generations in one house.

One such family is the Limongis in Queens. Diana Limongi Gabriele lives with her parents, her husband and her young son in a house that's divided into two separate apartments. Neither family could afford to buy a home on their own, so they pooled their resources.

"It kind of made sense financially for both of us," Diana tells NPR's Steve Inskeep and Jennifer Ludden.

"I thought it was a very good idea because I can't do it alone," says Diana's father, Lizandro Limongi, who moved to the U.S. from Ecuador 39 years ago. This is the first home he has purchased.

There are benefits, Diana says, like the fact that her son gets to talk to his grandparents speaking Spanish. "It's really priceless," she says.

Her parents also help with child care — baby-sitting and day care pickup. But there are definite drawbacks. Limongi says it's difficult to hear frequent parenting advice from her parents. "There are days when you just kind of retreat to your own space, and I'm like, 'OK, thank you for your comments. I'm going to leave now,' " she says, laughing.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne with an update now on a topic we began looking at two years ago - America's modern families. This morning, families that don't seem so modern. Here's Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: More people have extended family members in the house, especially grandparents, putting three generations under one roof in a seemingly old style. NPR's Jennifer Ludden starts us off with some numbers here. Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what's going on?

LUDDEN: So we're talking about, you know, increasingly complicated family structures in this country but the Census Bureau asks the simple question - in which households are there grandparents and grandchildren? And that number has really gone up sharply by about a third in really just the past generation. I spoke with Gretchen Livingston who studies these families with the Pew Research Center.

GRETCHEN LIVINGSTON: For a while there, the numbers were going up somewhat, but then once the recession occurred, we actually saw a real uptick in the number of kids living with their grandparents. And now the numbers are close to 8 million. To put that in perspective, that means about 1 in 10 kids are living with a grandparent.

INSKEEP: Eight million. So grandma comes to live with the family here?

LUDDEN: She does. You know, Steve, sometimes grandma is the family. People come to live at her house, and a lot of times, in a about a third of these cases, there is no parent present. In fact, these so-called grandfamilies have become so common in America, you now see public housing complexes designed with this in mind. So you've got the wide walkways, everything on one floor and the guardrails, and then outside the window, you've got the playground for the children.

INSKEEP: Wow, and this cannot be easy for everybody who ends up doing it.

LUDDEN: It's not. It's not. I spoke with Donna Butts who is with Generations United, which advocates for these kinds of families. And she says while many love the situation, there can definitely be some challenges for the older generation.

DONNA BUTTS: They usually aren't expecting to be taking care of the children. So they're not prepared financially. Their home may be great for a retired person or a retired couple but not for little toddlers. Many of the grandparents, about 58 percent, are still working. So trying to juggle taking care of a child.

LUDDEN: And so you can see the same dynamic that we have working parents, working grandparents - all the more difficult. But Butts says there's also a cultural dynamic here where even if some people don't have to do this for economic or other reasons, you see families who really want to do this and Hispanic and Asian families especially. They are twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to live with multiple generations in one house.

INSKEEP: So let's meet some people who do this. Diana Limongi Gabriele is in our studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

DIANA LIMONGI GABRIELE: Hi, good morning. Thank you for having us.

INSKEEP: And you notice she said thank you for having us. That's because she's brought along her father, Lizandro Limongi. Welcome to you, sir.

LIZANDRO LIMONGI: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: She lives with her father. She's also a mom with kids. And as I understand it, you bought a house together that is divided into two apartments. So you've got two couples in the same house. How do you have it set up?

GABRIELE: So it is really two separate apartments. However, you know, we have a basement that we share, we have a backyard. And honestly, my parents' door is always open, so my son goes up and down whenever he kind of wants to say, hello, grandma and grandpa.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. How old is your son?

GABRIELE: He's 3-and-a-half.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's great. Now whose idea was it to buy house together?

GABRIELE: I think it was both of us? I don't think one of us wanted it more than the other. Our parents couldn't buy a house alone where we wanted to live. We couldn't buy a house alone where we wanted to live. So it kind of made sense financially for both of us.

LUDDEN: So, Mr. Limongi, can I ask you, what did you think when this idea came up?

LIMONGI: I thought it was very good idea because, you know, I can't do it alone.

LUDDEN: You could not do it alone? You could not afford a house. This is your first house, is that correct?

LIMONGI: Yes, it is.

INSKEEP: How long have you been in the United States?

LIMONGI: Thirty - 39 years.

INSKEEP: And I believe you came from Ecuador, is that right?

LIMONGI: Yes.

INSKEEP: So more than 30 years in the United States, finally an opportunity to buy a home, and it's the home with your daughter and your son-in-law and your grandson. What's that like for you?

LIMONGI: I love it.

GABRIELE: He really does. He's not just saying that.

(LAUGHTER)

GABRIELE: You know, he - parents kind of - you see a whole side of them when a grandchild comes into the picture. And for me, especially, it's really important because of the language and the culture that come along with that. I speak to my son in Spanish, so having my parents so close by allows him to really practice his language skills every day. It's really priceless.

LUDDEN: Diana, you've written about this, and you did talk about how as wonderful as it is, sometimes you guys can get on each other's nerves and I guess that parent-child relationship never really quite goes away.

GABRIELE: It never goes away and there's an added layer when, you know, the child has a child because the grandparents, of course, want to have an input.

INSKEEP: Oh, and then your parenting is being called into question.

GABRIELE: Yes. There are days when you just kind of retreat to your own space and, like, OK, you know, thank you for your comments. I'm going to leave now.

INSKEEP: Mr. Limongi, do you get babysitting duty?

LIMONGI: Yes. Yes, I love it.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah?

GABRIELE: Yeah, he lets him eat chocolates and do whatever he wants.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Not that anybody's upset about that.

GABRIELE: It's very funny actually.

LUDDEN: So, Diana, what's it like for your husband?

GABRIELE: He and my father have a really good relationship. You know, my husband is from France, so they enjoy the same sports. They watch soccer together, so they get along.

INSKEEP: Is this a very natural experience for you because of the country from which you came?

LIMONGI: Yes, it is. You know, in Ecuador, the people live not too far, you know? I can see your parents every day.

GABRIELE: Yeah, I don't think that there are many three-generational houses in Ecuador from what I've seen 'cause I have lived there before, but the idea of family is different. So even if the kids live separately, I think it's very important for the kids to have that contact.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned that you are doing this in part for financial reasons. You live in New York City. Real estate is very expensive. It would've been difficult for either couple to buy a house alone. If you could have afforded separate houses, would you live together anyway?

GABRIELE: I personally think maybe, yeah. And the reason I say this because before we didn't live together, we saw each other a lot. And then what's happening now is that, you know, my parents are getting older. They're going to retire one day. So I wouldn't want them to be far away.

INSKEEP: Mr. Limongi, how about you?

LIMONGI: Same thing. You know, I love my daughter. I can't live, you know, too far.

INSKEEP: You can't live too far away.

LIMONGI: Yes.

INSKEEP: Well, Diana Limongi Gabriele and Lizandro Limongi, thanks to both of you.

GABRIELE: Thank you.

LIMONGI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: They are a father and daughter living in a three-generational home. They spoke with Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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