Intergenerational living provides financial stability, rewarding bonds
Growing up, Sabrina Gericke lived with her parents and her great-grandmother in the family's home in Wales, Wis. She was also very close to her grandmother, whom she calls "Omi."
"In German, 'oma' means grandma, but when I was little I said 'omi' instead and it stuck," says Gericke. "I remember Omi standing on the porch every day when I got home from school, waiting for me."
So when the time came for "Omi" – whose real name is Magdelena Feldmann – to leave her apartment in Oconomowoc, Gericke invited her to live with her and her husband, Matt, who was completely on board.
"I'm an only child and both of my parents worked a lot so I had a lot of 'alone time' as a kid. It's nice to have another person in the house," says Matt. "I like to cook and she helps me in the kitchen and shares recipes."
Three years ago, the Gerickes started to look for a home that would comfortably accommodate their expanded family that included Omi, who is now 90, and their dog, Lucy. They searched for a house with very few stairs as well as with a bedroom and bathroom for Omi.
They found the ideal home in Waukesha, where they live today.
"It's perfect for us," says Sabrina. "Our bedroom and bathroom are upstairs and Omi's is downstairs. There's even a walk-in shower in her bathroom which is so much easier for her."
The Gerickes made adjustments to their home so it was livable for Omi, including adding bars in the bathroom and "cams" in the living room and kitchen.
"Technology has made living together much more comfortable for all of us. I would be a nervous wreck all day if I couldn't stay connected with her," says Matt.
The Gerickes also installed a telephone landline for Omi.
"She had a cell phone, but it didn't work for her," says Sabrina. "She didn't keep it charged, so it was often dead. And she kept it inside a bag that was inside a bag that was in her purse, and that wasn't useful. Plus, she just likes having the same cordless phone she's always had."
Intergenerational living isn't a new concept, but it has become slightly more common – and mainstream – in recent years. It even occurred in the White House when President Barack Obama's mother-in-law moved in with the First Family.
"Intergenerational living has always been around since the cave man days, really. But today it appears that more families are considering it than in the past," says Mike Ruzicka, President of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors (GMAR).
In Milwaukee, intergenerational living has fluctuated between 9 and 12 percent in recent years. "I think you can safely say that around 10 percent of Milwaukee families are living in an intergenerational household," says Ruzicka.
Intergenerational families form for myriad reasons. Most of the time, it's due to financial savings gained by living together.
"In the wake of the Great Recession, many families decided to live together to save money, or because of a foreclosure," says Ruzicka.
But sometimes the decision to live intergenerational has nothing to do with money. Leigh Lanigan, who is the mother of five grown children, lived under one roof with four generations of family.
"My husband and I didn't buy our home or invite our family to stay with us because of financial need. We did it because it is a great way of living," says Lanigan. "We have a lot of fun together. Everyone pays for their own things and it works for us."
Cultural norms also play a big role in intergenerational living.
"Often recent immigrants live together, because that's how they did it in the old country," says Ruzicka. "It's not uncommon to see grandparents, parents and grandchildren living in the same dwelling in other cultures."
Another cause of intergenerational households may be the lack of housing units on the market. According to Ruzicka, local realtors are seeing an oversupply of apartments and not enough condos and single-family units on the market.
"That lack of inventory is forcing families to live together for an extended period of time, until, for example, a newly married couple can save enough to purchase a home," Ruzicka says.
And although it takes a shift in lifestyle to welcome extra family into the home, the Gerickes wouldn't have it any other way.
"Her memory for 90 is fantastic and she tells so many interesting stories to us," says Sabrina.
Recently, Omi shared a story about how she wrote "secret letters" to family members in other countries with skim milk while planning her escape from Yugoslavia. To read the letters, the recipient ironed over the stationery, burning the milk and making the writing dark brown and readable.
"I had never heard that story until last week and I was just amazed," says Gericke.
Of course living with more family members means there will be conflict at times. Although Gericke says they never fight, she did have to establish a few things when Omi first moved in.
"Omi is very traditional and old school, so in the beginning, if I would ask Matt to bring the laundry upstairs she would grimace and say, 'don't you tell your husband to carry the laundry upstairs!'" says Sabrina. "I made it clear that I would most definitely ask Matt to bring the laundry upstairs."
Both Sabrina and Matt find their living situation extremely rewarding, and they feel lucky to have such a close relationship with a family member with so much wisdom and experience. And Omi seems satisfied, too.
"I love living with my family," says Omi. "They spoil me rotten."
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