Skip to main content

The Metropolis and Wortz families enjoy a video game on Friday Family Fun night at their house.Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail

Four-year-old Oliver Metropolis lives in an old Victorian home in Toronto with his mom and dad, his grandparents Susan and David Worts (a.k.a. Sunana and Bumpy), and his Aunt Rebecca.

"It wasn't supposed to be a long-term situation, but somehow it works," says Oliver's mother, Genevieve Metropolis. She and her husband first moved in with her in-laws so they could tackle their student debt. Seven years later, the debt is long paid, Oliver is comfortably ensconced in a converted laundry room and the kitchen has undergone a $20,000 reno.

It can be chaotic, but everyone benefits, Ms. Metropolis says. "We have sit-down meals most nights and Ollie does little projects with every member of the household, from planting mustard seeds with Sunana to drawing with Aunt Rebecca."

Whether it's boomerang children returning home or retirees angling for more face time with the grandkids, an increasing number of Canadians are choosing to reside in multigenerational family groups. And both builders and municipalities are taking note, with flexible housing options and a loosening of zoning restrictions.

While multigenerational living is not unusual in many parts of the world, "the norm in Canada has historically been small nuclear households," says Barbara Mitchell, professor of sociology and gerontology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

Now, however, "we're seeing a rise in multigenerational families across cultural backgrounds," she says, adding: "Immigration has shown us how other types of households can work."

In 2006, about 515,000 grandparents shared a home with their grandchildren, according to Statistics Canada. That's up from about 466,000 in 2001. As Ms. Mitchell notes, "people are living long enough that we're seeing more four-generation households."

The economic downturn has been a factor, says Susan Newman, author of Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily. "People are realizing that family members are the first line of support when someone needs help."

But the changes are also societal. "In the past, you raised children so you could send them out on their own. Now, families are discovering a comfort zone that comes from living together and getting to know one another as people."

And what often begins as a short-term stay evolves into a long-term living arrangement. Many families find the pros of shared accommodation (reduced expenses, close proximity to aging family members and built-in babysitting) outweigh the cons (occasional friction and finding oneself in a queue for the bathroom).

"The main drawbacks for us have been finding space for entertaining and keeping everyone on the same page when it comes to disciplining Oliver," Ms. Metropolis says.

Another challenge is the clutter that accumulates when so many lives overlap. "The hardest part for me has been training young adults with teenage habits," Ms. Worts says. "You can't have five adults dropping their stuff everywhere, and I'm only now learning to communicate that better. But I also remind myself that this is a really nice situation and I'd miss them if they weren't here."

Because multigenerational living is bound to become more common as the population ages, builders are designing housing to be a better fit for extended families, says M. J. Whitemarsh, chief executive officer for the Canadian Home Builders' Association of British Columbia.

Cities, too, are changing zoning regulations to accommodate more flexible housing such as secondary suites, laneway houses and buildings containing two homes in one.

Metric Homes in Ottawa began offering families a home-within-a-home option three years ago, thanks to new zoning bylaws. From the street, the dwellings look like single-family homes, but behind the exterior walls are two buildings: a two-storey house with a bungalow attached.

Six months ago, David Proulx moved into one of these homes with his wife Brenda and their two children. They were joined by Brenda's mother and her husband, both in their mid-70s. "I've lost both parents and Brenda lost her father, so we know how important it is to have time with your parents while you can," Mr. Proulx says. "The move was about bringing the family together."

The homes are separate except for a shared entrance through the laundry room. "The cool thing is we can go back and forth, yet everyone still leads their own lives," he says.

Other families are content to work out their differences within four walls. Mintu Sandhu shares his Winnipeg home with his wife, their three children and his parents. "My father had a heart attack a couple of years ago and we can take better care of him this way," Mr. Sandhu says.

The family immigrated to Canada from India, where multigenerational living is common. "When I was 18, people asked why I lived with my parents," Mr. Sandhu says. "I'm 40 now and they still ask the same thing. But that's just the way it is. We have a lot of respect for our elders and we're always learning something from them."

Eventually, he hopes to take advantage of a new initiative from the Manitoba government that offers forgivable loans for "granny" suites, but in the meantime he says his family has no problem keeping the peace. Their secret? "Just let everybody work out their own problems and don't interfere."

In Vancouver, builders have gone a step further, thanks to bylaws introduced last summer that approved construction of laneway homes. "Laneway homes are often used for extended family," says Byron Wiebe, owner of Laneside Home Design in Vancouver. "About a third of my clients intend to either house their parents or children in a laneway house."

Cecile Larsson, 67, is currently bunking in with her daughter and granddaughters while she awaits completion of her new home, 16 feet away in her daughter's laneway. They will still be close, but not too close, saysdaughter Colette Larsson.

"We've had some touchy moments living together due to different parenting styles," Ms. Larsson says. "I have to watch myself because I could revert to a snippy 15-year-old all over again. But I'm 46, so we have an adult discussion about it instead."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Interact with The Globe