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In a pandemic that’s isolated us and exposed the gaps in our social safety net, sharing a home with parents, grandparents and siblings starts to look like a safer and stronger way to live – if we can overcome the stigmas of living interdependently

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Illustrations by Mary Kirkpatrick

Elizabeth Renzetti is a Globe and Mail columnist. Her latest book is Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls.

Many of my childhood memories have faded, but not the blissful hours I spent with my paternal grandfather. In the late 1970s, five decades after he’d arrived penniless on the boat from Italy, we sat together in his living room for long days and nights of TV. The Love Boat came on, then Fantasy Island. But what he really loved was The Price is Right, a game he approached with exquisite skill.

“Eight hunner anna sixty-five,” he would say from his vinyl recliner, a tuque from Harvey’s pulled down over his eyes and a pack of Rothmans within easy reach.

“There’s no way, Papa,” I’d say. “There’s no way that hifi costs 900 dollars.”

He would shrug, and Bob Barker would announce that the hifi did indeed cost $870. Papa said nothing. A lifetime of bricklaying did not make one boastful. And yet he had, as the kids might say today, mad skills – quite apart from judging the value of furniture on The Price is Right.

On the many days he looked after me, the youngest of his five grandchildren, he taught me things that were useful or beautiful, and sometimes both. I learned how to play the game briscola, using colourful Italian playing cards. He taught me to peel an apple in one long swoop, with a sharp knife (old Italian men believing that little girls either learn to use sharp knives or live with nine fingers). He showed me how to weed a garden, although his secret for growing tomatoes the size of grapefruit went to his grave with him.

I come from a family that embraces multigenerational living. We live in packs like meerkats. Papa lived in a little house in west-end Toronto with my aunt and my cousin. Later, my mother and I would live with her mother. Later still, my mother lived with my sister and her children.

My parents even lived with my paternal grandparents early in their marriage. The sailing was not always smooth. On my mother’s wedding day, my Nonna – who viewed my non-Italian mother the way a vampire views sunshine – said to her, “You be good to Nino. You can always get another husband, but I can never have another son.”

If those lunatics could live peacefully in the same house, what excuse do the rest of us have?

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According to Statistics Canada, only 6 per cent of Canadians live in a multigenerational household (three or more generations living together), although that figure is rising sharply and is in fact the fastest-growing housing demographic. The number is higher among Indigenous and immigrant families, which are more likely to include a grandparent or two under the same roof.

Still, an odd North American aversion to multigenerational living persists, especially when it comes to adult children living at home with their parents. I’m here to tell you why that is a pile of hooey, and why you should defy the cold individualism of the day and bring your family members closer. Yes, even the weird ones. Not the cheap ones, though. The cheap ones you can leave to fend for themselves.

First, though, the stigma. For that, we have to turn to popular culture. Why, for example, did Norman Bates turn into such a psycho? The viewer of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film is certainly led to believe that living with his mother in that creepy old motel drove him over the edge. Until he didn’t live with her, if you know what I mean.

In Italy, they’re called mammoni, the grown men who won’t leave home. In Japan, even worse, they’re called parasite singles, and they’re the reason an entire country is shrieking about its future tax base.

You’ve seen them on screen. Buster Bluth on Arrested Development, attending the cringy Motherboy ball with Lucille, the mother with whom he shares rather too close a relationship. In The Hangover, the saddest of all the bros is Alan, who likes to introduce himself as “a stay at home son.” The 2006 film Failure to Launch, which should have been called Failure to Laugh, triples the threat with three men who won’t leave home, and one woman who is a professional launcher (these people do exist, and for a fee they’ll try to fix your kids who are “stalling adulthood”).

It’s a dumb, easy joke: The dude who lives in the basement dusting Dorito crumbs out of his beard. The doesn’t-get-any-loser. Sad, frustrated, alone.

There is also the adult daughter left to wither on the vine in the spare bedroom, pitied and scorned by the parent marooned with her. Even in the 19th century, Henry James knew how much sharper than a serpent’s tooth it was to have a contemptuous parent. In Washington Square, the pompous doctor Austin Sloper cannot recognize any shining traits in his adult daughter, Catherine, and cannot conceive that anyone else would either. “Dr. Sloper would like to have been proud of his daughter,” James writes, “but there was nothing to be proud of in poor Catherine.”

Ouch. No wonder we have a terrible image of young adults who remain at home. Except that what we see on screens and in books is not an accurate picture at all. For one thing, it’s not rare. Consider how many young adults live at home, even before the pandemic forced them back to their childhood bedrooms. In the United States, more than half of 18 to 29 year olds live with at least one parent. In Canada, 35 per cent of 20 to 34 year olds live with their parents, a number that’s been rising steadily for decades. In Toronto, a miserably expensive city, that number climbs to 47 per cent.

In her book How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, psychologist Bella DePaulo offers a variety of reasons why young people might return home for a time, or never leave at all: The soaring cost of housing; the crushing weight of student debt; falling marriage rates; and, for a lot of people, because it’s comforting, stable and practical. She cites studies that show the vast majority of young adults contribute to household finances, and forge tighter long-term bonds with their parents even after they move out. The great majority say they’re satisfied while living with their parents (and, interestingly, parents often cite their children as a source of greater enjoyment than their spouses).

The stigma against living with your parents arose in the past century, Dr. DePaulo said in an e-mail interview: “Living apart from family – either with friends, or even better, in a place of your own, became aspirational for young adults. In a way, as marriage rates dropped and more people stayed single longer (or for life), living alone became a new marker of adulthood. It showed you’d arrived.”

But new economic and social realities mean we need to embrace multigenerational living and different kinds of co-housing, she said: “Taken out of context, that sort of value system marginalizes all the cultures in which family living is expected and valued. As diversity becomes more than just a buzzword, and as more people are pushed back into extended family or multifamily living as a result of economic challenges, those kinds of living arrangements may well get a second and more respectful look.”

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What might those types of living models look like? Well, if you want to see the platonic ideal (i.e., not my family) please step this way and watch the short video that Vogue produced in 2017 with actor Michael B. Jordan. For a time, Mr. Jordan lived with his parents in eye-watering splendour in his Los Angeles mansion. There were haters who heaped scorn on the actor for this living arrangement, but I feel this envy arose from the fact that they were a) not Michael B. Jordan and b) not the recipients of Mrs. Jordan’s cooking.

Mr. Jordan has said he preferred to be close to his parents because his mother has lupus and his father diabetes – and because he genuinely likes them. In the video, he kisses his mom (who is making his grandma’s rum cakes) and hugs his dad. He tells the interviewer they taught him about compassion. When the interviewer asks about his worst fashion faux pas, his mother immediately jumps in: “Ooo, that orange plaid suit.” This is the thing about living with your parents. There is always someone around who knows you intimately, in your worst moments and best. (I didn’t say this is a good thing.)

Perhaps you’re not Mr. Jordan, grabbing a bagged lunch from your parents before you jump into your gleaming white sports car. Perhaps you’re not Barack Obama, who ended up with more rooms than he could count and therefore was able to move his mother-in-law Marian Robinson into the White House. Perhaps you’re not Alex Trebek, who overcame a fraught relationship with his mother, Lucille, and built a granny house for her on his Los Angeles property.

You don’t have to be any of those people. You don’t have to be rich to live like the Ewings from Dallas, with crystal scotch decanters in every wing. In fact, it’s people at the other end of the economic spectrum who benefit most from the shared living costs and savings potential of multigenerational living. “The resulting savings can help to protect families from poverty and food insecurity,” Ottawa’s Vanier Institute of the Family said in a report. “In a 2011 study of multi-generational living in the United States following the Great Recession, researchers found that the poverty rate in multi-generational homes was lower than that of their single-generational counterparts.”

Not long before the pandemic landed, Loughborough University in England noted that a brutal labour market combined with rising cost of living meant that nearly two-thirds of young adults in Britain were living with at least one parent. The researchers expected this merging of households to be beneficial in the long run: “Since it involves pooling of housing and other resources, it has the potential to improve the overall living standards of those involved, and to enable parents to help their children in productive ways.

There is even a model for this now on television: In The Conners, three generations of a working-class family live in one house, doing their bills at the dining room table and fighting over the mortgage. It’s real and raw and hilarious – and Roseanne’s not around to tell them they’re doing it all wrong.

Fine, multigenerational households might make economic sense. But what if you have to live with parents who run around saying things like “Coldplay is my jam” and “that outfit is on fleek”? What if your newly returned fledglings never learned how to hang up a towel at university, despite the king’s ransom in tuition you were paying?

There will have to be compromises made, house rules drawn up, tough conversations over the dinner table. Perhaps even contracts written as multiple generations invest together. In the United States, the pandemic has seen a growth of interest in multigenerational housing, with separate living spaces and entrances, and adaptations that would suit later-life accommodations such as wheelchairs or walkers. It’s hard to imagine that the horrors we’ve seen in long-term care won’t have some people rethinking decisions around their elder folk.

Those kinds of large housing complexes are only going to work in certain geographic areas, for people with certain economic benefits. For the rest of us, especially those living in Canadian cities, municipal planners and politicians are going to have to be more flexible and creative. “We have to think about the cost of housing and how we do zoning” in order to create new housing models, says Ottawa architect Toon Dreessen, president of Architects DCA. That means encouraging laneway housing, and getting rid of R1 zoning that prevents single-family houses from being altered to accommodate different living spaces within them.

“Whether it’s the pandemic or the other pandemic of climate change or housing costs, all these other social inequities that are being cast into the light due to the pandemic, we’re seeing there is value to your bubble being more than just mom, dad and kids,” Mr. Dreessen says. “Giving kids an opportunity to know their grandparents for something other than two weeks in the summer is a really important life lesson and it helps make the connections between generations stronger.”

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My grandmother used to wait for me at the bus stop with a pair of scissors tucked in her brassiere, a word she defiantly pronounced with three syllables. I had moved into a sketchy high-rise development in downtown Toronto with my mother and her mother. When I came home late at night from my part-time job, Granny was determined to protect me from the various mashers and deviants she was sure walked the streets.

She never had to use the scissors, but my God I would have liked to see her try. Like my Papa, she had very little formal education but a jaw-dropping suite of talents. Raised in rural Nova Scotia, she could gut a deer and read tea leaves, darn a sock with a light bulb and mash potatoes using the sharp edge of a can. She could sew and quilt and knit and bake, and our apartment never lacked for those crocheted dolls that covered toilet paper rolls. I’m sure stabbing a deviant would not have been beyond her reach.

She taught me how to play the card game Auction 45s and how to mend a pocket, both skills I’ve since lost. Many, many days I wish I had not been so careless with her knowledge, and with our time together. That time of my life lives so vividly in my memory, it’s no wonder I’d like to recreate it. Do me a favour, though, and don’t tell my children; they’re not ready to face the future yet.

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