Multi-generational family living grows, forcing design changes

The trend towards multi-generational living, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is producing fresh approaches to Australian housing.

Urban designer Craig Christensen says more Australian families are following the lead from overseas and opting to live together.

“We need to build bigger apartments with separate space for grandparents, or houses with a studio or granny flat where they can have their own private space,” he says. “I think this is going to be a growing trend.”

Mr Christensen expects to see more mixed-use developments, with integrated aged-care living “either with separate blocks, or dedicated floors for older residents in regular buildings”.

Crown CEO Iwan Sunito says his firm’s developments now incorporate multi-generational designs.

“Some like to live together as it’s part of their culture, or kids might be trying to save money after losing their jobs during COVID-19, while other family members might have separate apartments on the same floor or in other buildings in the same complex. But I also think that COVID made us all value our closeness to family more.”

Read more: Social housing push unites foes

The University of NSW’s City Futures Research Centre says one in five Australians is now living in a multi-generational household.

The centre’s Dr Edgar Liu says the fastest-growing age group for multi-generational household members is the over 65s. “There’s an aversion to moving into aged care for obvious reasons we see now, with the aged care royal commission, and policy-wise, the government doesn’t want people to move into institutions; they want people to live in the general community. So, more families are considering providing that care and support themselves.

“You have young people who, increasingly, are unable to afford to leave home, and at the same time, you have (their parents and grandparents) experiencing perhaps similar financial stress,” Dr Liu says.

A year ago, he was concerned that not enough affordable housing with enough space and access to appropriate jobs and services was available for multi-generational families.

However, Mr Christensen says there are now many housing and planning solutions being devised to “help over-55s downsize, while enjoying integrated and independent lives through accessible and inclusive amenities, infrastructure and support”.

Mixed-use developments and apartment buildings will integrate over-55s housing into the community; more multi-generational housing will feature granny flats or small dwellings; innovative housing developments will house older generations on self-contained floors of the same building as offspring; ‘liveable’ housing designs will include more accessible doorways, stairs, grab rails and entrances to help over-60s ‘age in place’; and aged living precincts will be built above shopping centres and in CBDs to offer connection to community and essential facilities.

Read more: COVID doubles housing stress

The multi-generational trend is accelerating throughout the Western world, reports. The Netherlands has announced plans to construct 500,000 multi-generational dwellings over the next 20 years, four in 10 house buyers in the United States want space for a parent or returning adult child, and agents in the UK reported a 16 per cent jump in inquiry for houses with ‘granny annexes’ in the first two months of the pandemic in 2020.

Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United  in Washington, D.C., believed multi-generational living would decrease after the global financial crisis recession, but it didn’t.

“People are seeing the value and benefit when they share. They came together by need and stayed together by choice,” she said.

“Parents are juggling a lot. For families who are schooling at home, a grandparent can help. It gives an older person a sense of purpose. And for children, there’s nothing like having somebody else who loves you unconditionally.”

Read more: Safety and security leading housing concerns for older Australians

Predominantly Anglo-Saxon democracies have much to learn from other cultures when it comes to family living.

Fenella Souter, writing for Nine, says in southern Europe, many parts of Asia and the Middle East, it’s “perfectly normal” for extended families to live together.

“They take the rough with the smooth, even if it’s in tiny apartments with only one bathroom. Many families with those cultural roots keep up the practice here – and maybe that has reminded nuclear families what they’re missing out on.”

Soaring housing prices, dual careers, expensive childcare, and the dire state of aged care started the trend; isolation from older relatives during COVID made it more urgent.

“There are great advantages to living together,” says Elisabeth Shaw, a psychologist, and CEO of Relationships Australia NSW. “We’ve just got to be aware that many of us who are very entrenched in a Western society don’t have a framework for understanding and accepting it.

“So, if you spoke to your friends and said, ‘Mum’s annoying me today.’ They might say, ‘Well, of course, why did you let her move in?’ Whereas if you were in China, friends would be sympathetic and give you tips and normalise it.”

Dr Liu’s quote sums up the challenges of family living. One of his interview subjects, when asked what he liked most about living with extended family, said, “There’s always someone there.” The worst thing? “There’s always someone there.”

Anne Hollonds, a psychologist and Australian Institute of Family Studies director, says there are “tremendous benefits” to more families trying shared living.

However, it’s not for every family, and demands “a saintly tolerance”.

“It’s not a parent-child relationship in the same way it was. It’s adults sharing a house, allowing for privacy, showing respect, and being able to compromise.”

Have you considered extended family living? What set-up would suit you if you and your children decided to live together?

Read more: More older Australians take to shared housing

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