As rents and mortgage repayments rise, is multi-generational living the secret to thriving in tough economic times?
Staring down the possibility of taking out a large mortgage to buy a house they could barely afford, Luke Saliba and his wife Claire Gooch decided to try something different.
Instead, the young couple moved in with Claire’s mother Sylvia and took out a much smaller mortgage to renovate her house.
“The idea of the nuclear family being disconnected in the suburbs [feels] like it’s been forced upon us over the last 100 years,” Luke said.
“I feel like us challenging that, in this small way, is almost going back to the way things should be.”
The living arrangement has allowed Sylvia to stay in her home which was becoming too costly for her to maintain alone.
“I get to stay in a house that I quite like, in an area where I have established friends — it meant that I wouldn’t have any issues,” she said.
Sharing the house has also benefited Luke, Claire and their two young children.
Claire said having a small mortgage of around $350,000 and living in an area with good services meant they were better able to manage financially as the cost of living rises.
“My daughter needs surgery for grommets and adenoids and tonsils,” she said.
“If we didn’t live like this, that would be a problem and we’d be having to make choices between food, rent bills and medical things that the kids have needed.”
Having another adult in the house also meant she and her husband could turn to her mother for advice.
“My mum is very different to how I am and that’s been really good because my kids get stuff that I wouldn’t be able to do with them [and] I get ideas that I wouldn’t have had.”
The living arrangement worked because they tried to relate like housemates, not mother-daughter, she said.
“This is a group house where we’re related, and because we have similar backgrounds … we can probably live together a little bit easier, but living with my daughter is not always easy, but that goes both ways, right?” Sylvia said.
Luke, who is the grandchild of Spanish and Macedonian immigrants, said having a European background meant there was no stigma attached to living with grandparents, and he valued the presence of an older generation in the house.
“If any of us have a bad day, we don’t have to travel to go and touch base and provide that family support. We’ve got it in-house,” he said.
Multi-generational households growing
Edgar Liu, a senior research fellow at the UNSW’s City Futures Research Centre, said economic circumstances were often the driving factor for people choosing to live in a multi-generational setting.
Dr Liu, who researched multi-generational living over several years and defined them as households with more than one generation of adults, said data from the UK and US showed that the economic shock of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) increased the number of multi-generational households in those countries.
“From the US, in particular, there is evidence that [showed] a normal rate of growth was about 1.5 per cent, for this kind of household,” he said.
“[That] doubled to about 3 per cent as the GFC came on, and then it continued for a couple of years before it died back down to the normal rate of 1.5 per cent.”
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) provided new data to the ABC on households containing three generations.
It showed a small increase in three generational living arrangements over recent years, from 275,000 in 2016 to 335,000 in 2021.
But Dr Liu said the largest growth in Australia had occurred in households where two generations of adults lived together.
While finance, especially the cost of care for both the young and the elderly, influenced people’s decisions to form multi-generational households, Dr Liu said family connection was the benefit most often cited once people had experienced such living arrangements.
But he said in Australia this style of living was still stigmatised.
“Acceptance was very conditional, you had to have a reason to do this, you can’t just want to do it,” he said.
“[For example] your mother was in a wheelchair so that’s why she had to live with you,” was seen as an acceptable reason, Dr Liu said, but if someone simply enjoyed living with their mother it would raise questions.
The solution to isolation
Irina Kawar has always lived surrounded by generations of family, and she wouldn’t want it any other way.
Irina believes a “joint family”, as it’s called in India, can solve much of the isolation and loneliness experienced in Australia today.
“This is a very good solution for the people who feel isolated because isolation is as big a problem in old age as it is in teenagers,” she said.
“It’s a win-win for everyone, isolated teenagers, isolated grandparents — together, they are happy.”
For Irina, living with her in-laws, husband and two daughters also makes financial and emotional sense.
She said she never felt alone or frustrated learning to be a parent when her children were young because she always had family around to support her.
As migrants in Australia, having grandparents in the house also helped her children maintain a connection to Indian culture and language, she said.
“[The grandparents] follow daily religious practices, so I don’t have to make an additional effort to bring this into [the girls’] life, they can grow up around those practices as naturally as my husband and I did,” she said.
“If it was just the two of us raising our girls, we would need to make the conscious effort to talk to them in Hindi but living with grandparents — they just learn Hindi naturally.”
For those who have never tried living beyond the nuclear family unit, Irina understands there might be trepidation.
But she said sacrifices were made whoever you lived with, whether it was a partner, child, parents or extended family.
“A little sacrifice is all it takes, but the benefits are great.”
Caring for Maria
Decades since she last lived with her parents, Nina Xarhakos moved in with her mother Maria in 2020.
At 92, Maria suffers mobility issues and was becoming isolated after the death of her husband and several close friends, as well as the closure of her Greek social club due to COVID-19.
“I’ve worked in the community sector with Greek-speaking elderly, [so] I’m very aware of how prevalent depression and anxiety is amongst the elderly,” Nina said.
She said she respected her mother’s desire to stay at home as long as possible.
“It’s satisfying to me to be able to make that sort of contribution towards her quality of life and I think it strengthens our relationship as well.”
Nina said her mother would feel less comfortable receiving care from outside providers and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find carers with the language and cultural skills to care for someone like her mother whose English was limited.
“I was born in Greece and I came to Australia when I was seven, I’m the daughter of migrants, I’m bilingual and bicultural,” she said.
“I have a greater understanding than, let’s say, a 20-year-old who’s born here who has limited Greek speaking skills and understanding of the Greek culture.”
While she was enjoying this time living with her mother, Nina said carers made large sacrifices and received little financial support.
With a grown daughter and no partner, Nina said she was in a position to become her mother’s carer, and the living arrangement was benefiting them both.
“I’m learning certain skills from my mother, she’s passing on customs and traditions that I hold dear as well. So there’s a lot to learn from someone with such wisdom and such capacity.”