Ready for the Granny Flat?

When Dorothy’s husband passed away earlier this year, she was immediately invited to move in with her daughter and son-in-law in Vancouver. “It was a difficult decision because Graham and I had a lot of friends here in Victoria and had enjoyed our bridge games, weekend hikes and dinner parties with friends,” she says. “But I also liked the idea of being closer to my two granddaughters and this was an opportunity to enjoy their company.”

While Dorothy is in good health, she also felt it would be wise to be closer to her family, in case of a medical emergency. “My family doctor told me not to wait until I had fallen or been diagnosed with an age-related disease to make the move,” she explains. “He told me the probability of my remaining healthy was more likely if I were living in a family environment where I was cared for and enjoying the company of my family on a daily basis.”

By June, her family had renovated their basement to offer her a bedroom, bath and small sitting room. “I was able to bring some of my own things to furnish it and that made a big difference, having familiar pieces around to remind me of Graham and our life together,” she says.

Dorothy approached the new living arrangement with some trepidation, however. Her relationship with her daughter had been somewhat tumultuous, especially during the teen years. “The last thing I wanted was to have the same kinds of arguments with her,” she says. “But, it turns out my daughter has grown up and I guess I’ve mellowed too, so we seem to be getting along. And, I’ve gotten to know my son-in-law and seeing my granddaughters every day is such a gift.”

With a tough economy, many Zoomers find their children have moved back into the family home as a result of job loss or divorce. But the reverse situation can occur too, with grandparents moving in with grown children for a variety of reasons: to save money for both parties; as a result of health issues; or for accessible and reassuring childcare for the grandkids.

Combining households can be a challenging task for any parties, more so for families when there is a history of conflict or the risk of jealousy among other grown siblings. Attitude is important for both sides. Older parents may feel they’ve been forced to make the move because of an age-related incompetency; the grown children may feel resentful that they have now become caregivers.

Dr. R.C. Dubuc of Ottawa, recommends keeping communication open. “If the attitude is that two equally important households are being combined, respect for the needs and habits of both sides should naturally follow,” he advises. “If the older generation feels they are simply being assimilated into the younger family, the relationship won’t be as successful.”

Guidelines regarding routines for both sides should be talked through right at the beginning and regular family meetings held to discuss any issues needing resolution before they fester. Who will prepare meals? Will babysitting be expected? How will expenses be divided? How will personal space be established and respected? How will laundry and other household tasks be divided?

Dorothy feels lucky. “With my own suite in the basement, I have the luxury of my own personal space. At the end of the day, I can retreat to my sitting area and watch the television shows I enjoy or read,” she says. “It also allows my family upstairs to have their own privacy.”

She contributes to the household by babysitting one night every weekend and makes a point of being available if one of her granddaughters is ill and unable to go to school. She contributed to the cost of the basement renovation, shares in the expenses for groceries and pays for her own television and phone service.

Mealtime was initially a source of frustration. “Breakfast is a crazy time with the girls getting ready for school and their parents scurrying to get out the door for work,” she explains, “so eventually I decided to stay downstairs until they’d all gone. I was just adding to the confusion. Now, I can go upstairs after they’ve left and make my own leisurely breakfast. Family dinners, though, are a joint event and I prepare meals a few times a week for everyone. Sharing that time together is the best part of the day.”

– Bonnie Baker Cowan