Families return to living together

Denise Remus pops in for a chat and a cup of tea with her parents every single day. She doesn’t have far to go – just down the back stairs and into the ground-floor kitchen.Two years ago, Denise and her husband, Bill, went into partnership with her parents, Doris, 79, and Bill, 83, in buying an attractive duplex in a nice part of Toronto so they could be close. It’s worked out wonders.

Just a few blocks away, when the Rev. Ernie Hobson, 80, developed a heart problem one morning, his daughter, Daphne, was at the door in seconds and called an ambulance. Reason for the speed: The Reverend and his wife live in a condo apartment right next door to Daphne, 52, and her husband, Brian, 59.

Parents and grown kids living alongside one other is a Canadian tradition right up there with, say, maple syrup. In farm country the “young folks” would build a bungalow for themselves while mom and dad lived right across the yard in the old farmhouse.

In today’s urban Canada that itch to keep close and in touch expresses itself in different ways. In some condominium buildings, as many as 15 per cent of the units are family multiple purchases.

Shared duples common
Farida Hauschild, a Barrie, Ont., realtor, says it’s becoming very common for families to hunt for duplexes they can share. And as our population ages, the trend will grow.

“Many families are looking to the future when the parents will want and need somebody close by,” she says. “Or the parents may have a place in the U.S. Sunbelt for the winter and this way there’s someone looking after their property back home.”

The biggest problem, she reports, is that quality duplexes – such as a nice old Victorian home divided into two apartments – are in high demand and sometimes hard to find.

No one knows that better than Denise Remus, 53. Her parents were living on the south coast of England when Denise, their only child, suggested several years ago they move to Canada to be close to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. To her surprise, they jumped at the suggestion. The first thought was to buy two condo units, “but I had never lived in an apartment,” thought Denise. She was not sure she would like it.

However, finding a suitable duplex wasn’t easy. Then one day their agent called. She had just the place, she said – however, at a lot more than their target price.

But once Denise saw the place, she knew it was for them. Back in England, Bill and Doris had already sold their apartment, and were willing, sight unseen, to put up close to half the cost of the duplex.

Tense moment

It was a tense moment when, in January, 1998, Denise accompanied them to Canada and took then to see their new home. They were, she admits, a little disappointed. Their two-bedroom ground floor apartment was in sore need of decoration.

Today though, it’s cozy and comfortable and Denise’s parents say it’s the nicest home they’ve ever had. That comfort level doesn’t even take into account the mutual advantages.

"They help me with Jennie enormously," says Denise, as her mentally challenged daughter snuggles down beside her. "Jennie goes down and gives her grandparents a good night kiss every night."

When Denise and Bill arrive home from skiing weekends, Doris always has Sunday dinner ready for them, and once a week they baby-sit their great-grandchildren. "We can help them and they help us," says Doris. "But we still like to do things ourselves. We can take the bus, or walk to the bank and the drug store."

Because Denise is an only child, financial arrangements were simple. If there’d been siblings, the duplex might have had to be sold when – and the two couples have discussed this – the older couple die.

Denise is effusive in praise of the arrangement: "I was worried that it would be a responsibility for me, but it has been very much a mutually beneficial situation. Life has been made so much larger for me since their arrival, and I’m relieved we’re here to keep an eye on them and provide that extra support."

Test drive the concept

But back to the FitzGeralds and the Hobsons. For this family, living together has long been a way of life. When their granddaughter, Casey was two, Grandpa Ernie was getting ready to retire as an Anglican archdeacon and it was decided they should move into the third floor of the large FitzGerald house. To "test-drive" the concept, the two couples shared a house for three weeks in Florida.

The big plus for the grandparents was helping bring up Casey. But they admit it was a strain at first looking after a two-year-old. Later they would drive her to school and Casey, now 16, says they became almost surrogate grandparents to her school chums. For years she and her friends would make birthday cards together for her grandparents — both born on the same day.

When stairs started to become a problem for the older couple, it was time to sell the house. Brian – who, his in-laws say, has a terrific feeling for family togetherness – again proposed they live cheek by jowl. This time he and Daphne bought adjoining single-level apartments.

There’s an extra degree of separation now – but not too much. They no longer take their main meal together, but Casey will still turn up at her grandparents’ door for a peanut butter sandwich and a talk.

Grandchildren, says Ernie, "like to get a second opinion, and if their grandparents are next door, they have another sounding board. We have been very fortunate." No one can remember a single serious disagreement in their years together.

Rare indeed.

Ground rules for living cheek to jowl

Make sure everyone is very compatible before trying any shared housing scheme. Take a holiday together to see how it works.
  • Privacy is paramount: Each couple must have its own space and privacy.
  • If you’re buying a duplex, make sure it’s a legal one; a neighbour with an axe to grind could bring your whole housing arrangement crashing down.
  • If you share purchase costs, consult a lawyer about any inheritance issues.