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Sharing our HOMES and our HEARTS

As published in Senior Living Magazine, February 2013

When I first told others we were all moving in together, the most common refrain was “It might work for you, but there is no way I could live with my mom.” And while I understood others’ reluctance, it was a dream to raise our three small children (three, three and seven, at the time) with their grandparents (65 and 71) on Vancouver Island.

In 1995, our budget offered us a three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot raised bungalow on a quiet neighbourhood cul-de-sac. I could only imagine the flow of wisdom upwards from their apartment, and the flow of energy downwards from our small but busy quarters.

Having lived 3,000 miles away from my parents since their move to Vancouver Island in 1979, moving in together 16 years later meant making a plan. Our first challenge was to express our hopes and fears, and set some guidelines and boundaries around sharing a house.

While my father was somewhat reluctant, we all wanted it to work; after all, we may be looking ahead at possibly 20 years. We went in with our eyes wide open knowing it may mean a steep learning curve. We also knew we would always be family, success or failure, and we all wanted success.  What we had going for us was a solid marriage, a strong family bond, and a sense of adventure.

So, we started with long conversations over cups of tea. We talked about the inevitable noise of three small ones overhead, about coming and going. With a “not-so-open-door” policy, our kids would be welcome downstairs, but knocking was mandatory. After all, this was their grandparents’ home.

The kids were taught to be respectful of their older “neighbours,” and were encouraged to ask questions and to learn from their Nana and Pop’s stories. They had a lot of wisdom, not to mention countless war memories, books of every kind, great recipes, ideas for school projects, a strong work ethic, and the traditional “walking to school for miles uphill with no shoes” tales – our kids felt lucky.

In those earlier days, it was definitely more challenging. Our home had been split in two, so we all learned to live with two front doors and much less space. Our growing family shared bedrooms, one bathroom and learned to be patient and cooperate. My parents shared a small apartment suite and learned to drown out the noise from above, and the “always-on” washing machine.

One day, in early elementary school, our son was asked to draw his “immediate family” in his journal, where he promptly scribbled in seven smiling faces, all holding hands. While his teacher worked hard to explain the concept of “extended family,” our son’s response was instantaneous: “If they are in my heart and in my house, they are in my immediate family.” We knew then we had done the right thing.

With different generations, comes differing points of view – from raising children, to what the garden should include – so while we did lay some initial ground rules, it has always been a loving work in progress.

As the children have grown and my parents have aged, our needs have changed and we continue to adapt to new challenges. With time’s passing and children leaving home, our house has become a quieter place.

My father passed away in this house, and my mother now needs more help. We all walk a little slower after dinner; try to have more patience with each other; spend more time with doctors; and less time on shared vacations.

When I asked the family what was best about sharing our house, everyone has similar answers, but the resounding sentiment is that we have been most lucky to enjoy the “every day and ordinary” times together. Lots of life moments need to be shared right away; the tooth that just fell out; a part in the school play; getting your driving license; the A on a report card; and photos from a weekend camping trip.

And sharing our dinner table and our vacations has created memories, lots of meaningful conversation, stories and laughter. The energy and “life” in the house kept my parents young, and their sense of responsibility, work ethic and confidence along with a willingness to grow old with grace, inspired our children and gave them a sense of what aging and senior living is all about.

It has also meant being right there in the most difficult times, which, when shared, were hopefully halved; family heartaches and illness; watching my parents lose friends and family; and sharing my Dad’s leukemia diagnosis. His living and dying in our house was a gift, and our children are forever reminded of his presence here.

And for me, I have enjoyed a wonderful time filled with shared wisdom and laughter, a life that could not have been the same, even with parents living only a few streets away. They were, and my mom still is, part of my life in every way possible.

Now, it is our 20-year-old sons who drive my 83-year-old mom home and carry in her groceries, and our 24-year-old daughter who joins her at the movies. I am available for doctor visits and close by to help with recovery from surgeries, and Mom’s scones are still the best smell in this house.

Our lives are so much richer for having had my mom and dad up close and personal, in a house that still remembers my dad’s corny jokes and his bad sense of dress, and the joy that continues with a mom who is alive and vibrant. For this family of many more than five, we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

When friends who are considering “moving in” ask, I am quick to share this advice:

* Create separate entrances for each family;

* Soundproof between floors if you have the opportunity – they won’t hear the loud music playing and you won’t hear the loud snoring;

* Create separate laundry facilities for each family;

* Have the hard conversations and set guidelines, be honest but loving;

* Keep the conversation flowing, be open with communication, silence can breed resentment;

* Be willing to change the rules as the family grows, people age, and needs change;

* Mind your own business, not everything needs to be shared;

And finally…

* Hold on to your sense of humour, you are going to need it!

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