Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - September 27, 2013

Six people, three generations, one home

Palo Alto's multigenerational homes follow a national trend

by Karishma Mehrotra

Kabir Bhatia was 5 months old when his grandmother, Sudesh, came to see him for the first time. On the way over to her son's home, she told her husband, "Kabir hasn't seen me. If I tell him to come to my arms and he cringes, I will feel very bad."

Her husband, Inder, told her she was crazy.

"I entered (the house). Kabir was in his mother's arms. I said, 'Kabir,' and he immediately jumped to me!" Sudesh said. "I was in tears."

Just recounting the story — Kabir's reluctance to leave her arms, the tightness of his hug, the emotion of the moment — left her welling up.

"I think it's simple pleasures," her daughter-in-law, Swati Bhatia, said. "(We're) not a big story, but there are simple pleasures."

It's those simple pleasures that convinced Inder and Sudesh to move in. Since December 2011, they have spent most of the year living in their son's Palo Alto home with his wife and two kids.

And the Bhatias are in good company. Whether there are simple pleasures or not, something is bringing grandparents into the Palo Alto homes of their children, creating what are known as multigenerational households.

Almost 7 percent of Palo Alto families lived with relatives who were older than 65 in 2010, according to the United States Census Bureau. The 2000 Census did not measure the same statistic but did show that barely more than 2 percent of Palo Alto families lived with extended relatives who were older than 18 years.

It's a rising trend throughout the country. The Great Recession catapulted the number of Americans living in multigenerational homes to 51.4 million — 16.7 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center report.

In other words, one out of every six Americans is living in a household consisting of at least two adult generations or of a grandparent and a grandchild. And 66 percent of those said that the economy was a reason for their living status, according to a 2011 survey by Generations United, a national organization focused on intergenerational programs.

The Pew Research Center noted these new numbers were a "significant trend reversal," harkening back to times before World War II, when generations of farming communities inherited land from their parents. A growth in nuclear-family suburbs, a decrease in immigration and a rise in the well-being of seniors led to a sharp decline in multigenerational homes between 1940, when one in four homes were multigenerational, and 1980, when only 12 percent were, the Pew Research Center said.

Part of the recent return to post-war times can be attributed to a new wave of immigrants who are more inclined to live in these multigenerational homes. But the trend has affected all demographics. Major reasons include a population boom (there are more grown Baby Boomers for elders to live with), Medicare cuts that incentivize children to act as caregivers, an older median age of couples marrying for the first time and an increase in unemployment among adults between the ages of 25 and 34.

The middle generation involved in this trend is called the "sandwich generation": the one in seven American adults squeezed between caring for their elderly parents and caring for their young children. The number of sandwich adults is also on the rise.

Why stay together?

Those reasons don't pass the lips of Karine Dame. The single mother of three lives in Palo Alto and has kept her parents close, partly for the help.

"As long as you can keep your family around, there are more times when grandparents start to help out because everything is just so expensive," the special education aide at El Carmelo Elementary School said.

The Bay Area is one of the most costly places to have a baby, according to an August survey by Redfin, an online real-estate brokerage. It costs the average San Jose family more than $41,000 for a baby's first year — the highest price in the country.

As the Dame kids grew up, Karine's parents — Nan Dame and Carl Mortimer — were so involved, it made more sense to pay one rent. They were already cooking dinners for each other, giving each other rides and spending most of their time together. So, in 2009, they moved into a Palo Alto home with a small separate living quarter in the backyard for the grandparents.

"I think it's good for the generations to at least be close by and together," Nan said. "Maybe not necessarily where you are running over each other all the time, but at least it's close. To me, that's preferable to not being close enough."

That's the way it has always been for the Dames; Karine and Nan grew up in multigenerational homes as well.

"It was the norm," Nan said.

Not only do the three kids — the 10-year-old, the junior at Palo Alto High School and the college sophomore — get a sense of security, Nan said, they always have someone to turn to. Because she is a nurse, her grandchildren almost always come to her before their own mother for medical help or with health issues.

"It's just really close with everyone. I can't say any one bond is stronger," Keani, the oldest, said of her relationships with her mother and grandmother. "We spend (the same amount of) time with everyone."

The Bhatias describe a similar reasoning for living in a multigenerational home. Vikas' parents got their green cards less than two years ago and have taken the opportunity to forgo their usual, hot Indian summers for a breath of California air (they love the freshness) — much to the enjoyment of their grandkids, ages 6 and 9.

"Family, family," grandfather Inder repeated. He attempted to encapsulate his reasoning with an Indian saying: "Mool se zyaada, byaaj pyara hota hai."

While Inder and his wife, Sudesh, talked over each other, trying to give each other the proper English words, Vikas chimed in with the punchy translation: "You love the interest more than the principal," the principal being one's kids and the interest, one's grandkids. His parents gave him an approving giggle. With the love for a grandkid, there is less parental responsibility and "that makes a difference," Sudesh said.

The feeling is mutual. Kabir and Rohan count down the days until their grandparents come back from their visits to India. When they arrive and put their stuff down, "The kids go berserk," Swati said.

"It's boring when they're not here," said Kabir, a 9-year-old. He and his 6-year-old brother have a list of Indian foods that their grandmother — who they call Dadi — makes for them.

"Mom's (food) isn't much different, but Dadi's has the touch," Kabir said. Just talking about their Dadi's famous cookies made the children run off and grab one of her homemade snacks.

According to Generations United, 82 percent of adults in these multigenerational homes said the arrangement "enhanced bonds or relationships among family members." Vikas — a former PayPal employee who said he is now "trying out some things of (his) own" — said that even more than the enhanced bonds, it's an "ideal arrangement."

"It feels complete," Vikas said. "It feels whole."

The domestic front

It is ideal, in part, because of the extra help on the domestic front with child care, cooking and other household chores. Consequently, Vikas and Swati — who works at PayPal — have more freedom to focus on work or spend time with each other. That help was especially crucial when the family went through a yearlong remodeling process, Vikas said.

"I don't think we could have actually done it without them," he said. "Our life is definitely much better from having that kind of support."

Sudesh said she finds pleasure in helping out.

"I am very happy to be here," she said. "I can give them time to go out, and they can enjoy their life."

Still, Vikas said he doesn't think he would be able to provide this much support for his kids, anticipating a different retirement for himself.

"It would be great to be in the same city but being a part of my children's domestic life and bringing up their children is not a part of my plan," he said. "Even if I thought otherwise, their partners are unlikely to want that in any case.

Swati expressed a similar sentiment.

"I think that's the reason we have gratitude and appreciation for (his parents), because both of us were saying there is no way we are doing this for our kids," she said, giggling.

Sudipta Bhowmik Desai felt the same gratitude when her husband's parents — Akhilesh and Vina — came to live in her Palo Alto home in 2004. (Akhilesh and Vina continued to split their time between here and India but now only spend about two to three months a year in India).

"We just get so caught up in the day-to-day life," the stay-at-home mom said. "But thanks to parents being there, life doesn't seem as hectic."

When both her kids were young, she felt comfortable leaving them with her parents-in-law. She especially appreciated the help when she was pregnant, noting that without them, it would have been "a hundred times more difficult."

Every little thing — a trip to Target or getting a kid in a car seat — is a little easier with two couples raising two kids. Both Sudipta and Dwipal, her husband, said they can afford to be a little lazy with the additional assistance. Every morning, when their 6-month-old, Shaurya, wakes up at 6:30 a.m., Dwipal picks him up, gives him to Akhilesh and goes back to sleep.

Sudipta said she has more people to turn to for advice. Right now, the four of them are working to potty train the 2-year-old, Shantanu.

"I have (Dwipal's) mom's experience to fall back on," she said. "I have that resource readily available, which I don't know if my parents had because we were in a nuclear family."

On top of the help, both the Desais and the Bhatias appreciate the culture the grandparents have brought into the house, with language, food and, for the Bhatia's, TV shows like Master Chef India.

Two couples, two separate worlds

For Dwipal, the arrangement works out because his parents are so independent. Akhilesh can drive, and he takes woodworking lessons at the Palo Alto Adult School. Until last year, the retired businessman was working at Fry's. He and Vina can get their own groceries, go out for movies and watch their favorite Indian television channel in their bedroom.

And Dwipal, who works at Samsung, said that his parents have a social life more vibrant than his. About a year ago, because Akhilesh and Vina were accustomed to a lively community life back in India, they created a social circle here by meeting friends of friends. (Recently, they went to Yosemite with five other couples, three of whom they didn't know beforehand.)

Vikas Bhatia, on the other hand, said he doesn't think his parents have enough of an independent social life.

"That is one thing that we would actually like to figure out. We haven't cracked into that yet," he said. "I want them to have people that they know independent of our relationships."

Nevertheless, both of Vikas' parents have plenty to keep themselves busy — enough to say that the word "bored" is not in their vocabulary.

Sudesh is the first one up in the morning, beginning her prayers at 5:30 a.m. in the peaceful silence before the morning chaos. Before 7 a.m., she has tea ready for her husband. Once the franticness of the morning routine is out of the house, the two have time to practice yoga, take the Palo Alto shuttle service to the library, read books, play board games or take care of the dog, Rocco.

But more than anything else, Sudesh cooks. She has finished cooking dinner before 2 p.m. By late-afternoon, it's time for a quick nap. Once their kids are back from work and their grandchildren are back from school and after-school activities around 6 p.m., it's family time until 9. Everyone eats his or her dinner at different times, all milling around the open kitchen and living room area, with "plenty of conversation," Vikas said.

He said that this flexibility enables them to avoid conflict.

"We are very, very fluid," he said. "Everyone does their own thing but around each other."

"There is nothing forced," Swati added. "Fluid is the right word. It's all acceptable."

Not for everyone

But conflict isn't always escapable.

According to the Generations United survey, 78 percent of adults in multigenerational homes said that the arrangement can sometimes contribute to stress between family members.

"Stress" would be an understatement to describe Katie Hafner's try at multigenerational living. She invited her mother to stay with her and her daughter in San Francisco for what they hoped would be their "year in Provence" but which instead ended up resurfacing childhood resentment. There were tiffs over her daughter's musical talent, types of lettuces to buy and garage space, Hafner said.

The experience was strong enough that Hafner wrote the memoir "Mother, Daughter, Me" — all about "what happens when you are sharing one refrigerator," she told the Weekly. On Aug. 18, she discussed her book at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

In the book, she writes: "(Most) people know better than to try what we're trying. They know ... that everything can turn into a tug-of-war, that battlefields can be as small as a utensil drawer, plump with meaning."

Hafner's book begs the question: Even if people feel an obligation to their elderly parents, what happens when it is more than they can handle?

The memoir "would resonate with many of us who are feeling like we are right smack in the middle of this time period in our life where we've got aging parents, kids to take care of and what do we do? How do we manage the family history and the caretaking and doing the right thing?" she told the Weekly.

When Hafner told a friend in Beijing that she was entering into this unconventional living setup, the friend said, "Oh, how Chinese of you!" Others were skeptical of her decision, citing that it wasn't in her "cultural DNA."

There is something to be said about race and multigenerational homes. In the bounce back to multigenerational homes during the recession, 22 percent of all three-generation U.S. homes were Hispanic, 23 percent were black, and 25 were Asian. More than 40 percent of each of these races lives in a three-generation household while only 28 percent of white households do, according to the Pew Research Center.

"In India, this is how it always works," Dwipal Desai said. "I think over here people think of it as a novelty, but that's typically how it is in India." Because India does not have the same government social net, elderly Indians depend on their children, he said.

Karine Dame said that what seems to be a novel concept used to be an American norm.

"It's not the popular Silicon Valley thing. It's not the popular yuppie thing, but it used to be," she said.

The Dames' move-in was not the disaster that Hafner experienced, but it demonstrates that multigenerational living is not always a smooth ride.

Less than two years ago, the house that they were renting went through a foreclosure, and their spacious living arrangement went out the door with it. Now, they live in a cramped house with one bathroom. In the summer, the kids — Keani, Kabria and Keebin — want to stay up late while their grandfather needs to wake up early for work in the morning. The six of them debate over shower schedules; they can't run the dishwasher and shower at the same time; and the hot water is not unlimited. Nan said she sometimes feels like she is in a "bathroom in a dormitory."

But struggle builds character, Karine and Nan said.

"I try to explain to (the kids) that the world doesn't revolve around you," Karine said. "They need to think about everyone — like their grandparents who are trying to sleep — and they're not the only thing in the world."

Other issues do arise. Karine doesn't like that her parents are always willing to give the kids rides when they should be riding their bikes. And she had to tell her father to stop buying Jamba Juice for Kabria every time he picked her up from practice. Karine said the kids know who to exploit when.

Swati Bhatia also mentioned one argument that she can't forget. Although she didn't remember what it was about, it's stuck in her head.

"It was three of us sitting and crying. I don't remember which one of us said this but one of us said, 'If people (who are) like us, if a family like us is crying, then I don't know what's going to happen to the rest of the world.' I think that moment — it's a realization that 'Man, we have it very good.' We should count our blessings that we got parents like them. It's as perfect as it gets," she said.

It may be a blessing, but it took awhile to get that way.

"I think in the beginning, there was definitely adjustment," Swati said. "When people live together, they have to get used to each others' styles. You have to adjust."

Swati said there have been disagreements over how to raise the kids, like the number of after-school activities they're involved in.

"We respect them a lot. We listen to them. We take their input," she said of her in-laws. "But I think at the end of the day, I would say the decision-making is concentrated between the two of us."

For the rest of America, that is not always the case. The Pew Research Center found that out of the 6.6 million older adults living with their children, 58 percent were the household's head while, in 42 percent, their adult child was the authority. When the older adult is younger than 65, the older adult is the head about three-quarters of the time.

Making it work

In the Dame household, the authority rests with all three of the adults. They never explicitly created rules because they were very close before they moved in with each other.

"If everyone is totally used to having their own space ... (living together) would probably be really hard," Karine said about other families trying to live in this arrangement. "If they aren't around each other a lot and they haven't stayed together a lot, I wouldn't suggest it because it's probably going to be a hard adjustment."

Nan said it's important to feel comfortable in one's own home, even with the little compromises here and there that have to be made.

"There are things, like the whole TV issue," she said. "Do you have a little bit of space of your own, and is it really your own? ... I think people have to be careful, if they want to have multiple generations (in the same home), about the rules that they feel like they have to enforce."

Swati Bhatia said Vikas' parents are compromising as well; they don't interject unless they feel strongly about the point they want to make.

"We appreciate the culture difference," Inder said, briefly taking his eyes off of his grandkids playing in the backyard. "We cannot force our views and our rules. ... They have to live like Americans, not like Indians."

As Inder diverted his attention from the conversation to the safety of his grandkids playing with Rocco in the backyard, Vikas said he realizes that his parents treat the kids differently. They are more lenient with screen-time rules and other "minor" household rules. But he doesn't have too much of a problem with that.

"We are not very, very rigid," Vikas said. "We all have a set of things we want to accomplish, but we're not fanatic about it. We're not sticklers for rules."

Dwipal and Sudipta Desai also know that the kids can capitalize on the forgiving nature of their grandparents.

"(Shantanu's) grandfather's room is his hiding place, his escape," Sudipta said. "Nobody tells him anything in that room, so that's his favorite place of the house."

With the grandparents around, sometimes bedtime is not enforced and discipline is not always the priority. But Sudipta understands.

"That's what you love about grandparents," she said. "When I really think about, it's nice that he has that relationship with his grandparents."

She added that the grandparents have completed their child-rearing responsibility.

"It's a reward for their hard work," she said.

The Desais had their stage of adjustment to living together as well. The six of them used to live in a small house with thin walls, where Sudipta couldn't take a nap at the same time Akhilesh watched TV, where Vina's morning tea-making would wake up the whole house and where "everyone was in each other's face," Sudipta said.

Now that they live in a bigger home, their lives have mellowed out, but they still need strategies to help the six of them live in sanity. Chiefly, they all don't expect much from each other. They don't expect certain people to cook or certain people to take care of the kids or even that they spend every free moment with each other.

"That understanding helps — that, even though you're living together, it's OK to have independent hobbies or activities, and you don't constantly have to physically be present in the same room all the time," Sudipta said.

Akhilesh said it's important to give and take: Since his son and daughter-in-law want to go out during weekends, he and his wife keep those days empty to take care of the kids.

"We have to understand generation gap," he said. "We have to understand their needs, and if we can't understand, then there is going to be a problem."

At the Bhatias', Vikas said that all four of the adults in his family are more accommodating and less individualistic people in general. They are easygoing in the workplace, their social circles and their homes. He describes what could be a chicken-or-egg problem. Do those personalities create these environments? Or do these arrangements create these qualities in people?

Vikas added that this arrangement has its constraints in some ways but more freedom in others.

"Overall, as a balance, it works for me, for sure," Vikas said. "There are definitely pros and cons. But when they leave, it feels lonely for a while."

In the end, the positives overtake the negatives, he said.

Moving forward

But even with the positives, Hafner said that multigenerational families don't always address the future.

"So what happens with these families is that, sometimes, it does start early where they come to help with the kids. (But) then they need help themselves," she said. For the Bhatias, Desais and Dames, the grandparents are helping move the family along, but what happens when the kids are not the only ones who need care?

"My assumption is that I'll be with my kids and I'll be taken care of," Nan Dame said.

Daughter Karine can't picture or even understand putting her parents in a nursing home.

"I don't think we should have old-people warehouses," Nan said.

Sudipta Desai expressed similar sentiments.

"When you grow old you need more care from others, and we will provide as kids," she said. "That's what your children are there for. When we grow older, maybe we would like our kids to do the same for us."

For the Bhatias, the grandparents are still splitting their time between India and America. What will happen when the trip is too much to make?

"It is in the future," Inder said. "Our life — who knows tomorrow?"

After another three years with their green cards, the two can reach their goal of attaining citizenship, allowing them flexibility to decide if they want to reside in India or America.

"Time will tell," Inder said.

"You know, we'll play it by ear," Vikas said. "It's completely up to them what they want to do. We haven't made any specific plans about what will happen."

"We are an emotional family, not that practical," Swati added. "We never sit down and talk about these things. We'll take it as it comes."

Until then, they will cherish the moments: Sudesh will take pride in Kabir's art projects; Vikas will watch as Rohan attempts to speak Hindi; Swati will enjoy cooking with her mother-in-law; Inder will focus on the safety of the two kids; and all six people —all three generations — will take each simple pleasure as it comes in their one home.

Writer Karishma Mehrotra can be emailed at kmehrot@emory.edu.

Comments

Posted by goodandbad, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 27, 2013 at 10:58 am

Taking care of the elderly is noble and my wishes to all who do that
without expecting anything in return.

All of this is fine until they add to the U.S. tax system. Not having
paid any taxes here, when the elderly claim Medical, become citizens, or are claimed as dependents for tax purposes, then it begins to hurt
the economy (ex: child care industry) and the tax system, even risking
the benefits that they enjoyed for future generations. This is really
an unspoken fact. (I don't subscribe to the proxy argument that
because I pay taxes here, my parents or relatives should be able to
enjoy the benefits as well, without due adjustments.)

While it is good to have families live together and live the way they
want, care must be taken to provide a balance between personal choices
and government benefits. There are many families who choose not to
become part of the system, but the tax/benefits system cannot operate on honor system.


Posted by KP, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 27, 2013 at 11:10 am

[Post removed.]


Posted by KP, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 27, 2013 at 11:20 am

PS. My family is 5 generations strong and everyone has their own home. We are still close,
I see my Grandma every day, my kids and grandkids almost every day. My parents and one of our child's family live out of state - otherwise we'd see them just as often. But hey, our cell, Skype, FB and Instagram help keep those connections strong between our visits.
My point ... You don't have to live together to be a close family.


Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Sep 27, 2013 at 11:51 am

This is another PA Online story meant to generate bitter "anti-outsider" letters from the local trolls. The onslaught of these stores is relentless....and it is not journalism.

This comment will be deleted soon.


Posted by New in Town, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 27, 2013 at 12:05 pm

The negatively/jealousy is surprising and unfortunate. I would love to have a mother who could be described as this one:

Sudesh said she finds pleasure in helping out.

"I am very happy to be here," she said. "I can give them time to go out, and they can enjoy their life."

They sound like lovely parents and grandparents who are likely to raise kids that work hard and are respectful of the older generation. They may sacrifice some space and privacy, but they do recognize the benefits. Culturally, I wish it worked better for my family, but ours would be more like that book described.


Posted by Lorin Krogh, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm

I believe this is a long over due trend in the US. It's common to have extended families live together in most of the world. In the US, if a young person lived with his family, he was considered a "loser".


Posted by So do we, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2013 at 12:14 pm

We are also three generations in a 3 bdrm/21/2 bath home. We grandparents take care of the grandchildren, because 2 kids in daycare in Palo Alto costs approximately $180/day! Rent for the parents, our son and his wife, would be about $7,000/month. it simply is not doable. All the money would go to either the rent OR the childcare. With nothing left for anything else.

Our son and his wife would have no hope, with those costs, of ever saving up enough money for a down payment on a house, in spite of the wif'e's small inheritance. This way, they will be able to afford Carholic school for the kids and still be able to save money. And the grandchildren get the best day care: a well-educated, bilingual granny!


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2013 at 12:32 pm

This article is describing what many of us have known anecdotally for sometime.

Sometimes they are packed in like sardines into tiny 3 bed 1 bath homes, and some of the new townhomes are designed with two master bedrooms to enable 3 generations.

The other problem is that when we talk about "senior" housing, it is often the seniors who buy the homes and take in children and grandchildren just to get them into our schools.


Posted by Sparty, a resident of another community
on Sep 27, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Wow, once, JUST ONCE it would be nice to see as much effort and ink put into a story about local issues as this piece.


Posted by rebugging, a resident of Los Altos
on Sep 27, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Ours is a family who have had many multigenerational experiences which have changed from time to time. My husband was raised in a his grandparents St Louis household which also contained his cousin, his aunt and uncle. His widowed mother lived in Colorado Springs because she could not tolerate the warm MO climate. They all visited Colorado Springs in the summer. Later his mother moved to Palo Alto, and after she married again, my husband came here to live with them until we married. Several of our sons lived with us for extended periods as adults, and, my father lived with us for 3 years at the end of his life. We are white Caucasians. My husband's motto, "Family is everything."


Posted by Multigenerational housing advocate, a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 28, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I wonder if Palo Alto could solve a housing shortage if it reduced the size of property needed for in-law units slightly for people who commit to renting only to seniors, and even offered low-interest loans such as are offered to the housing corp. i could put a nice prefab in-law in my back yard for $60,000, far, far cheaper than the per unit cost of an apartment in a high-rise, and would be happy to rent to a low-income senior. If my parents get old enough, they could move in and we could care for them here. We don't really have room otherwise. (Even a 10% reduction would I believe give us the ability to build an in-law.)


Posted by Old PAer, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 28, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Multigenerational housing advocate... Good luck! I have a yard that is more than 12000 square feet. My house is not even 3000. I wanted to add a small, less than 1000 square feet guest cottage at the back of my yard. I was told by the city that I had to have a driveway going back to it and room for 6 cars to park. Give me a break.

1200 Pine has a lot that is about 7300 square feet and they are building a 4400 square foot house and another building - a yoga/tea room of 350 square feet. Nothing makes sense anymore.


Posted by Another one, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 30, 2013 at 9:08 am

I have a 1700sf house on a 6000sf lot. We are also a multigenerational family. We want to make our home a 4-bedroom, 3-bath house instead of a 3/2, but the city says our lot is too small! They even gave us a hard time about covering our patio, delaying the permit for weeks, because they decided we had no room to cover our patio on our little lot!

Get real, Palo Alto! Time to wake up and smell the coffee!


Posted by Marlen, a resident of Mayfield
on Oct 1, 2013 at 9:51 pm

This doesn't make any sense! I thought we could prevent traffic and density if we just prevented senior housing from being built. Am I actually supposed to believe that it might be more complex than that?


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