How old is too old to live at home?

Adult children are moving back to the nest in increasing quantities’with mixed results. Get an inside look at one woman’s experience living with her grown-up son, and find out how to make it work for you

How old is too old to live at home?

Source: Best Health Magazine, Summer 2009

When our 26-year-old son needed a place to get his bearings after breaking up with his live-in girlfriend, ‘we were delighted to say, ‘Come home.’ We had always enjoyed Ben’s company, and this time he’d arrive with a bonus: our toddler grandson, who would be spending every weekend with his dad. What fun to take a break from empty nesterhood!

We were about to embark on the biggest transition ‘our family had faced since Ben’s teen years. For his dad and me, no more intimate salmon-and-Chardonnay dinners on Friday night. For our son, no more staying out all night without phoning home. For all of us, complicated questions. How long would Ben stay? And what would it take to get him back on the path to independence?

Looking back on Ben’s return about a decade ago, I’m amazed at how blithely we upended life as we had known it. Instead of agreeing on a game plan upfront, we trusted in mutual respect to see us through. By testing and proving that trust every day, we became a stronger family. But the process wasn’t easy or quick. We figured that Ben would be gone within a couple of months; in fact ‘he stayed a year while we tiptoed around the question of his moving and he saved money for a house, purchased with our help.

At the time I didn’t know any parents who were in my shoes. Now hardly a week goes by without a dispatch from someone in my circle whose family is being transformed by multi-generational living. One woman ‘is reluctantly sharing her home with a daughter who otherwise couldn’t raise the money for graduate school. Another has opened her doors to a newly married daughter and son-in-law whose only hope of buying a house is living rent-free. A third has started to wonder if her son, pushing 30 and at home for two years, will ever find work in his field. ‘I hear about this sort of thing all the time,’ says Janet Tanzer, a Toronto family therapist.

Why are adults moving in with their parents?

The toughest economy since the Depression is sidelining young adults in their prime career-building years. I recently read of a 24-year-old who used to earn six figures at a Toronto brokerage house and lived in a swanky apartment. Suddenly jobless after a wave of cutbacks on Bay Street, he’s going home to mom and dad. His new pickup line, as reported in The Globe and Mail, will be, ‘Want to see my parents’ basement?’ His downsized buddy is going home, too.

When my generation was first starting out, we equated adulthood with a place of our own. We would sooner have shared a roach-infested walk-up with a gaggle of friends than live with our parents. That would have been hopelessly uncool. So we boomers assume that any adult child who returns to the nest will be flying off again at the first chance. I, for one, kept thinking that Ben’s desire for a bachelor pad would eliminate the need for awkward conversations about moving.

What was I missing? Typically for his generation, my son felt more comfortable with his father and me than we ever did with our own parents. Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and has written four books on the family, puts it this way: ‘The democratic child-rearing methods adopted in the last 30 years, coupled with the rise in marital age, have led parents and children to spend more time together and become better friends.’

Camaraderie between generations, along with a rising divorce rate, was quietly reshaping North American families long before this financial crisis. In 1986, 32 percent of adults 20 to 29 were living with parents; by 2006 the proportion had climbed to 43 percent.

The stereotype of so-called ‘boomerang kids’ being layabouts who their parents are desperate to get rid of does reflect a grain of truth, but it’s hardly the norm. According to ‘a 2006 study in Canadian Social Trends, parents with at least one child at home were just as likely as empty nesters to say that having children made them happier people. They were also more likely to be very satisfied with the time they spent with their children. The only downside: a slight increase in arguments between the parents, often over money. No surprise there: Parents facing retirement must limit their generosity, perhaps for the first time. If they can’t agree on those limits and share the facts with their child, they’re bound to bicker between themselves.

The realities of living together

The Townsend family (not their real name) left nothing to chance when son Brad, a sales and marketing professional, came home for a year at age 28 after a separation. In a family meeting, they agreed Brad would pay nominal rent while saving for a condo. They set a timeline and reviewed his finances to ensure it made sense. They sorted out issues from the juggling of cars in the driveway to meal preparation (Brad would buy basic groceries; his mom would do most of the cooking). They also committed to assess things once a week over dinner. Now that Brad has moved out, his father says the family has never been closer. ‘When he left home the first time, we thought he didn’t need us anymore. Then he came home with his confidence bruised. We were glad to be there for him, and he appreciated our flexibility.’

Sarah Deveau, who owns a consignment store in Airdrie, Alta., and is writing a financial guide for young adults, tells an equally encouraging story. She and her husband were 24 when they spent six months in her parents’ basement while waiting for their house to be built. By agreement, they ate as a family (no couple time except in restaurants) and negotiated shower times to ensure sufficient hot water. Seven years later, Deveau says the experience has broadened her perspective ‘on her parents, who live down the road and often see her children. ‘We’d have more in-depth conversations with them. We got a sense of them as individuals.’

I can identify. Ben’s return gave me a sense of him as a devoted father and a thinking grown-up, not simply as my son. He’s married now, and has a second child. He’ll never live under our roof again: There’s barely room in our post-retirement loft for an overnight guest, let alone a brood. In fact, it’s conceivable that I’ll end up in the spacious house now being built for his family.

But please, don’t rush me. I like showering whenever I want. I like the fridge stocked with my favourite cheeses. Best of all, I like opening my door to a place that’s just as I left it and thinking to myself, ‘I’m home.’

How to share a home like grown-ups

When you’re living with your parents:

Understand that it’s their home. When you have your own place, you can leave lights on and dishes in the sink. If you can’t live within your parents’ limits, find another place.

Check in. Let them know if you won’t be coming home when they expect you to; that doesn’t compromise your independence. Grown-ups respect one another’s feelings’and worry when a household member is out at 3 a.m.

Contribute. If you’re working, you should make a financial contribution, says Diane McCurdy, a Vancouver financial planner. You can also help with cleaning or maintenance.

Clarify parenting responsibilities. If you have kids, you call the shots on their care. Janet Tanzer, a Toronto family therapist, had a client whose mother made repeated ‘helpful’ suggestions in front of the children. The woman reclaimed control by saying, ‘I just want you to be the grandma you used to be. If you have an issue with my children, we’ll talk about it between ourselves.’

When your child is living with you:

Stand firm on house rules. As Tanzer points out, you can’t tell an adult, ‘If you don’t wash your pots, you can’t go out tonight.’ But you have every right to say, ‘If you’re not prepared to do this, we’re not prepared to have you.’ If you tolerate behaviour that drives you crazy, it will continue.

Don’t take on their responsibilities. If your daughter is flying to New York on business and can’t find her passport, it’s not up to you to locate it. Better she misses the meeting than that you should imply she needs mom to organ­ize her life.

Know your emotional limits. I know a mom who once relished long walks with her live-at-home daughter. Recently remarried, she has realized that unless she cut back on the walks, she’d have no time to sit by the fire with her husband.

Discuss money. Do you want to work until you’re 80 to support a child living at home? If he or she is having trouble saving for a home, consider contributing to the down-payment fund.

What do you think about adult kids living with their parents? How old is too old, and where do you draw the line on money? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Pictured: Remember the film Failure to Launch, with Matthew McConaughey? This scenario is playing out in real-life families, too. Photo courtesy Paramount Home Entertainment.

This article was originally titled "When the Kids Come Home’as Grown-ups," in the Summer 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.