Ah, multi-generational living: it’s either family life working, or trying to make family life work. The burden often befalls the middle-aged, who find themselves juggling ageing parents, infant grandkids, adult children who are for whatever reason reluctant to move, and those who boomerang home when things go south like during COVID-19, hoping (and expecting) to find their room exactly as it was five, ten, or even twenty years ago—all while hoping to downsize!
Whether you’re middle-aged or not, catering for everyone in a multi-generational home can be difficult, even if there are only two generations (parents and children). But never fear: a bit of thought and care for your interior design may be all you need to make life easier. Here’s what we recommend*:
1. GET TO KNOW YOUR FAMILY
No, we don’t mean finding out what members of your family like to do on the weekend (though, if you don’t know that much, that might be a good start!). We mean getting to know their interior design preferences. Ask questions like: what makes (or could make) home a happy place for them? Which spaces are essential, which are preferable, and which are not? Can certain needs or wants be met conveniently outside the home (for example, at a local library)? Is privacy and independent time key, or are communal spaces and family time more valuable?
If the person you’re talking to is seven or senile, then make sure you ask these questions in an accessible and meaningful way. Asking your kids to critically analyse the floorplan of your home after they come home from school on a Friday afternoon probably won’t get you far; asking them after dinner on the weekend about their favourite family activities, meanwhile, is apt to lead to better conversation.
2. PLAN FOR COMMON ROOMS AND EXCLUSIVE AREAS
Common rooms need to be open and accessible to every member of the family, including pets. “Accessibility” in this sense includes not only physical accessibility—such as wheelchair-friendly flooring—but the notion that there should be things in common rooms for everyone. This means everyone needs a genuine say in whether an area should be a common space and, if so, how it should be designed.
This also encourages a better use of space. For example, I grew up in a small duplex with essentially only one common space, which meant we had no separate lounge room, dining room, or home office, let alone other more niche rooms. But we didn’t really need it, either. Our common room had plenty of bookshelves for the readers, a PlayStation for the gamers, and a desk in the corner as our work area. The sofas were arranged so as to naturally bifurcate the room into a general living area and a general dining area. So if you’re in a multi-generational home, consider consolidating the functions of your common rooms to create more space while bringing people together as they live, work, and play.
At the same time, everyone should have their own space. Exclusive areas, funnily enough, are designed to exclude other members of the family, giving everyone their own space and the opportunity to decorate their own space the way they like it (even if other people have to put in all the effort and money). But of course, there are exceptions. Many partners sleep together. Plenty of kids bunk together (I did for 15 years). And sometimes the only solution is to create hybrid rooms, for example by furnishing a space with sofa beds. Ultimately, there is no “normal”; and unless you live in the ideal home for your needs, being able to compromise is key to making sure everyone has a space private enough for them.
3. SAFETY MATTERS
When you’re planning your rooms and getting to know your family, you also need to find out how to make your home safe. This isn’t just about pool gates and security cameras, though they matter too—it’s about all sorts of things.
If you’ve got toddlers or pets (and, let’s be real, they behave in exactly the same way), then you need to kid/pet-proof your home. No medicine, alcohol, or breakables within reach. Timbers need to be frequently cared for; fabric upholstery needs to be protected (see more here). And precious décor, such as antique chairs, glassware, and vases that older folks tend to cherish, need to be stored safely in an exclusive area or perhaps somewhere even more secluded like a storage unit or a granny flat.
Speaking of grannies, accessibility matters. Even if you don’t need accessibility features now, when you’re doing renovations you want to think into the future. You might be perfectly mobile at 50, but if your bathroom reno is meant to last the rest of your life then you might want to think about hand-rails in the shower (they’re useful for mobile people anyway). In the same vein, you might be fine living in Stair City right now, but if you have a condition which may bind you to a wheelchair in the future the it’s best to prepare for that now.
Even if the wheelchair situation is unlikely, there’s a greater chance that you’ll need to accommodate prams (as I have recently discovered) or walking frames. Your entry table might be styled perfectly, but it’s no good if your guests can’t even push a pram down the hallway to your common area. So the key consideration is to make sure your common areas are spacious enough to allow everyone to get around.
Finally, health (human or otherwise) should be a key consideration. Indoor air pollution, for example, should be on your mind if you’re housing infants or the elderly, especially those with respiratory conditions like asthma, but it affects us all. Ditto for extreme cold and, more relevantly to most of us, extreme heat. The takeaway: make sure you’ve got systems in place for air conditioning and purification.
(P.S. make sure your spaces are clean and cleanable! No point having air filters for dust allergies if you can never clean under your bed, or if you only do so once every couple of years.)
4. REMEMBER: HOUSE SIZE MATTERS, BUT IT ISN’T EVERYTHING
If you’ve got three generations in a three-bedroom home (and only one bathroom), not everything has to be doom and gloom.
Clearly if you’re one of two parents with four kids and two in-laws then a three-bedroom home isn’t going to work for you. But if you’re a single mum with two kids and your own mum living with you in a two- or three-bedroom house, there are ways to make that work. Think bunk beds, sofa beds, and other ways to use space more efficiently by planning common rooms and exclusive areas (or hybrids of the two) like we mentioned above.
Done successfully, multi-generational living can instil in us family values in the best sense: a love of family, the ability to adapt to suit everyone’s needs, and the willingness to trust and confide in others, allowing everyone to live together longer and more happily.
But instilling such values doesn’t always happen naturally. As you can appreciate having read this blog, it takes time, effort, and no small amount of thought. Moreover, there will probably be some money involved, and some tough decisions along the way. But if you have faith in yourself, your intelligence, and your mission, you’ll find multi-generational living can work for you.