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‘We take care of our own’: Shared family values guide Togethering

We choose to live in a particular neighbourhood for many reasons – lifestyle, school district, commute, and proximity to the things we love, etc.. For adults of the “sandwich generation” – those who are caring for both the young and old of their family – there is one additional consideration: do we lay down roots near our aging parents or relatives?

Statistically, intergenerational households may be less common now, but in fact, we may need them more than ever. Those who commit to intergenerational living arrangements under the same or multiple roofs may find themselves better off than more nuclear family-orientated peers.

Stella and Derek are a living example of proactive “Togethering,” a term we’ve coined to describe how we care for each other intergenerationally. As a family, Stella and Derek have made housing choices that balance autonomy and togetherness, fostering strong family bonds and creating a responsive care arrangement that is adaptive to their parents’ aging and evolving needs.

When the couple were expecting their first child 12 years ago, they bought a bungalow on an adjacent street from her parent’s home, just a “stone’s throw” away. As second-generation Chinese Canadians, their thinking was decisive: They wanted Stella’s parents to be part of their children’s lives, and to eventually care for her parents.

“There was no question in my mind that I’d take care of them in their old age,” says Stella. “To me, this is naturally what we do as Asians and as Christians in my faith community. We take care of our own.”

Today, Stella and Derek have children ranging in ages from 5 to 11, whom Stella, a teacher, now home-schools. With a household of six, grandparents down the street and other relatives nearby, “togethering” in separate but integrated households is the name of their game.

Living near her parents has created an integrated lifestyle, daily rhythms and resource sharing between households. When her children were young, Stella would have ready help with child care. The unscheduled quality time and day-to-day support have been invaluable – more hands make lighter work shopping for one another, sharing a cooking schedule or taking turns driving. Most evenings, Stella and her children will join her parents for evening walks.

The neighbourhood parkette offers many opportunities for intergenerational mingling

At the same time, living in a home on an adjacent street to her parent’s means that everyone can choose togetherness or autonomy. Stella jokes that “living directly right across the street would have meant regular lectures from (my mother) on the virtues of going to bed early.”

Today, her parents can easily retreat from the chaos of four kids to the comfort of their own home. Even at the height of the pandemic, it was easy to gather by the porch and take walks together. Being able to continue these routines curbed loneliness and isolation for both households, but especially for her parents who in normal times would have been socially active with friends and their church community.

Adding to this arrangement is that other extended family members live nearby. Derek’s family also landed within a 15-minute drive in North York. His parents live in separate condos within walking distance of each other. His father and sister opportunely swapped homes – his father downsized to his sister’s condo while her family upsized to their childhood house. A few years later, his second sister moved into the house next door.

Practically speaking, it’s easy for Stella and Derek to pop over and help her parents get their technology setup or pitch in with the more physical tasks to maintain the household. When her father needed to go to emergency one evening, Stella was able to get him there quickly, leaving her four kids with Derek and her mom. This same scenario could be a crisis for those who live far away from aging parents and need to get child care in a pinch.

Proximity to her parents also allows Stella to keep watch on her parents’ health and wellbeing. When she finds her father climbing a ladder onto his roof, it is easy for her and Derek to offer help, illustrating how Togethering can curb potential safety hazards that trigger downward spirals of decline in older adults. For many older adults, one fall or health event could quickly lead to loss of capability, social isolation, and potentially institutionalization. In fact, a B.C. study from 2010 found that more than one third of seniors hospitalized following a fall are subsequently moved into a long-term care facility.

Now, Stella and Derek are contemplating how to house their parents in their renovated bungalow should they require more day-to-day support.

“I want to do everything I can today to give them the broadest range of choices for how they want to age – in the happiest and healthiest way,” Stella says.

They also recognize that like many seniors, her parents may refuse to “burden” them and make their own housing arrangements. In fact, while Stella’s father can’t see himself moving out of his home, (a widely held perspective also shared by nearly 78 per cent of Canadian seniors, according to a 2020 March of Dimes survey, Stella’s mother has started exploring alternatives such as long-term care facilities catering to ethnic-Chinese residents that are known to have long, multi-year wait lists.

In true collectivist spirit, Stella says she is confident that between her own and her parents’ finances, they will have plenty of options across public, private or in-home care. Although this isn’t a topic that has been proactively discussed in a “family-style meeting” yet, they are fully aware that one health event could impact their harmonious lifestyle.

Reflecting on her late grandmother, who fell and ended up in long-term care almost overnight, Stella says she is contemplating a more active role in planning with her parents and parents-in-law. She plans to do more research before broaching the subject, which will require more finesse with her fiercely independent father.

Stella’s story demonstrates how our values are interwoven into the Togethering choices we make. Often, Togethering is a gentle process of collaborative push and pull; one that evolves with exploration, negotiation and experimentation so that everyone’s values are reflected in a cohesive vision.

Artwork by Winsome Adelia Tse

Top Illustration: Living in close proximity also allow Stella and Derek to keep a pulse on her parents’ health and easily step into help – such as when Stella’s nearly 80-year-old father attempts to climb a ladder to clean the gutters.

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Amy Hwang

Contributor

Amy Hwang is a second-generation Chinese Canadian mother, care partner, social entrepreneur, and aging + design researcher. Her mission is to help individuals, families, and communities co-create more meaningful relationships as they age together.

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