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Multigenerational Households Face ‘Social Distancing’ Challenges

April 22, 2020

Multigenerational households face unique challenges as they learn to manage the new social distancing guidelines issued by the government. Despite the numerous financial and emotional benefits that come with living together, COVID-19 has prompted families living with members of the older generation to take additional precautions to guard against the risks that come with exposure.

As we enter the second month living in a state of emergency, the novel Coronavirus persists, waging war on millions of Americans and the networks we rely on. Many families across the country have taken to their homes to work remotely, homeschool their children, and, ideally, leave home only for essential errands like grocery shopping.

Home for many Americans means a nuclear family, one generation under one roof. In contrast to the last few thousand years of history, when several generations lived together, the previous century saw a movement toward single-family units, which has been considered the norm. However, in 2016 the US saw an upward trend in multigenerational living. A study done by The Pew Research Center, saw a record 64 million Americans, or 20% of the population, living in a multigenerational household.

Driven by economic, social, or cultural reasons, more and more families are opting to live together with several generations in the same home. Multigenerational families are those consisting of more than two generations living under one roof. Many researchers also include a grandparent with at least one other generation. 

Pre-COVID-19: Benefits of Living in a Multigenerational Household

  • Living in a joint household can provide financial benefits. Families can better share expenses if there are more contributors to the household income.
  • Having three generations in one dwelling allows family members to enjoy more quality time together. Senior citizens who often suffer from loneliness have more social interactions with their children and their grandchildren.
  • Children benefit from having two or more adults to supervise them, primarily when parents work outside of the home.
  • Research suggests, some children, particularly teens and children of divorced parents, have fewer behavioral and emotional problems when grandparents are involved in their lives.

When the President of the United States declared a National Emergency on March 13th, the novel coronavirus began to change the lives of all Americans in every type of home across the United States. Unfortunately, some of the hardest-hit families may be those living in multigenerational homes. Hispanic and African American shares in multigenerational households in 2016, was 26% and 27%, respectively. The first week in April revealed that Black and Hispanic communities were being disproportionately affected by the virus. In New York City, considered the epicenter of the virus, Hispanics make up 29 percent of the population, but 34% of COVID-19 deaths, while African Americans make up 22% of the population, but 28% of fatalities. 

Coronavirus Turns Benefits Into Challenges

Each day, “essential” workers risk their own lives when they report to work. Nurses, doctors, firefighters, and police have been called heroes (and they most certainly are). Frontline workers are also grocery store employees, home health care workers, janitors, bus drivers, package handlers, and fast-food workers. “The cost-benefit calculation of whether to keep showing up for work becomes an easier one if you can’t afford to stay home.”

COVID-19 has had an impact on all of our lives. In terms of actual sickness and death, it has had a disproportionate effect on people of color. And people of color are more likely to live in densely packed areas and multigenerational housing situations. 

People who are at a higher risk of contracting the virus are Older adults over the age of 65, people who are immunocompromised, and those with underlying medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, and liver disease, making them more vulnerable to the virus.

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So far, COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be a significant concern for children’s health. Studies show that young people are at less risk of a severe illness, but as invisible carriers, they may be vital in spreading the virus. In the context of adults with children, the concern is more about their exposure to vulnerable adults.

While families across the country are taking precautions to guard against COVID-19, those measures are more pronounced in homes with several generations. Seniors will need to take extra precautions, mainly if someone is unwell.

CDC Recommendations

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers these recommendations for multigenerational households:

  • Clean and disinfect surfaces, doorknobs, and other commonly touched surfaces with common household disinfectants daily.
  • Avoid sharing personal items like phones, bedding, dishes, and toys.
  • Remind everyone to avoid touching their face and cover sneezes and coughs with the inside of their elbow or tissue and then throw the tissue away.
  • Make sure to have access to several weeks of medications and supplies, to minimize leaving home.
  • Have everyone practice proper handwashing.
  • As best as possible, isolate someone who is ill in a separate bedroom and bathroom away from others.

On a similar front…Grandparents have been warned to avoid seeing grandchildren because the asymptomatic infection is common in children, occurring in 10-30 percent of cases. This separation is nearly impossible for older caregivers who are solely responsible for raising their grandchildren. Research has shown that more than one in ten grandparents has the primary responsibility for raising a grandchild, with this care often lasting for a period of several years. 

In Massachusetts, state-specific data shows 35,407 grandparents are householders responsible for raising grandchildren. Of those, 61% are in the workforce, 24.6% have a disability, and 16.4% live in poverty. 

Rates of unemployment, poverty, and parental mental health problems tend to rise during disasters. With now-shuttered schools and after school programs canceled, grandparents and family care providers may struggle to meet basic physical and emotional needs once provided by these institutions.  

These are uncertain times, and people are struggling. Now more than ever, we need to reach out to those who have lost their jobs, to people who may be suffering food insecurity, to caregivers who are unable to access technology, and to isolated seniors.

And for those who are on the frontline, do your best to take care of yourself, stay informed, and stay connected. It is also the time to lean on your community and use available resources. Below are a few links which may help provide some information and support for you and your families:

Stay safe! Stay Healthy!

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