In recent years, there's been a lot of talk about young adults living with their parents. Staggering under huge college debt loads, slaving away in poorly paid jobs thanks to the Great Recession, many 20-somethings just don't have what it takes to set up an independent life. A few months ago, Jed Kolko, chief economist for Trulia, the online real estate marketplace, wondered aloud: what about the flip side?
“Are seniors living with their adult children?” Kolko asked. “And are we’re seeing more of that because of the Recession? Or some other reason?”
Kolko used raw data from the federal government to put together his own tables detailing where seniors 65 and older are living. Kolko found some seniors are much more likely to be living with their children than others: singles, for instance; and women; Floridians and Californians. No factor is as decisive though, as the question of where the seniors were born.
Kolko explains “Seniors who were born outside the US but live here now were 4x more likely to live with relatives than seniors born in the US. And among seniors born outside the US, there are huge differences by country, differences based on where those seniors were born.”
Only five percent of White seniors born in the US are living with their children or other family members. If a senior is a US born Asian or Latino, there’s a 13 percent chance she’s living with younger relatives. As Kolko notes, if a senior was born in Asia or Latin America and moved to the US, the story is dramatically different. At the top of this list, 47 percent of seniors born in India are living with their relatives.
Nowhere is this story more visible than in Silicon Valley, home to a huge influx of Indian immigrants. To see how this plays out, I paid a visit to a family in Burlingame, about a 20 minute drive from San Francisco.
The Sukamars lived in a spacious, four-bedroom home. Oatmeal is a favorite breakfast, and two and a half year old Logan Sukumar is an expert oatmeal maker. He can tell you all about the ingredients, and when they should go in the pot. He even has a sense of how much should go in the pot, depending on whose eating breakfast with him. This particular morning, there will be a lot of oatmeal to make, because three of Logan’s grandparents are having breakfast with him.
“Thatha and Patti, too,” Logan says.
“That’s what he calls Sumanth’s parents,” Logan’s mother Amy explains.
Just before Logan was born, Amy’s in-laws moved in from Tamil Nadu, in Southeastern India. They still keep a place there, but now, they’re living in Burlingame, in order to watch their grandchildren grow up.
70 year-old Sukumar Kunchithapatham says the move has been fun, if challenging. “It’s a new culture for us, and we find a lot of difference between our culture and the American way of life. Everything.” Everything from oatmeal for breakfast, to chilly days that call for polar fleece, to the way most Americans wouldn’t dream of showing up at the front door without notice just to say “Hi.”
68 year-old Santha Sukumar explains a house in Tamil Nadu is always ready for visitors. “They will be visiting all the days. So we have to cook for them. All the time our house is open.”
That’s not to say Santha wants out of the kitchen. She loves that most of the family members love her cooking – even when it’s spicy – and she’s often in charge of dinner. Both she and Sukumar loves shopping in Fremont when they can.
Sukumar laughs. “When we get off the BART [in Fremont], everyone talks in our own mother tongue, Tamil!” It’s a welcome relief from speaking English most of the time, although they do stay in touch with family in India through Skype, and visit local temples on holidays for a taste of home.
If there’s one thing they really do find difficult about life in Burlingame, it’s that you have to drive everywhere, unlike in San Francisco or even San Mateo, where their other son lives. “We need a car, someone to drive us,” Santha says. They are considering learning to drive themselves, but it’s an intimidating prospect at this age.
Fortunately for Santha and Sukumar, Amy’s mother drives in regularly from Grass Valley, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. She’s almost always good for a ride down to Whole Foods, or to the local senior center for a tai chi class.
“It’s fun to be part of this big, extended family - and the food is great!” exclaims Jacque Coakley Bromm, with a ready laugh. “But I like my independence, too, and I - I’m kind of torn. When I’m down here, I think Oh, I want to stay up here all the time! When I go up to the foothills, I enjoy that, too. My friends say ‘You have the best of both worlds.’ I really kind of do.”
Does Jacque ever fantasize about moving in, too? “I don’t want to burden my kids, you know? I don’t want them to feel responsible for me, and have to take care of me when I can’t.”
Jacque is 64, and she’s not ignoring the potential need for extra help as she ages. She lives in Grass Valley at a place called Wolf Creek Lodge Senior Co-housing.There’s a caretakers unit so everybody can pool resources to pay for somebody when they need it. There’s no caretaker in there now, as the residents are still in their 60s and healthy. But if somebody needs help (say, grocery delivery post-op), residents are pledged to help out. “We decided to do that as a group, to help each other as we age,” Jacque says. Individual insurance plans cover medical needs.
But for her son-in-law, Sumanth Sukumar, there was no question his parents were going to move in at some point. Indian families expect adult children to care for their parents. Sumanth broached the topic with Amy while they were dating, back in 2003. “I had told her that this is something I’d have to do, that I’d have to take care of my parents.” He pauses. “She didn’t really know what she was getting into, but seemed to be OK with that!”
Amy says she can see what a difference the arrangement makes in terms of the intimacy of the relationship Logan enjoys with Santha and Sukumar.
“If you’re caring for him regularly you also get the benefit of being really close with him. And he of course gets the benefit of being really close with all his grandparents.”
Logan and his new brother Ronan will also grow up with a fulsome sense of their Tamil heritage. Already, Logan is curious about the language and customs.
“We have Tamil books,” Santha says. “Sometimes he will take [one of them off the shelf and say], ‘I want to read Tamil.’ And then he knows our Tamil rhymes, and some of our stories. He’s not speaking, but he understands everything.”
There’s no question money helps to soften the rough edges of multi-generational living. Sumanth is a VP of Engineering for a global IT infrastructure company. Amy works in the finance department for a start-up in San Francisco. They can pay for things like a part-time nanny.
Amy says “Nobody’s watching him [Logan] all the time. We’ve tried to kind of do that so that it’s easier. Sumanth’s parents are elderly and watching him can be a lot of work!”
Also, Sumanth’s brother also happens to live in nearby San Mateo. He’s just had a child, so Santha and Sukumar want to split their time between the households anyways, but if the atmosphere gets a little tense in Burlingame, it doesn’t hurt that there’s another place to go for some relief.
“Living together, I think it’s inevitable that you have [disagreements],” Sumanth says. “We tend to talk it out. And there’s always time out with my brother. They can go there!” he says, laughing good-naturedly.
Even if there weren’t all these ways to keep everybody in the family comfortable with each other, Sumanth can’t imagine his parents living elsewhere, the way most American grandparents do.
“I sometimes wonder if they [other American grandparents] are really lonely,” Sumanth muses. “You know, it seems hard to not see children and grandchildren a lot, and even for all my time in the US, that still feels a little strange.”
by Rachael Myrow