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Finding harmony in a multigenerational home

Loving my family, individually or collectively, is my default position. Getting along with them, especially under the same roof, is far more complicated. My husband, for example, likes to boast that our kids are no longer on the payroll; I'm much more tickled that they no longer live with us, hoovering up leftovers late at night, leaving crumbs on the kitchen counter and disrupting the solitude and the silence of my early-morning double latte.

When my son and his wife put a for sale sign on their house and proposed moving their brood into our place for the duration, I had nightmarish memories of the way it used to be, compounded by three young children and a needy dog. Luckily, the dog was elsewhere, providing comfort to a sick family friend, and we had already made plans to be away for part of the time.

Mostly, living together was fun, especially once I realized that the tyranny of making family dinner every night was no longer my responsibility. The two year old walked through the same screen door that his sisters had destroyed a couple of years earlier, while one of the twins, overhearing her parents discussing the merits of a pre-emptive bid, demanded to know why they were going to let "a bully live in our house" – an insight I would have missed otherwise – and I longed for the dog to return so she could glom up the food scraps that sprinkled the floor like rain drops.

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The experience made me wonder how other people make a success of multi-generational cohabitation on a permanent rather than an occasional basis.

According to census figures from Statistics Canada, there are nearly 363,000 multi-generational households in Canada. That represents a 40-per-cent increase from 930,000 people in 2001 to 1.3 million in 2011, according to a report released last week by the Vanier Institute of the Family.Vik Gupta and his family are part of that trend. A married father of two sons, 18 and 12, Gupta and his wife, Sukhi, have shared a house with his parents in Brampton, Ont., for 15 years. The Guptas and their elder son were the first members of the extended family to immigrate to Canada from Punjab in northern India.

"We landed with six suitcases and big dreams and nowhere to go and no job in hand," he said of their arrival at Pearson International Airport in Toronto in 2002. A combination of hard work and luck meant that three years later, the Guptas could sponsor his parents under the family reunification program. "They had nowhere to stay, so they stayed with us and that's how it started."

Having his parents move in offered "a measure of pleasure for us and a comfort zone because now we had somebody who could take care of our kids," said Gupta, 45, who works with a multipurpose enterprise that he says is the "Eaton Centre of the trucking industry."

The arrangement was "not only convenient" and economical, but also "a silent and smart approach to bond the kids with the grandparents" and their values. Living in one house meant family members got to know each other as individuals and made them care more about each other than if they were living separately, Gupta believes.

My issues about adjusting to living temporarily in the same space are trivial compared with the negotiations any multigenerational family faces in a permanent arrangement. Gupta has given a lot of thought to family dynamics and harmony. How do you do it, I asked him in a telephone interview, speculating that living in a suburban house with 3,500 square feet and 4.5 bathrooms might be a factor. He laughed, before growing philosophical.

Realistically, Gupta says, it is not possible to give 100-per-cent commitment to the traditional cultural, familial and ethical values of his parents. The family is living in Canada, not India, and the environment – think food, fashion and social media – is totally different for his sons growing up here, compared with the way Gupta was raised in the Punjab.

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The Guptas can't stop their kids from experimenting. If they tried to forbid the boys from eating a certain food or hanging out with kids from different cultures, it wouldn't be "doing justice to them," he says. Besides, it would probably make the boys even more curious.

"We are human," Gupta readily admits. "Not everybody can get along about everything all the time, but the faster and more happily we compromise on a situation or a "scene," the better it is for the family." What Gupta has realized is that his generation represents a transitional stage between grandparents' and children's values.

"If you can't change a behaviour, the more happily you accept it, the more beneficial it is in the long term," he says. "The more rigid you are, the more chances there are of a family break down."

That's what it is all about: flexibility, recognizing that it is our home, not just my house – and having lots of bathrooms.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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