Three generations under one roof

9 December 2011

In Roald Dahl's classic children's story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, economic circumstances dictate that the title character lives under the same roof as not only his parents, Mr and Mrs Bucket, but also both sets of grandparents - all of whom are invalids aged over 90 and share the only proper bed in the house.

Few families in the UK today have to go to such extremes to economise, but reports suggest there is a growing trend towards three or more generations sharing homes, if not beds.

According to a survey published earlier this year by property website, the numbers of multi-generational homes grew by 27% (to 238,000) between 2001 and 2010, reversing a longstanding decline since the 1960s. Samantha Baden, property analyst at FindaProperty, says: "We were hearing anecdotally from estate agents that more people were looking for bigger homes, often so they could fit in other generations of family members, which prompted us to look at the official figures."

Although 44% of those surveyed said they moved in together because they wanted to be close to their loved ones, one in three said they had acted for financial reasons. And it's no wonder. With rising living costs hitting the elderly especially hard as most must survive on fixed incomes, and young people struggling to get onto the property ladder, the prospect of sharing a relative's home (and the bills) is a tempting solution.

Helping with the kids

Grandparents are also playing an ever-increasing role in childcare, to enable parents to go out to work without their income being depleted by nursery or childminder bills. Childcare was cited by 13% of respondents to FindaProperty's survey as the reason behind bringing grandparents to stay.

The 2011 annual survey of childcare costs by Daycare Trust says prices have outpaced wage rises, putting extra pressure on family budgets. For example, a family paying for 25 hours of nursery care a week in Englandcould expect to pay £5,028 over a year.

In a separate survey by the Trust, it emerged that 36% of families receive help with childcare from grandparents, which amounts to four million grandparent carers in the UK providing almost 10 hours of free childcare each week.


Five ways to cut the cost of childcare

Sarah Wellard, policy and research manager at the charity Grandparents Plus, says the value of such unpaid childcare is in excess of £3.9 billion a year. She adds: "It's also crucial for parents who work irregular hours and wouldn't be able to find flexible enough childcare. And when children fall ill the grandparents are vital."

For Sandy Jefferson, 42, from South London, the cost of childcare is one of the reasons she's decided to move in with her mum. She's planning a life-changing move from the capital, where she recently gave up a well-paid job in the media. Sandy, whose family came from Scotland originally, is currently hunting for a job in Edinburgh. At the same time, she is looking for a home to buy that can accommodate her and her two-year-old son Jonathan but that also has a self-contained flat for her mother, who is planning to move in with them.

Sandy, a divorcee, says: "When we move to Edinburgh, I will need help with caring for my son as I am hoping to get a full-time job. My mum is fit enough to be able to take him to and from nursery and give him meals but she is also needing a bit more attention herself as she has had some health problems. If we can all live together we can help each other out.

"And hopefully between us we can afford the right kind of house in a good area, near a good state school. Where I live in London, it is difficult to get your child into the best state schools and I was worried I might have to consider private education. I'm sure my salary will be lower in Edinburgh, but that won't matter if I can keep costs down and share bills with my mum."

Lay down ground walls

It isn't just about free childcare though. Just because your parents live with or near you, they don't necessarily want to be full-time childminders. Wellard says: "You need to have an honest and open discussion with the grandparents. Some will want to limit the amount they do, perhaps only to the holidays or a couple of days a week.


"The concern is when it becomes an obligation. We are worried about changes in tax credits that might mean families will have to turn to grandparents even more and they will find it hard to say no."

Mervyn Kohler, special adviser at charity Age UK, says things can get more complicated when the generations are under one roof rather than round the corner from each other, and recommends that families plan ahead for communal living.

He says: "There should be a well drawn up agreement, whether verbal or written. For example, the grandparent might want to do only two nights a week of childcare or they may want their own front door and door bell so friends can visit them without going through the house. And then families have to think about when the grandparents become frailer. Will their children want to make their meals three times a day? Public services may be less inclined to step in if they know there is family there to help."

He adds: "If the adult child starts to provide more care, they might be able to receive Carer's Allowance if the person they care for already gets Attendance Allowance, but this will depend on whether they have earnings or other benefits. It is also possible that council tax discounts may be affected if parents move in with their children. In some circumstances council tax liability could be increased; in others it could reduce."

So long as offspring are not forced to give up work to do it, families can certainly save money caring for grandparents themselves (unless the local authority covers the costs), with the Home Care Association estimating the average cost of an hour's privately paid care at home in England at £12.98 - far more in London and less in cheaper parts of the country. But as I know from experience, juggling work and supporting an elderly parent can be tough.

For Rachel Jenkins, 48, and her family, living together in the West Midlands hasn't yet been quite as cost effective as they would have hoped, but they're still more than happy with the arrangement. Rachel lives with her partner Jack, 50, son Daniel 25, and 85-year-old mother Joan. But to give each generation their own independence, Rachel and Jack have spent the last few years carefully adapting their house to create separate living spaces.

Rachel says: "Rather than save money, it has cost us quite a bit in renovations and bills. The only money we've saved so far is on the TV licence, which we get for free because my mum is over 75." She adds: "We moved her in this year from her home in London so it's easier for me to care for her here. We have divided the house up so that mum has her own little kitchen, bathroom and bedroom and a separate front door.

"Our son is in the double garage, which we converted into a studio with a lounge and kitchen area. We had to do it because he couldn't afford to pay rent. But we are happy because we love having him around. Both my mum and son sort themselves out with their cooking. She pays for her own food but our son can't afford to at the moment."

Rachel is pleased with the way things have turned out. She says: "Some friends warned us not to do it because when they did it it caused friction and didn't work for them. But if you decide to make the best of it, it can work. It has worked out for us."

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