All in the family

Multi-generation living brings balance and benefits

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

More Americans than ever are living in a multigenerational household. According to Pew Research in 2016, 20 percent of Americans were doing so, up from a low of 12 percent in 1980. 

Some of these are middle-aged adults, often called the sandwich generation because they are in the middle of raising kids and helping out aging parents. For adults in this category in Oak Park, living in close proximity to parents is frequently a matter of choice that many say has also made living through the pandemic -- and whatever else life throws at us -- a lot more tolerable. 

Whether it's living in the same house or on the same block, these Oak Parkers think living nearby offers innumerable benefits to all parties involved.

For Kirsten Straughan, who grew up in Oak Park, having her parents nearby as she and her husband raised their kids was always great for her family. When her kids were younger, her parents would help with them after school and were a big part of their lives. 

As her parents aged and wanted to downsize, Straughan says they wanted to stay in Oak Park, which has become a part of their identity, but they needed a house that would give them a bedroom and a bathroom on the first floor. 

"It was initially my husband's idea to get them within walking distance," Straughan said.

When the bungalow across the street went on the market, her dad, who is an architect, was able to see how it would work. Her parents are rehabbing the house and preparing to move in this fall. 

Straughan notes that now, the tables have turned. Her kids are helping their grandparents with painting and moving, and she says this move will allow her parents to maintain their independence as they age while letting her and husband be a daily part of their lives.

Like Straughan, Noelle Ross McLain Sutherland had childhood roots to Oak Park, but she was living in Belize a few years ago with her young son, far from her parents. When her mother passed away and her father began to experience health issues, she decided to make the move back to the Midwest. 

"My son is the only grandson. I'd just divorced and it seemed like a good time to come back," Sutherland said.

It helped that she found plenty of room in an 1888 Victorian home that allows her dad to have his own apartment. She says having their own spaces is key to the living arrangement's success, and having two kitchens is definitely a positive. 

During the pandemic, Sutherland has loved being close enough to keep an eye on her father's health and not have to worry about living an entire continent away, and he has provided her with much needed backup as single mom tackling remote learning with her son.

Even beyond the pandemic, Sutherland says having her father play a role in raising her son has been great. 

"Having that multi-generational influence is good for a kid," she said. "There are things I wouldn't have thought about that he learns from my dad." 

She says her parents were originally from Scotland, where it is much more common to have your parents live with you as they age. For her, that is something she wants her son to experience. 

"I want my son to see me taking care of my parents, to understand it's important to take care of people you love," Sutherland said.

Jessica Flannery says that having her mom, Sue Bair, move onto her block of South Cuyler Avenue in 2019 has been fantastic. 

"The kids are at Irving, and I work at the Oak Park Friends School," Flannery said. "My whole life is on this block."

Flannery calls her mom's move from Ohio to a home a few houses away the perfect distance and notes that when parents live farther away, visits can be intense. Seeing each other on a daily basis has allowed them to live their own lives, together. Flannery said that while no one could foresee the pandemic when her mother moved onto the block, having her nearby during the pandemic has been a bonus. 

A retired teacher, Bair helps with remote learning for Flannery's middle child, and can come over for dinner or have the kids over for sleepovers. 

Stressing that she never meant for her mom to become a babysitter, Flannery says that she has just become a much-loved part of their daily lives.

"She walks me to work, she walks our dog, we watch 'Law and Order' together. My husband really likes having her here," Flannery said.

For Samina Hadi-Tabassum, multi-generational living has always been the norm. She grew up in an intergenerational home in India. When her parents immigrated to America, she says they were part of a great wave of migration post-1965. 

Aunts and uncles would live with the family until they could buy their own homes. Today, she shares her Oak Park three-flat with her parents, sister, husband and children.

 "I have three kids, and I can't even imagine not having my parents here to help raise them," Hadi-Tabassum said.

As a professor at the Erikson Institute working with languages, Hadi-Tabassum also notes that in most parts of the world, children are raised in mule-generational homes with multiple sources of language. 

Here in America, children are primarily exposed to the language of only their parents. She sees big benefits to children being raised among a larger family structure.

Both her children and her husband have learned Urdu and Hindi from her parents, and Hadi-Tabassum also notes, that her mother shares her cultural influence through food. 

"My mother always has amazing Indian food cooking throughout the day," Hadi-Tabassum said. "It's been a cultural immersion for my husband and the kids."

The 1898 three-flat near the CTA's Oak Park Avenue Green Line stop has allowed everyone in the family easy access to work in the city while also being in walking distance of the grocery store and the kids' school, and Hadi-Tabassum says that multi-generational living is much easier in an area that is not car-dependent.

Her parents own the home and pay the mortgage, she and her husband pay the property taxes, and she says her sister pays for all the fun extras, an arrangement which allows all of them to afford to live in Oak Park. 

While living with parents and siblings can at times make her feel like she is living out her childhood as an adult, Hadi-Tabassum says the benefits far outweigh occasionally reverting to her 12-year old self.

"Being intergenerational leads you to depend on each other," she says, emphasizing that in day-to-day life and in emergencies having family to fall back on is important. Not long ago, her son was diagnosed with leukemia, and she says her mother was the first to know. 

"She knew with her intuition that it wasn't just a cold, that something was wrong," Hadi-Tabassum says of her son who is completing his treatment this year. "When you have those life crises, it's so great to have family there."

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