Behind the front door of a modest Cape Cod in Arlington, seven lives are entwined. Three generations comprising three families live together: two teenage girls, their parents and the girls’ three living grandparents. The age span is 13 to 87.
The Smith family — Rusty Smith, his wife, Lisa Gibbs-Smith, and teenage daughters Audrey and Lauren — moved to Arlington in 2011. They bought the three-level Cape Cod with a main living floor, an upstairs and a basement. Smith and Gibbs-Smith had no intention of expanding the house until they began looking over their shoulders at their parents’ lives.
Rusty Smith’s mother had died, and his father, Frank Smith, 74, lived in Florida. “The stress of being alone was hard,” Frank Smith said.
“We asked him to come up and live with us,” said Rusty Smith, who is a bugler with the U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The house was big enough to accommodate him.
“My dad broached the idea of moving to an assisted-living facility,” said Gibbs-Smith, a pianist and director of worship arts at Clarendon United Methodist Church. Jim Gibbs, 79, and Grace Gibbs, 87, lived in Annandale. She suffered from progressive dementia.
“We had a family conversation and came up with the crazy idea of asking them to live with us, too. ‘Why don’t we add on to our house and just keep putting people in it?’ ” she said.
The Smith house wasn’t big enough for seven, so they had to figure out how to expand, pay for it and manage day-in-and-day-out togetherness. A large addition to their home allowed Lisa Gibbs-Smith and Rusty Smith to accommodate their parents and two teenage daughters under one roof.
“The dynamics of moving three independent households into one is complicated. The courage it took for everyone was huge,” Gibbs-Smith said.
Pew Research Center defines a multigenerational household as one with grandparents and grandchildren or with two or more adult generations. The trend since 1980 is more people living in multigenerational homes, and a higher number of multigenerational households, said D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer and editor at Pew.
In 2009, the last year of the Great Recession, 17 percent of Americans lived in households that were multigenerational, Cohn said. This translates to 51.5 million people living in homes with either grandparents and grandchildren, or with two or more adult generations. Pew’s estimates are based on census data.
In 2016, the most recent Pew numbers, 20 percent of Americans — 64 million people — lived in multigenerational homes. “This is a record number of people,” Cohn said.
“Our baby boomer population is getting older, and living together in one house is becoming more common,” said Bob Gallagher, president and co-owner of Sun Design in McLean and Burke, an architectural design and remodeling company with a focus on aging in place.
Kim Adams, director of marketing for the Brambleton Group, said she’s seeing an uptick in multigenerational families. “Builders are adapting their home designs to create additional living spaces that offer privacy and separation for parents or college students moving back home, and ground floor suites for easy access for grandparents,” she said. “We believe this trend will continue.”
Structural modifications are the easiest to negotiate. “Getting rid of stairs or reducing their need with first-floor master suites, eliminating raised transitions between rooms and trip hazards in the shower, and putting up grab bars on bathroom walls are basic concerns when someone gets older,” Gallagher said.
There are also the financial and emotional aspects of uniting disparate families.
When the Smith family talked to a senior citizen adviser, he addressed Gibbs-Smith first: “‘How is your marriage?’” her father recalled. “Then he asked me: ‘How do you get along with your daughter? It’s important to have good relationships before you enter into something so monumental,’ the adviser told us.”
The Gorman family, in the District, never had a conversation.
“I’ve lived with my mother my whole life. I’ve never lived without her,” said Mariluz Cortes-Gorman, who is retired from the World Bank and lives in Northwest Washington with her husband, Drew Gorman, who is retired from the military. “We always had an extended family living together.”
From the time Cortes-Gorman graduated from college and became the breadwinner for her mother, Maria Luz Romero Martinez, and younger sister, through a move to Britain for graduate school, with two little boys in tow, her mother was an integral part of her family. “We never separated,” Cortes-Gorman said.
A move to Washington for a World Bank position — which meant frequent business trips two to three weeks at a time — remarriage and another son, meant “it would have been impossible to do without her,” she said. By then, six people lived in the house.
Then, two nieces joined, the older one for 12 years and the younger for a shorter time. The Gormans bought a larger house to accommodate everyone and rented the smaller one. Eventually all the children moved out. They sold the big house, moved back to the smaller one and used the sale money to renovate it.
For more than a decade, the core family was three people — Cortes-Gorman, her husband and mother, who lived in a second-floor bedroom and suffered from advanced dementia. “She doesn’t know who we are but knows we love her,” Cortes-Gorman said. Cortes-Gorman’s mother, Maria Luz Romero, died Tuesday, one week after she turned 102.
What about financing?
Once the Smith family made the decision for the grandparents to move in, they had to work out the finances.
“Dad had the choice of taking the money from the sale of his Annandale house and putting it into a retirement community or into the addition of our house,” Gibbs-Smith said.
“We considered how much better Grace’s care would be, and mine, too, as I got older, if we lived together,” Gibbs said.
“Everyone cares when you live together as a family. You don’t just have people doing a job,” said Frank Smith, Rusty’s father.
Cortes-Gorman expressed the same sentiment. “My mother took care of my children as if they were hers. She waited for them on Connecticut Avenue after school, helped with homework and with running the household,” Cortes-Gorman said.
The Gibbses sold their Annandale house and contributed the assets toward the $350,000 renovation of the Arlington house. “We kept our financial estate in the family instead of giving it to a commercial entity,” Gibbs said.
The family hired Sun Design to draft drawings of alternative floor plans. “We showed them different layouts for using the space, keeping in mind each person’s desire for some privacy,” Gallagher said.
Gibbs-Smith said: “We released all the decisions about fixtures and doorknobs to the design team and said, ‘Just make it so the functions are harmonious.”
The main level was expanded to include a bedroom, adjoining bathroom and sitting room for the elder Gibbses. The bathroom was designed as a mirror image of the one Grace Gibbs was accustomed to in their Annandale house. And the sitting room, named heritage room, was decorated with objects she also recognized.
Sun Design measured the size and shape of the Annandale living room and even the windows to perfectly replicate it, said John Byrd, a public relations practitioner who has worked with Sun Design for two decades. They used the same wall color and the same style and color of the trims around the room. The carpet, furnishings, wall photos and art from the previous house were positioned in the same spots to re-create the identical appearance and footprint.
Frank Smith moved into a corner bedroom near the house front. A communal space encompassing kitchen, dining room and living room — with space enough for a baby grand piano — became the home’s focal point.
“Our idea was that if you’re in the kitchen or dining or living rooms, don’t expect to be alone. If you want privacy you go to your own room,” Gibbs-Smith said.
“No one has a mini-fridge in their bedroom,” Rusty Smith said. The family eats together every night. One recent night, the menu was Chicken Florentine, salad and white wine.
There are three bedrooms upstairs — a master and one each for the girls — plus a Jack-and-Jill bathroom and family room that doubles as an office and music practice room. Lauren plays the violin. Audrey plays the French horn.
Yet, no matter how good-natured everyone is, sacrifices are inevitable. The Smiths wanted a washer and dryer on the main living level for their parents’ easy access, but that required making the living space smaller. So laundry facilities went downstairs.
“Melding design, finance and emotion is an art, not a science,” Gallagher said.
Nevertheless, “if you’re creative, you’re willing and you have good relationships, you can make it happen. We’re average Joes and we did it,” Gibbs-Smith said.
Audrey Smith, 15, said: “It’s not like some fairy tale where everyone is always happy and gets their way, but the benefits are better than the costs.”