Resource Center

They Still Don’t Want to Live With You

The Waltons.CBS/PhotofestA scene from “The Waltons.”

Looking over the results of a national survey on attitudes about aging, released on Monday, I groaned over some of the dopier questions. (At what age did people experience their first kiss? Not quite 15, on average. Who cares?)

But there were some interesting data on an issue of perennial interest: older people moving in with younger family members when they can no longer manage on their own. This topic brings a reaction hereabouts as predictable as summer mosquitoes. Any discussion of living facilities for old people brings disapproving comments from someone castigating adult children for not moving parents into their own homes.

When I wrote about my father’s first year in his continuing care retirement community, for instance, a reader using the name passyp extolled the multigenerational households of yore. “When I hear lonely parents say they’d never ‘impose’ on their children by living with them, I just know if those children made them feel welcome, they’d gladly move,” he or she wrote.

My personal hypothesis, as I’ve written before, is that our boomer generation watched too many episodes of “The Waltons.” I’ve also cited a favorite study by two economists demonstrating that the sharp drop in elderly widows moving in with their children, beginning in the 1940s, reflected not family selfishness but the advent of Social Security. For the first time, those checks allowed people who were no longer working to maintain independent households — and ever since, more of them have.

I’ve also passed along research by Zhanlian Feng, a Brown University gerontologist who has described the proliferation of nursing homes in China. Construction continues apace, he told me recently, despite Confucian expectations of filial piety. There, as here, making living arrangements for dependent elders has more to do with industrialization, women in the work force and expanded life spans than with adult children’s alleged self-centeredness.

Now, here’s evidence from by Gallup & Robinson, underwritten by Pfizer, the pharmaceutical firm, suggesting once more that the prospect of moving in with their children doesn’t make aging parents’ hearts leap with joy.

People in this sample of 1,017 online panelists, recruited to reflect 2010 census data, were asked whether they would have a parent live with them. Of those ages 35 to 64, 53 percent answered yes. Only 43 percent of those over 65 were willing to have a parent move in.

Asked the reverse question, about willingness to live with a younger family member “when I could no longer live on my own,” the over-65 respondents sounded even less enthusiastic. Only a quarter said yes; 34 percent said no. The largest group, 38 percent, said they weren’t sure, which seems a rational response to a situation that could be welcomed or feared, comfortable or tense. (Find the survey here.)

I’ll caution that the survey included just 178 people over 65, proportionate to the national population but not an enormous sample. And certainly some families embrace multigenerational living or turn to it for financial reasons. (If you’re among them, we’d like to hear how it’s working out.) If 25 percent of older adults would move in with their families, that’s hardly a negligible proportion.

In certain ethnic communities, too, that arrangement remains the unchallenged norm. Here’s a video visit with an extended Pakistani family in Southern California, for instance.

But I can’t find evidence of widespread yearning among American elders to move in with their children. Certainly, my father has repeatedly made clear his distaste for the idea. Without knowing it, the Waltons were already on the precipice of social change.

Good night, John-Boy.