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Be Inspired By Multigenerational Living

26/04/2017 15:26 BST | Updated 26/04/2017 15:26 BST

Picture this: you're married with two young children. You have a career. Your parents are retired. They have their own life. Then one of your parents is diagnosed with dementia.

Your way of coping as a family? All move in together. One large house divided into two interconnected homes and a team approach to caring for their family member with dementia where everyone, including the children, are involved.

This is Suzy Webster's life. Suzy's mother is the lady living with dementia, and by moving in together, Suzy hasn't just helped her mum but her dad too. Unsure of how he would cope with long-term caring duties for his wife, Suzy's approach was intended to help both of her parents, and as much as her mum has benefited from the living arrangements, it would be a huge mistake not to realise just how much her dad has benefited too. Suzy believes that being a sole carer for her mother would have taken an unmentionable toll on her father, and what we know about the physical and mental difficulties older family carers face certainly backs up the concerns Suzy had about her dad caring alone.

Suzy's view is that her parents cared for her, and her role now is to do likewise for them. Perhaps it helps that she is an only child, with a supportive husband and two children who, from the way they care for their grandmother, are an exemplary example of non-judgmental dementia care. If only every interaction from an adult towards a person with dementia could be as free from stigma and pre-conceived ideas as those that come from children.

It also helps, of course, that Suzy's family were financially able to make this move and find a suitable property. Not everyone is able to do that, and without a suitable property, this multi-generational living arrangement might never have worked out. That isn't to say, however, that it's all been plain sailing. The emotional, physical and mental demands that have been felt by everyone in their own individual ways shouldn't be underestimated.

Ultimately, though, Suzy speaks of this move as the best thing she has ever done for her parents, and who could argue? I hear more positivity from Suzy as she recalls events that have happened at home than I hear from most families who are coping with dementia, and I am full of admiration and praise for Suzy's approach, how she has made it work, and what she and her family teach society about caring for ageing parents.

Of course Suzy's approach isn't for everyone. Without a strong relationship with her parents, and a marriage able to flourish amid such close living arrangements with in-laws, this example of domesticity would never have worked, and probably would never have even been considered. For those of us looking in from the outside, though, what do we learn?

I would suggest that first and foremost, the need to encourage and facilitate these kinds of living arrangements should definitely be on the radar of those whose remit it is to decide on future housing, health and care needs. For families who can make this work, this is an ideal situation that supports a person with a terminal health condition in the place that, in all likelihood, they would most like to be - their own home.

It also avoids carer breakdown by sharing caring responsibilities, promotes intergenerational learning, and helps to reduce the need for costly health and care interventions (Suzy's mum now has home care workers visiting daily, but for many other people, they may be in a care home or constantly in and out of hospital if they were Suzy's mum).

Undoubtedly politicians would like more families to adopt Suzy's example, although I think policy needs to catch up with aspiration if that is going to be a realistic aim that enables families to have, and make, these kinds of choices. In the meantime, many people who would like to see more multigenerational living look on enviously at what happens abroad, with families in Mediterranean countries and Asia sighted as being gold-standard multigenerational households where the youngest to the oldest live together for the benefit of all.

Of course history teaches us that before the transport links that give us the freedom to move around, UK families were less geographically spread out and more multigenerational in their living arrangements. These days, the industries that have grown up around child care and aged care have provided places where our younger and older family members can be cared for by someone else, while the working-age members of the family progress their careers in whatever geographic location is most beneficial.

Is that progress or merely about keeping working-aged adults on the hamster wheel of tax creation? I'd argue it is certainly less nurturing of family life and the real connectivity that binds us together and nurtures us emotionally. With the renewed focus on mental health and wellbeing in recent months, there is certainly a debate to be had about work-life balance, the role of family life, and how all of this fits into our living arrangements.