For Joy and Ray Johnson, visiting their two young grandsons once required a three-hour drive. Now it takes only a three-minute walk.
Joy, 71, and her husband Ray, 83, moved from Albany in Southwest Georgia to Serenbe, a pastoral community 30 miles south of Atlanta that recently launched a new focus on multigenerational living.
The Johnson’s son and daughter-in-law, who live in a house at Serenbe, purchased a townhouse as well, which Joy and Ray rent.
The townhouse is directly across the street from the Montessori school attended by their grandson.
Photo courtesy of Joy Johnson
“I just love it,” says Joy. “Our grandsons can come over for cookies and milk every day. Those two little boys are a big part of our lives. It’s a win, win, win situation for us.”
The Johnsons are part of a growing national trend that is bringing generations together in the same homes and neighborhoods.
From 2009 to 2012, the number of people living in multigenerational households in the United States increased from 51.5 million to 56.8 million, according to a study by the nonprofit Pew Research Center. Those living in multigenerational households increased from 16.8 percent of the population to 18.1 percent, Pew says. This compares to a low of 12.1 percent of the population in 1980.
The Great Recession and its aftermath are responsible for much of the increase, Pew says, with many more young adults choosing to live with their parents out of economic necessity. The study also cited the increase in Latin American and Asian immigrants, who are culturally more likely than native-born Americans to live in multigenerational households.
Then there are people like the Johnsons who do not show up in the Pew statistics. They are choosing to live closer to their relatives but not in the same households.
It is this group of people that developments such as Serenbe are trying to attract.
Serenbe — the name is a combination of serenity and being — is building a new neighborhood called Mado, a Creek-Indian word for balance, that is designed around aging-in-place and multigenerational living. It will feature two-bedroom retirement cottages, a clinic offering Eastern and Western medicine, an assisted living center, spa, yoga studio and juice bar among other amenities.
As a child in Colorado, Serenbe founder Steve Nygren lived with his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
When his mother-in-law sold her restaurant in Atlanta and retired, she moved to Serenbe along with her sister. Nygren’s three adult children also live in the community, his first development.
As a member of the baby boom generation, Nygren, a former Atlanta restaurateur, considers aging-in-place to be a personal as well as a business matter. He points out that multigenerational living was much more common in the United States prior to World War II.
“As we looked at a more sane way to live, I keep going back to the way we lived 80 years ago,” Nygren says.
Mado’s retirement cottages will not have front porches but communal porches — to encourage residents to socialize, Nygren says. There will also be a community center for book readings, guest chefs and other events.
“One thing we’ve found in all the research is that loneliness and depression are huge issues in an aging population,” says Nygren.
The new community, however, is not for the faint of pocketbook. The cottages are priced in the mid-$400,000s, which does not include health care or other services. That is lower than many of the other homes in Serenbe but still out of range for many seniors.
Nationally, a growing number of nonprofits are focusing on more affordable options for multigenerational communities, such as the Treehouse Foundation in Easthampton, Mass., which partnered with a private builder to develop a neighborhood that brings together seniors and families that have adopted children who have been in foster care. Treehouse offers traditional homes at market prices but also has housing reserved for those with lower incomes. Portland, Ore., nonprofit Bridge Meadows offers a similar program.
Living in multigenerational communities benefits young and old, says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a nonprofit that builds connections between younger people and seniors.
“For older adults, it keeps them more engaged, focusing on the future not just the past,” says Butts. “Children can learn more soft skills, like patience when they are interacting with older adults.”
When older Americans only interact with other seniors, their conversations may fall back on the “three Ps”, Butts says.
“They have three topics of conversation: pain, pills and passing,” she says. “By having that contact with other generations, it’s a much wider world.”
Increasingly, retirement communities are creating programs to connect young and old. Twice annually, students at Walther Christian Academy, a private school in suburban Chicago, tour Beacon Hill retirement community, have lunch with residents and talk about everything from the civil rights movement to the fear of dying.
For the Johnsons, living 10 doors down from their grandchildren, son and daughter-in-law is priceless. The grandparents provide support with child care. Likewise, Joy and Ray will have the support of their children as they face the inevitable challenges of growing older.
“When we would come up and visit there would be other people there, and we didn’t have much one-on-one time with our grandchildren, but now we do,” Joy says. “It fills my heart to see their bright little faces. It just does.”