‘Moving in with my family made me healthy and happy – I’m not surprised it helps people live to 100’

Kathie Hannam (left) shares a house with her son Alex Mearns, his wife Robyn Mearns and their daughters Lily (8), Elowyn (16 months) and Iris (5)
Kathie Hannam (left) shares a house with her son Alex Mearns, his wife Robyn Mearns and their daughters Lily (8), Elowyn (16 months) and Iris (5) - Jay Williams

Ever thought about moving in with the grandparents, or having them come to live with you? If so, you are part of a worldwide trend. In the UK 1.8 million households have multiple generations living together under one roof, says one study – an increase of 38 per cent in just 10 years. Interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen was recently singing the praises of living happily together with his wife, two grown-up daughters, son-in-laws and four grandchildren in the same household in the Cotswolds, saying: “It feels like it’s such a weird thing but it’s actually the natural thing.” Meanwhile in the US, the population in multigenerational homes has doubled in recent years.

Although financial constraints are often the main driver, benefits to health and wellbeing come a close second – multigenerational living is one of the factors that can bump a geographical area into “Blue Zone” status, the places in the world where 10 times more people lived to 100 due to naturally healthy lifestyle habits.

Singapore has recently been put on a new list: Blue Zone 2.0. So-called by Dan Buettner, the journalist and researcher who first coined the phrase Blue Zone back in 2004, these are places that have “engineered” a society that lives to 100, encouraging their populations to live longer by adopting healthier lifestyle habits. Part of this social engineering was combating the problems of the rapidly ageing population by offering financial incentives to families cohabiting with children, parents and grandparents.

Studies show that multigenerational living can have a positive impact on both children and the older generation. Primary school-aged children learn language, reading and social skills such as tolerance and empathy from their grandparents. And elderly people with more contact with their grandchildren have a lower incidence of dementia, according to research. Other studies have shown that multigenerational living encourages longevity and greatly enhances our quality of life.

“Moving in with my family has made me healthier and happier than I could ever have thought possible – I’m not surprised that people live to 100 if they are encouraging this in Singapore,” says Kathie Hannam, 62.

Hannam, who is divorced, was living alone in Manchester when she had a stroke in 2020.

“Four years on, I’m well again and living the dream life with my family in Cornwall with my son, daughter-in-law and three granddaughters,” she says.

In Manchester, Kathie lived separately from her son Alex Mearns, 35, his wife Robyn, 34, and their two daughters, Lily, eight, and Iris, five. Then, in 2019, Robyn was promoted to Respiratory Physiotherapy Lead and was offered a new job at the Royal Cornwall Hospital.

“Mum couldn’t afford to retire so inviting her to live with us in Cornwall seemed like the perfect solution. She worked long hours in retail, and it affected her health,” says Alex, who works for an investment firm from his home office.

“I jumped at the chance to live with my family in Cornwall,” said Kathie. “I was very close to my granddaughter Lily and I was heartbroken when Alex said they were moving.”

Initially Kathie lived in the annexe attached to the family’s four-bedroom house but eventually they bought the attached cottage next door. This is rented out as a holiday let in the summer to help with finances but is Kathie’s home for the rest of the year.

Kathie Hannam's cottage, front, and the bigger house used by her son's family, behind
Kathie Hannam's cottage, front, and the bigger house used by her son's family, behind - Jay Williams

“Multigenerational living definitely increases a sense of family wellbeing,” says Dr Prabash Edirisingha at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, an expert and researcher in multigenerational living. “Children who grow up with stronger intergenerational relationships develop a greater sense of self-confidence and aspiration,” he says.

However, there are pros and cons. And, as Dr Edirisingha says, it may be more of a challenge to encourage multigenerational living in the UK than in Singapore. “Historically, families in the UK are nuclear. And we are not culturally programmed to live in multigenerational families. For example, there are cultural expectations for young adults to leave their parents, find a job and live in their own place. This is an important rite of passage and a transitional time that signifies personal growth and success. So, when there is a socio-cultural taboo about living with parents well into their late twenties or thirties, it creates an additional layer of considerations and complexity for taking up and continuing multigenerational living,” he says.

There is also the issue of space. “Houses in the UK are also not designed and built to accommodate multigenerational living, which can result in an intrusion of privacy and personal boundaries. Multigenerational families have specific needs when it comes to accommodating a blend of personal and communal spaces. When there is not much space available and overcrowded, personal boundaries and privacy are often intruded, which could lead to a negative sense of wellbeing,” he adds.

So how does it work for Kathie’s family?

“When I tell people my mother-in-law lives with us, I usually get a lot of sympathy from people. But to be honest, I don’t know how we’d have got through the last four years without her,” says Robyn Mearns, who recently gave birth to her third daughter Elowyn, aged one.

Kathie’s presence not only boosts the family wellbeing but finances too. Both Alex and Robyn work in hectic jobs with long hours and childcare fees would be expensive if Kathie did not help out.

Kathie Hannam, her son Alex Mearns and his wife Robyn Mearns, with their daughters Lily (8), Elowyn (16 months) and Iris (5) at the house they share in Falmouth, Cornwall
The process has brought both highs and lows for the family - Jay Williams

“Members of multigenerational families can contribute towards shareable living expenses, reducing the financial burden of one generation or family member,” says Dr Edirisingha.

“Multigenerational families are also better positioned to organise child and elderly care within the family, allowing them to save more.” Families spend 20-30 per cent of their household income on childcare and the average cost of a residential care home is £970 per week.

“But it’s not just financial savings. It means that our three children have someone they love to drop them off at school and nursery and pick them up,” says Alex.

“My family and grandchildren are my world,” says Kathie. “To get to spend time with them makes me very happy – and healthier.”

Intergenerational living is not for everyone, however. “It can work very well for families who are willing to share, communicate and offer each other mutual support,” says Rhian Kivits, a Relate-trained therapist. “But it’s not recommended for those with family members with strong personalities. It tends to work best when the structure is ‘communal’ rather than ‘hierarchical’ – parents respect their adult children’s autonomy and members of the family are conscious of each other’s needs and lifestyle choices,” she says.

“Kathie is great at respecting our needs,’ says Robyn. “But we did row a bit at the beginning. I’m a self-confessed control freak and I found myself cleaning after Kathie had already cleaned – and I would tell Kathie off for giving the kids biscuits because I am passionate about the kids eating healthily.”

Alex admits that it was difficult being stuck between his mother and his wife. “At first, they would both come to me as go-between to try and sort things out because they didn’t want to hurt each other’s feelings.”

Kathie admits that she was nervous of treading on her daughter-in-law’s toes “But now I treat her like my own daughter,” she says. “If anything, they ganged up against me,” laughs Alex. “Robyn felt that I got lazier with my mum around,” he says.

“If the son has been used to being looked after by his mum, he may go back to old childhood dynamics,” warns Kivits. “You also have to be careful of power struggles. Yes, two women need to negotiate a way forward but two men in the household struggling for power and control could be equally volatile. Involving all family members in group decisions, with all genders present, is probably the best way forward,” she advises.

Kathie Hannam (centre) shares a house with her son Alex Mearns, his wife Robyn Mearns and their daughters Lily (8), Elowyn (16 months) and Iris (5)
Kathie (centre) says she's 'healthier and happier' than ever - Jay Williams

Four months after moving in together, tensions were rising because Robyn wanted to spend time with the girls when she got home from work. Kathie thought she was helping by putting the children to bed, but Robyn felt pushed out, admits Alex. “I called a family meeting and we worked out who did what on which days,” he says. Now Robyn works four long days and has three days with the children. Kathie does breakfast routines, Robyn and Alex do bath-time routines and Alex takes the kids to school most days. “We all agreed times and dates where we all get our own space and time to spend with the kids,” says Alex.

There can be problems where there is a lack of space or where there are conflicting needs and priorities within the group, says Kivits. “The needs and routines of an older adult can be very different to the needs and routines of a young couple with a baby for example,” she says. “It was difficult,” admits Alex. “Robyn was pregnant with our third daughter, my mum didn’t know anyone in Cornwall and took a while to build her own life. I wanted to spend time with them both.”

For Robyn, she found simple things hard – like not being able to walk around with no clothes on when she wanted to. “It just makes you a little more self-conscious,” she says. Things got easier when they bought the house next door together. Kathie started to work two days at the local hospital as a receptionist and contributes financially. “Mum has her own physical space and privacy now. You definitely will struggle to live together if you don’t have enough space,” says Alex. “To make it work, you need to set up the ground rules from the get-go – how you will handle conflict, what are the time commitments, who does what when – and I would recommend separate living space,” he says. “You need to know the difference between helping and interfering,” says Kathie. “And you must never take sides if your loved ones argue.”

Robyn wholeheartedly recommends multigenerational living. “But only do it if you are willing to grow, compromise and to communicate honestly,” says Robyn. “And then it can work beautifully.”

“We’re creating our very own blue zone in Cornwall,” says Kathie.

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