Dear Family Advisor

We're newlyweds. Gram's 84. Perfect roommates (free housing for free care) or future nightmare?

Last updated:

September 14, 2010

My family has suggested that my husband and I move in with my grandmother -- we're newly married and he's still in college. She 84 and doesn't drive after dark. They're inviting us to live there for free in exchange for doing chores "“ yard work, housework, cooking, and so on.

It's a great opportunity financially, but eventually we'd like to have a home of our own and children. I'm concerned that my grandmother's care might increase over the next few years and that we'll be stuck. It'll be much more heart-wrenching to leave if she's not well, but at some point we'll want -- and need -- to move on with our lives.

Do you think this is a good idea for us?

You're wise to be thinking about all these concerns now. While it sounds like a great deal financially, caring for an aging adult is a huge responsibility.

You and your husband owe it to yourselves to make sure you know what you're taking on and to think about how caregiving could affect your marriage.

Has anyone asked your grandmother what she wants? If she's of sound mind, then hearing her thoughts is essential -- after all, it's her home. Sometimes adult children and other family members begin to take over an elder's life long before it's necessary. Spend some alone time with your grandmother and encourage her to talk freely about where she'd like to live, with whom, and who she'd like to be her advocate.

Assuming that she does want you to move in, and you decide to do it, I strongly suggest that you and your family create a written agreement so that you know what's expected of you and how issues will be handled in the future. Make sure there's a clause that states you'll revisit your living arrangements at least every six months.

It may sound rather formal, and it should. Some families think they've "got it covered" if a relative moves in. But your grandmother's needs will change over the next few years, even if she's quite mobile now -- and your life will change, too. Her odds of contracting such diseases as heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's (to name only a few) increase dramatically with age. She may even eventually need round-the-clock care, something you might not be willing or (given job constraints) able to do. Whatever happens, your family should begin to explore other [housing options] (https://www.caring.com/articles/senior-housing-options) just in case.

Things might already be worse than you realize. My mom hid her dementia for several years -- and I didn't pick up on it because my life was so full that I don't think I wanted to see it. Many elders hide what's going on so they can remain independent. Or they may not even realize themselves how bad their condition is. Just as I did, family members tend to deny and avoid what's really going on. You might find that you've stepped into a more complicated situation than you can handle.

I suggest that you and your husband spend some time with her before you move in. Stay for at least a few weeks -- long enough to see how the three of you do together and how your family responds. For example, does everyone expect you to do it all alone? Will you also be responsible for getting her to medical appointments, picking up her meds, keeping her company? Will you get respite care? Can you take a vacation? What happens if you get pregnant? Ask these questions now to avoid misunderstandings later -- and have Plan B and C in place.

Whether you decide to move in or not, I hope you'll choose to be an active part of your grandmother's life. So often, there's a deep bond between grandchild and grandparent. They give us our heritage. They offer insights and wisdom only age can impart. They're old enough not to take life or themselves too seriously. What a gift! Your grandmother needs you in so many ways -- and you need her, too. Do what's best for your husband and yourself, but enjoy and participate in your grandmother's life. You'll be glad you did.