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Making It Work

Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children and a resident scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center in Waltham, Mass., offers these tips for seniors combining households.

Know the environment. The world has changed since we were young: There are even different economic issues—no one stays with one company throughout their career and most don’t garner a pension anymore. Sexual mores have changed; virginity is not an issue.

Know yourself. Look back at your own life, what you did well and what worked—what can you bring to the new relationship? And forgive your parents: We all parent in the same way or in opposition to our parents. Consider their position: What was it like to be stuck in a dead-end job, or whatever their situation was?

Reframe expectations. When my daughter was getting married people told me, “Keep your mouth shut and your pocketbook open.” I thought that was terrible advice. Figure out what works for you and your children—whatever brings more joy than aggravation. There are no perfect relationships; you’re never going to find them.

Negotiate before issues arise. What are the financial expectations? What about territorial issues (Can I use the kitchen?)? What kind of inter-generational time do we want, as opposed to bi- or tri- or unigenerational? Will we meet monthly? What contribution should everyone make? You can be poor financially but rich in the ability to babysit or do the shopping. What do we do when glitches occur?

Make sure expectations are clear. Granny nannys deserve the same respect as any employees. They have the right to take vacations, the right to have some set hours. They should not be expected to work 14 hours a day. What are the benefits? It can be housing or taking care of them in old age. What’s the payment? It doesn’t have to be in money; it can be respect or thanks.

Recognize differences in values. There are huge differences between generations in rules about eating, television, gifts, and discipline. These need to be discussed in advance. Children benefit by learning from different people, so reframe such differences as a positive. Children can learn that grandma’s rules are different from mommy’s.

Respect parents’ rules:  If the pediatrician and parent say no milk products, that should be respected. The same holds true when the child asks where babies come from—do you give every detail or say the stork brings them?

It’s important for parents to respect grandparents and their limits, and vise versa. What’s key is to be clear about why they have the rules they have. Each generation needs an explanation of why you’re doing things.

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