When Molly Branson Thayer relocated from Chicago to Seattle in 2014, her mother, Barbara Branson, came along. At first, Thayer and her crew — husband, two children, mother — lived together in a three-bedroom house.

“It was tight,” Thayer says. “It was pretty clear it wasn’t going to work to share a single-family home.” 

Issues such as sharing one kitchen and one shower, and even differing standards on clutter, made multigenerational living a challenge, Thayer says. So, within the year, they all moved to a larger house in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood that included a full mother-in-law unit. A contractor installed a door between upstairs and downstairs, a boundary of sorts. 

“We had separate spaces but were close enough that the kids could walk down and spend the night,” Thayer says. “With the door, it felt like she could do what she wanted, and we could do what we wanted.” 

Barbara Branson, rear left, moved to Seattle in 2014 with her daughter and son-in law, Molly Branson Thayer and Craig Thayer, and the couple’s children Sasha and Sam. But space was tight, so the family bought a larger home that could better accommodate all three generations. (Courtesy of Heleyna Holmes Photography)
Barbara Branson, rear left, moved to Seattle in 2014 with her daughter and son-in law, Molly Branson Thayer and Craig Thayer, and the couple’s children Sasha and Sam. But space was tight, so the family bought a larger home that could better accommodate all three generations. (Courtesy of Heleyna Holmes Photography)

There were other benefits, too. Branson had a Costco membership so the family could stock up on bulk goods, and she was available to take the kids for appointments or watch them when needed. Digital payment apps like Venmo and Zelle worked to fairly divide rent and utilities, and to cover copays and Costco bills. 

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As for the matter of managing the clutter, Thayer and Branson went in together on a twice-a-month house cleaner. 

Already common — and then the pandemic

Multigenerational living isn’t new, of course. But the realities of the coronavirus pandemic have made the trend more appealing to some, as families flex to accommodate each other’s unique needs and create safe living pods.

Parents have long moved in with their adult children, whether by choice or by chance, but these arrangements may be increasing during the pandemic, says Gerry Cherney, a certified aging-in-place specialist at Snohomish-based Indeboom Occupational Therapy Consulting.

“If Mom or Dad have a fall and end up in the ER with a broken hip or head injury, the hospital won’t usually let them go home without 24-hour care,” Cherney says. “But during [the pandemic], families don’t want Mom or Dad to go into a skilled nursing rehabilitation facility with visitation restrictions or Zoom calls only.” So instead, parents spend their recovery time living with their adult children.

A medical event that spurs an older parent to move in with an adult child is often unexpected. Cherney says that without an opportunity for planning, families may struggle to perform last-minute home modifications. 

Those considering this type of living arrangement should check to make sure a wheelchair or walker can fit through existing doorways, for example. Cherney says to ask yourself whether your parent can get into the house easily through the front door or garage. If not, some structural changes might be needed.

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Creating an all-ages home

Falls are the No. 1 cause of injury, trauma-related hospital visits and injury deaths for those ages 65 and older, according to the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. One in 3 older adults falls each year, with most taking place in and around the home. 

Home modifications can improve safety and support independent living, according to the USC Leonard Davis School. The options range from inexpensive to more costly. An accessible environment that promotes aging in place might feature walk-in bathroom showers, single-lever faucets for ease of use, and clear pathways through furnishings.

Cherney works with general contractors and architects to design living spaces that can accommodate all ages. He says a top concern is the bathroom, where there’s an increased risk of falls due to slippery surfaces in showers and bathtubs, inadequate lighting and poor bath-area support.

Quick fixes might include sturdy grab bars around the bathroom, a built-in or pull-down shower seat, a plug-in night light or a comfort-height toilet seat. If the budget affords a bathroom remodel, a tiled, curbless shower will accommodate a wheelchair should one be needed in the future. 

David Oliver worked with his contractor, Bruce Parker, on the plans for the detached accessory dwelling unit, or DADU, that Parker’s company, Microhouse, designed for the backyard of Oliver’s adult daughter’s home in West Seattle. “We carefully thought through what was needed,” Oliver says, for both now and when he is older. (Courtesy of David Oliver)
David Oliver worked with his contractor, Bruce Parker, on the plans for the detached accessory dwelling unit, or DADU, that Parker’s company, Microhouse, designed for the backyard of Oliver’s adult daughter’s home in West Seattle. “We carefully thought through what was needed,” Oliver says, for both now and when he is older. (Courtesy of David Oliver)

Future arrangements were something David Oliver was considering even before he relocated to Seattle from the Midwest. 

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Following his retirement last August, he moved into a newly built backyard cottage in West Seattle. The detached accessory dwelling unit, or DADU, is located in the backyard of his adult daughter’s home, where she lives with her husband and two children, ages 13 and 10. 

Built by Viking Construction Services, Oliver’s DADU is a two-story unit, with 500 square feet of living space on each floor. Two bedrooms are upstairs, along with a bathroom. On the main floor, there’s another bedroom and bathroom, plus a kitchen and living room.  

The main floor’s bedroom currently serves as a hobby/office space. But if using stairs becomes problematic in the future, Oliver says he’ll use the space as his bedroom. He designed the layout with his contractor, Bruce Parker, of Microhouse, a Seattle-area maker of DADUs. “We carefully thought through what was needed,” Oliver says.

Nearby, yet separate

The arrangement works well for both Oliver and his daughter’s family. “It’s a very good combination,” he says. “We formed a COVID bubble and interact freely. I see the kids daily because everybody’s at home.” 

Once per week, Oliver goes to his daughter’s house for a shared meal, or brings over dinner that he prepared in his kitchen.

“It takes some thinking about personalities,” he says. “You’re more interwoven than in a normal circumstance. But my daughter and son-in-law are easy to get along with, although I stole a chunk of their backyard.” 

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Oliver enjoys being part of an active household that includes a teen and a preteen. “Particularly given the locked-down situation, it’s nice to have some life around,” he says.

Downsizing into a DADU requires a willingness to adapt to your new, smaller space, Oliver says. He brought along a coffee table and a cabinet that he now believes take up too much room, but the rest of his furniture fits. 

As for Branson, she has since moved into a Seattle house that she renovated with a good friend, and is settled in there — for now, at least. Thayer says her home is always open if Branson decides to return. 

Until then, Thayer’s kids still spend the night with Grandma every Tuesday.