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Still living with Mom? Well, you're not alone

Sunday, May 13, 2001

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Lenore Dixon had been on her own for a long time, going to school, working and traveling. But when she decided to go for her master's of nursing degree full time, she knew she'd need help.

Janet Resutko at dinner with her mother, Jane Oliver. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

So she asked her mother if she could move in with her for a while. Evelyn Dixon, a long-divorced medical secretary who'd just bought half a duplex in Squirrel Hill, was happy to support her daughter in any way she could.

Today, 16 years later, Lenore Dixon is a full-time intensive care unit nurse at Allegheny General Hospital, and her mother is retired. They could afford separate residences, but have remained together because they like it better than living alone.

"She's my best friend," said Lenore Dixon, 54, smiling at her mom and petting one of the family dogs.

"And she's mine," said Evelyn Dixon, 85, grinning back.

Parents and grown children under one roof have always been part of the American social fabric, but increased mobility has made such households less common than they once were.

And in a culture that often venerates independence above all else, mothers and adult daughters who live together may sometimes be assumed to be addressing some kind of deficit -- illness or infirmity, emotional dependency, financial difficulty or a reluctance to grow up.

No one knows the assumptions better than Lenore Dixon.

"It's annoying when people think that I have remained a child who hasn't matured," she said. "This is not a codependent situation. There's no pathology here."

Adds Evelyn Dixon, referring to her daughter and her son: "I wanted my children to go out of state to college and be free. I wanted them to be independent, and they are. Lenny and I do some things together and some things separately. We just decided it was pleasant to have someone to live with, and we're having a wonderful life together."

In fact, mother and daughter share several interests. They each put in 16 hours of volunteer work a month with the same agency; they attend church services and activities; they've traveled extensively as a duo and with a larger group. All in all, they agree, it makes life sweeter.

"At the end of a long day at the hospital, coming home is a comfort and a joy," Lenore Dixon said. "To be greeted by my mom and the dogs, I love that."

One wall of their house is covered with photos dating to the 1860s. Lenore Dixon's great-great-great-great grandmother is up there, along with a slew of other relatives who've populated the past 140 years. Clearly, family is important to the Dixon women.

"A lot of people live by themselves because they think independence is the most important thing," Lenore added, "but I see a lot of loneliness in those situations."

Just close enough

"Our culture has always paid a lot of attention to the relationship of young children to their mothers, but only recently have we begun to acknowledge the importance of that relationship into adulthood," said Dr. Cynthia Napier Rosenberg, chief of geriatrics at The Western Pennsylvania Hospital.

"As people live longer, the importance of those relationships becomes more apparent, not just because of care-giving situations, but also because they can be very enriching to both mother and child."

There's no sure way of establishing the incidence of multigenerational family households from available census figures, said Christopher Briem of the Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

"The numbers are just not that easily extractable," he said.

Rick Morycz, administrator of geriatrics at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, said such living arrangements were once more common than they are now, but that they had never been a majority in this country.

"At the turn of the last century, there were more because of economic necessity, especially in rural areas where families passed on the land," Morycz said. "But for the most part, nuclear families in this country have always pushed off to make their own way.

"Even when they're not in the same house," he said, "it's amazing to see how much contact adult children have with their parents. Three or four times a week is not unusual, even if the [care-giving] need is not there.

"It's intimacy at a distance -- closeness but not under the same roof."

That description fits Jane Oliver and her daughter. Oliver, 70, lives in the same Highland Park house in which she raised her children. When a fire damaged the house next door, her daughter and son-in-law, who lived in Stanton Heights, bought it, restored it and moved in with their two daughters.

"You always want to move out and away from your neighborhood," said her daughter, Janet Resutko, over coffee in her brick Victorian home with its original wood paneling, hardwood floors and leaded-glass windows.

"At first, I wondered, do I really want to go back? But it's nice being here. I've come to enjoy it."

There's plenty of familial intimacy, with visits, groceries and phone calls going back and forth throughout the day. But the distance is important, too. Ask why Oliver doesn't just move across the driveway and in with her daughter's family, and both women shake their heads.

"We need our privacy and quiet time, and so does she," Resutko said as her mother nodded.

The close arrangement works because, Oliver said, "I don't tell them what to do."

"She's never interfered in the way we raise the girls," Resutko said. "It's one of the reasons we all get along. She respects us as adults."

Granddaughters Jessica and Melissa Resutko, 17 and 12, appreciate having their grandma next door. Not only is she the go-to source for candy and ice cream, but they like knowing she's always there for back-up.

"There are so many ways to help each other out," Jessica Resutko said.

Renewal of friendship

Even for adults who might prefer to live apart from their parents, other social phenomena sometimes work against it. The cost of housing and health care, the divorce rate, single parenthood, two parents working all can be compelling reasons for sharing space and pooling resources.

"This generation of younger people may not do as well as their parents," said Frank Ghinassi, a psychologist who is chief of adult services at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic.

"The American archetype is every generation does better than the one before. But the key to that was the low baseline. If you're coming from modest origins, it's easier to do better. Now the middle class lives a lifestyle that was once reserved for the very wealthy. It's not so easy to improve upon that on your own."

In real estate markets where the cost of housing has far outdistanced people's ability to pay for it, Ghinassi said, "if a 30-year-old has to choose between a mortgage that burns up all disposable income and living with parents, it's a tempting choice."

Also, the divorce rate means family units are less stable.

"The enduring family ends up being the biological family of origin, where it used to be the nuclear family," he said. In those situations, grandma's help with children can be invaluable.

Whatever the reasons, he said, it's possible for adults to live with parents while still maintaining independence.

"The implication to some may be that if you return home it's a diminishment of your independence, but they don't have to be mutually exclusive," Ghinassi said. "It depends on the nature of the relationship. If the return is a re-creation of adolescence, it's one thing. But if it's two adults sharing space, then it's different."

Over time, adult daughters who've moved back with their mothers may have a renewal of friendship, looking at them less as a nurturer and more as a peer and confidante, Morycz said. There may be a reciprocity of services, where the daughter works and handles the money and the mother cooks and does other tasks.

As the need arises, they make the transition into a care-giving situation. And at that point, they are often very glad to be close at hand.

Rose Hammond, 51, a research associate for a physician at West Penn Hospital, moved back to Beaver Falls 20 years ago, when her mill-worker father had a stroke at age 57.

"My parents needed the money from my rent," Hammond said. "I was divorced and I liked living by myself, but I came back to be supportive of them. I'm also a nurse, so I could help oversee his care."

Hammond moved into separate living quarters in what used to be her father's workshop. They shared meals and she was there when needed.

"They didn't impinge on my private life and I wasn't underfoot with them," she said.

Today, she drives the 44 miles each way to work and looks after her widowed mother, Naomi Hammond, 88 and frail, but otherwise in good physical and mental health.

"She still does her own checkbook and she carries on a wonderful conversation, but she shouldn't be by herself now," Ruth Hammond said. Her sister, Joella, 47, also moved back about five years ago.

"It's good for all of us to have the company," she said.

For her part, Naomi Hammond couldn't be more pleased with her living situation.

"I've lived in this house for 47 years," she said. "I'm glad to be able to stay here.

"Not everyone's lucky enough to have their children with them," she said. "There's give and take. If you want things to work, you sit down and talk them out. That way you can solve a lot of problems.

"We've never had too many problems, though. I'm very happy this way."

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