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Virus drives grown kids back home; here's how to make it work

Dr. Chelsey Miller moved from her Upper West Side apartment with her husband and two young daughters to her parents' home in Roslyn in March because they all thought it was safer to live on Long Island during the pandemic. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Like legions of others, Emily Hillebrand wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

New York went into coronavirus lockdown in March, shutting down offices and sending employees home to work remotely. The publishing company she works for gave up its city lease.

If she had to work from home, she figured, why not temporarily ditch the apartment she and her cat Calypso were sharing with two roommates in East Harlem and move back in with her mother in her three-bedroom house in Farmingdale?

She decided to give it a try — only to return to her apartment in mid-July when she thought things would improve. They didn’t. So she made up her mind and on Sunday, moved back to Farmingdale — this time indefinitely.

"We don't know what the virus is going to look like in 2021, and I don’t like being on the hook for rent every month," said the 24-year-old. "It doesn't feel quite worth it to me right now to have my own space and going home gives me financial flexibility to think about what I want to do next."

Keith Kovary felt the same way. He and his girlfriend ended their lease on their Brooklyn apartment in July and moved to his mother’s accessory apartment in Stony Brook on Monday.

"We don't really want to keep paying money to rent a place that's not ours when we can find an alternative and save up to maybe buy a house," Kovary, 28, said.

For many 20- and 30-somethings living and working in the city, moving back to stay with their parents in the suburbs is a no-brainer. According to the Pew Research Center, 52% of 18- to 29-year-olds nationwide are living with their parents, rates that we haven't seen since the Depression. This is up from 47% in February, before the coronavirus stay-at-home orders.

That’s all very well. But how do empty-nesters adjust to the needs and demands of grown children who’ve returned to live with them?

While the statistics help to normalize the stigma of millennials living at home, that doesn’t mean it’s not without stressors for parents and adult kids alike, says Hillebrand’s mother, Teresa Grella-Hillebrand, who is director of the Counseling and Mental Health Professions Clinic at Hofstra University in Hempstead and a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist.

Here’s how to make a home sweet home with minimal conflicts.

Make time to adjust

First, understand that this decision may not be everyone’s first choice, said Grella-Hillebrand. "Most of these adult children are coming home because there's a need more so than a want, and they're giving up a lot of the freedoms that come with living independently," she said. "As parents, we have to be mindful that our adult children are going through a grieving process to some degree when they're coming home."

Meanwhile, parents who were empty-nesters may have to adjust to the changes too. "Even if we know it's not a permanent situation, we can feel love and appreciation that we're together and real resentment for how this is starting to feel in terms of what we had hoped or wanted and what we're living," Grella-Hillebrand said.

Establish boundaries

For family harmony, it helps to create some guidelines. This was especially important for Chelsey Miller, 36, a clinical psychologist in New York, who moved from her Upper West Side apartment with her husband and two young daughters to her parents’ home in Roslyn. They all lived and worked together at home for 117 days starting in March.

"As any psychologist understands, you regress when you go in with your family and it's not easy, particularly in a highly stressful time," said Miller, who has since moved to a rental not far from her parents. "I had to work a lot on being able to set boundaries and not necessarily automatically do what my family wanted to do. Adult children can make decisions for themselves, even though they're living under their parents' roof. Everybody's needs have to be met and that certainly can be a difficult thing to navigate."

Her father, Robert Mendelsohn, also a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University’s Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology in Garden City, said that when there is a conflict within a family, "strike while the iron is cold. This means that when people are starting to have friction and anger, this is not a time to start changing things. You want to cool things down, and then approach it later. You could text the person and ask them, `When would be a good time to talk?’"

He added that ideally these conversations should take place before or right after the move so that everyone knows exactly what the expectations will be.

Set financial expectations

Dr. Wilfred Farquharson IV, a licensed psychologist and director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic at Stony Brook Medicine, said that being able to live at home with parents is a privilege and can be an economic benefit. But it’s important to discuss finances, especially if a changed income is why the move was made in the first place.

"Whether this is going to be short-term or long-term, it does come down to effective communication," he said. "If parents could also benefit from having some financial relief — maybe they’ve also been hit financially by this pandemic — hopefully there's enough connection there and trust that people can discuss their finances in a way that's healthy. It’s not necessarily a detailed budgeting exchange, but just some common themes, like what expenses each can carry."

Make space

When possible, create a space for each person to work and to be alone, Farquharson said.

"I've known some families that have packed up every piece of unnecessary furniture or item and put it in storage so that they could create more physical living space," he said.

Grella-Hillebrand added that when working from home, try to designate separate sleeping and work spaces. For instance, Emily Hillebrand has set up her office in her sister’s bedroom because it’s not currently being used, so she can keep her bedroom as living space. Her mother has a separate office in the basement.

Divide chores

Don’t be afraid to have the conversation about how each person will pitch in. Grella-Hillebrand said it’s easy for everyone to naturally fall into the roles of parents giving and kids receiving. "Chores like emptying the dishwasher or doing the grocery run don't usually happen spontaneously," she said. "If they do, you're lucky. And if they don't, I think families really need to get in front of that. Parents can ask: What's in your mind about how this is going to work? And say this is what I need from you and what do you need from me?"

Kathleen Caputi and her 25-year-old daughter Shela O’Hea lived together during the shutdown until recently when O’Hea returned to her Queens apartment. While they did share Caputi’s home in Northport, they feel they balanced the chores fairly.

"Shela did the laundry and a good part of the cleaning," Caputi said. "She also did the larger part of repainting some of our outdoor furniture. I did the cooking and she helped me with the shopping and did the dishes. I paid for most, but not all of the groceries."

Melissa Kovary, Keith’s mother, said she already had a list of maintenance tasks for him to do at her Stony Brook home.

Have fun

Farquharson said that living together as adults creates unique social engagement and a chance to reinvent some past activities that the family used to share.

"I’ve heard a lot of stories of families playing board games again, going for walks together, even clearing out some of the things in the home that they've been talking about doing for years," he said.

Caputi and O’Hea both worked at home during their roommate experience, but they also made sure to spend time together. O’Hea, who plans to move home if there’s another outbreak in the city, said, "We’d have `water cooler’ breaks during our workday to have tea and chat like I’d do at work."

Grella-Hillebrand, who said she and her daughter will continue to bike, bake and re-watch favorite TV series together, added, "This is time together that many of us didn't expect to get at this stage. With that comes an opportunity for appreciation, and to make it as special as possible."

How to make that home savings add up

If, like Keith Kovary, you’ve moved in part to save money for a down payment on a future home, his mother has some advice on how to make that move a worthwhile financial investment.

“First of all, right now there’s an inventory bubble, where houses are selling for $50,000 more than their value, so my advice is to wait for at least a year,” said Melissa Kovary, a Realtor with Providence Realty Group LLC in Huntington. "I think the interest rates will still be great then.”

She added that this isn’t the time to be ordering often from Amazon and Uber Eats. “If you’re living at home to save money, try to take what you would be paying for rent and put it in a separate account and don't touch it,” she advised. “If you were paying $1,500 a month and can save that for a year, that’s $18,000.”

Since a conventional loan requires 20% down, that’s a good head start. Kovary said for first-time homebuyers using government-backed loans, which usually require 3.5% down, you’d be more than ahead of what is needed to buy — all from sharing space with your parents.

Liza N. Burby

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