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Families make the most of multigenerational coronavirus cohabitation

Robert and Matilda Tobin, left and far right,

Robert and Matilda Tobin, left and far right, are hosting their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, Ava, pictured during the coronavirus pandemic. Lincoln the bernadoodle has moved into the Tobins' Bellmore home, too. Credit: Tobin Family

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Matilda and Robert Tobin have three grown children, but since mid-March, they haven’t been empty nesters.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, one of their daughters, along with her husband, nearly 2-year-old child, Ava, and Bernedoodle named Lincoln made a beeline from Manhattan to the Tobins’ home in Bellmore. The five-bedroom house, as well as the surrounding neighborhood, gives Ava exactly what her parents sought for the toddler: spaces to play and ride her tricycle — while staying socially isolated.

“With Ava and the coronavirus, they wanted to get out of the city, and now being out here in the suburbs, they realize how beneficial it is for Ava to have the backyard,” said Matilda Tobin, 64, a retired special education teacher.

The tentative living arrangements have made the Tobins ever grateful that they have the room to comfortably shelter their loved ones.

“It’s nice being one big family together,” Tobin said.

As the highly contagious virus continues to force folks throughout the world to remain indoors as much as possible, an ancient Burmese proverb — “in time of test, family is best” — could well be the mantra for some Long Island seniors. It’s certainly the reason they are hunkering down with their kinfolk.

New realities

From seeking to shield their families and themselves from the virus to wanting to lend a hand with their grandkids, these older Long Islanders have welcomed their loved ones into their homes or trekked beyond the region to stay with them. Still others are experiencing another new reality — the 24/7 presence of their spouses who are now not only taking lunch but doing their jobs on the kitchen table.

At the same time, anecdotal evidence suggests that many Long Island seniors are waiting out the pandemic alone rather than live with family. That phenomenon could be rooted in the fact that U.S. seniors (27%) generally live alone in normal times since solo households are more common in more economically advanced parts of the world, according to a recent Pew Research Center Report. Worldwide, older women (20%) are nearly twice as older men (11%) to live alone. In 2018, census data showed that Long Island had about 104,534 senior citizens ages 65 years and over living alone, about 11% across both counties.

The current crisis accentuates the pros and cons of living alone. While Pew noted that in solo households, older adults reduce their odds of catching the virus from another relative, they are also prone to struggle more than others with loneliness. In addition, solo living has been associated with mental health problems.

For older Long Islanders, their pandemic-driven, multigenerational living arrangements have been a mixed bag with benefits, drawbacks and adjustments.

On the positive side, their temporary households have given them immemorable joyous times, including quantity and quality time with grandchildren and warm and fuzzy family dinners. They have also connected more with their grown children as adults and gotten to know their kids’ spouses better.

Meanwhile, adult offspring relish having their parents on-site to provide extended and loving child care that enables them to sequester themselves — in spare rooms, childhood bedrooms and basements — to do their jobs.

Still, after years of living in a tidy house, courtesy of their personal neatness or a periodic housekeeper, some seniors said they restrain themselves from nagging about sink drains stuffed with mushy Cheerios and lights that remain on long after family members have left rooms.

The long stretch of togetherness can also feel suffocating.

“Every family has their own culture and how they do things”— as in eating meals together or in front of the TV — “and now you’ve got two families under one roof with no break to do their own thing,” said Meredith Silversmith, a licensed marriage and family therapist, relationship coach and co-founder of Nassau Wellness Marriage & Family Therapy in Garden City and Huntington.

Preserving privacy

Along the same lines, individuals should be able “to go in a room and shut the door” and couples should be able to have “couple time” perhaps to take a walk together without anyone else accompanying them. Without a heartfelt conversation about boundaries, Silversmith said, much-needed alone time can suffer.

In the Columbia, Maryland, home of Nancy Kassin’s daughter, Candice Nager, and son-in-law, Michael, the need for privacy is unspoken yet respected.

Kassin, 67, who lives in Merrick with her fiance, is currently staying with the Nagers to watch her two grandsons, Caleb, 3½, and Gavin, 7 months, while Candice and Michael work at home.

In normal times, with the Nagers at their offices and Caleb in nursery school, Kassin, a retired ophthalmic technician, takes Amtrak every three weeks to spend Monday to Friday babysitting Gavin.

When the pandemic hit, Kassin wondered whether she had the energy to be on call in her daughter’s home for an indefinite number of days. But, Candice and Michael, she said, understand her need to retreat in the early evening to her sleeping quarters — the finished and furnished basement, replete with a bedroom, living room, full bathroom and TV.

“In the beginning, I was helping out with bath time and reading stories at bedtime, but that became too much,” Kassin said. “So now we say good-night after dishes are done, and they go upstairs.”

And in the evening, Kassin, “aware that everyone needs their privacy,” doesn’t venture onto the third floor — the location of the bedrooms — or into the family room, where Candice and Michael may be relaxing together.

For her part, Candice greatly appreciates the help her mother has provided the family. But she has also had to reconcile herself to her mother’s “different ways of doing things” — in her own home.

“I put a dish down, and my mother grabs it and puts it in the dishwasher,” Candice said, noting that she and her husband are constantly telling Kassin “to sit down and relax.”

But, as Kassin tells it, the dirty dishes are an issue eclipsed by what her current living arrangement has afforded her each day — “seeing the little one crawling and standing,” she said, adding, “Pretty soon, I’ll see him walking.”

At the Tobin residence, being flexible and having candid conversations about household responsibilities have helped to sustain the harmonious family vibe.

Upon his daughter and her family’s arrival, Robert Tobin, 64, removed his personal care items from the hallway bathroom to give them their own private bathroom, and everyone pitches in on Sundays to clean and straighten up the house.

Although the Tobins’ daughter and son-in-law wanted to pay for all expenses that their presence incurs, the two families have agreed to share them. The Tobins handle water and electricity payments and the younger generation foots grocery bills.

While the living arrangement means more hours of grandparental child care than usual, their son-in-law and daughter take work breaks during the day that afford the Tobins some downtime.

Ava and Lincoln do their part — if only inadvertently. Along with the little girl “helping to make the day go faster” and “keeping things positive,” Matilda Tobin said, Ava and the dog help her husband to stay fit. The retired transportation analyst walks the dog and ambles around the neighborhood with Ava in her stroller.

Two home offices

For Great Neck residents Robin Gorman Newman, 59, who has long pursued her diverse business interests from her home office, and her husband Marc, 58, the stay-home order has created a new normal — with challenges and joys.

The pandemic has moved Marc, a partner in an accounting firm in Manhattan, to convert the kitchen into his office and the table into his workspace, set with his laptop, a monitor and files. In the evenings, he removes the tools of his work to make room for dinner.

Often on the phone with co-workers and clients, he texts Robin whenever he is on a conference call to alert her to approach the kitchen “gingerly,” said Robin, an author, Broadway producer and the founder of Motherhoodlater.com and the LoveCoach.com. “He doesn’t want me to burst in and start talking to him or decide to cook an omelet at that moment.”

And when Marc is on the phone with a personal or business call, he deploys a combination of facial expressions and hand signals to convey that he cannot be disturbed. Other times, he closes the kitchen door and puts the phone on speaker, which, Robin noted, is still loud enough to distract her from her own work. “Then I have to close my office door,” she said.

Nevertheless, she welcomes having Marc at the dinner table each night, a happening that would ordinarily not be possible during what is currently the profession’s busy season. Plus, with their son, a high school junior, home and learning virtually, the family is no longer “three ships passing each other,” Robin said.

“It’s nice to have other life in the house during the day,” she noted.

“Otherwise my companionship is largely the TV, and it’s tough to watch it now.”

House rules

As social isolation extends indefinitely, here are suggested rules for living harmoniously with loved ones, courtesy of older Long Islanders staying with family and Meredith Silversmith, a co-founder of Nassau Wellness Marriage & Family Therapy in Garden City and Huntington.

  • Develop a mutually agreed-upon plan for handling such tasks as housekeeping, cooking, shopping and paying bills.
  • Be attentive to your habits that irritate others, such as not emptying the dishwasher and leaving lights on.
  • Provide relatives with their own work and personal space.
  • Respect wishes for solo and couple time, including for walks and meals.
  • Adhere to parents’ child-rearing rules regarding everything from appropriate snacks to bedtime.
  • Maintain open lines of communication to prevent annoyances from escalating into battles.
  • Focus on the joys that extended time with family makes possible.
  • Be thankful that your family is staying well.
— Cara S. Trager

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