Blended families come in all shapes and sizes. Parents move in with their adult children. Two households merge after a marriage. Kids boomerang back after college. In short, there are many combinations.

This can create both harmony and utter chaos as a result. How do you blend belongings as a family while preserving your sanity and relationships?

At least one in five American households is multigenerational. According to Pew Research, in 2016, a record 64 million Americans (20% of the population) lived with multiple generations under one roof[1]. Between 2000 and 2016, this number increased by a remarkable 21.6 million, up from 42.4 million in 2000[2].

In addition, more home buyers are interested in living with a parent or an adult child. This is an estimated 41%, according to a survey by John Burns Real Estate Consulting.

Grandmother and her grandchild enjoying a happy moment together after organization

Economic and public health-related reasons drive this trend. Economically, hyperinflation, rising home and rental costs, and soaring gas prices also contribute. The pandemic spurred job change or loss, isolation, and loneliness. It also prevented extended family visits. However, the pandemic also let many of us reexamine what we want out of life. We crave flexible work and career options while being closer to our families.

Combining households can offer financial and emotional rewards. It can mean sharing expenses, chores, childcare, eldercare, and deepening family bonds. On the other hand, this can be challenging without intention, discussion, and patience. I learned this the hard way last fall when my 102-year-old mother-in-law (“MiL”) moved in with us with less than twenty-four hours’ notice. Needless to say, it turned all of our worlds upside down.

Here’s what I wish I’d known and what I’d change if I did it again.

Merging Physical Space

  • First, if possible, start early and identify duplicate items. Keep the best one and let the others go (if there is no special attachment). If in good condition, donate them to a charity where they will benefit others. Or, if they have monetary value, consider selling or consigning them.
  • Edit and rightsize your possessions before moving in together. As a result, you create space for one another and simplify moving. Also, if you feel stuck or overwhelmed, consider working with a Big Rocks professional organizer. We will assist you and your family respectfully, compassionately, and professionally.
  • Create a space plan. Measure furniture and artwork, and discuss as a family where they will go. This doesn’t need to be fancy, however. Just graph paper will do. If you can’t decide which items will grace your newly-merged home, have each person choose their favorite item. Then, incorporate your styles. An interior designer or professional organizer can assist here, too.
  • Note if any items are worn out or if they don’t fit the style or size of the new space. Then, think about purchasing new ones.
  • Involve all family members in designing your shared space. And, if at all possible, create separate spaces for each person to have alone time.
  • Each generation would ideally have their own living space (bedroom and bathroom). Although, you may share a kitchen, garage, backyard, etc.
  • If dad is the primary cook, let him organize the kitchen the way he wants it. Similarly, if grandma enjoys gardening, have her organize the gardening tools.
  • Consider using curtains, pocket doors, or barn doors to create separate spaces.
  • Create quiet and noisy spaces—for play and to enjoy silence. For instance, use noise-canceling headphones to watch TV or listen to music. If family members have a favorite spot to unwind, respect that space and make it easy for them to access.
  • Create a command hub in the busiest spot in your home. Usually, this is the kitchen. Put up a large calendar (or share a digital one). This way, everyone can see what events are happening and when tasks are due. After, draft and post a chore chart to share. (You can even buy one online.)
  • Curate a comfortable space to hold family meetings where you’ll discuss family business together.
  • Divide closets and storage spaces evenly. Dedicate a shelf in the fridge, a space in the drawer, and a cabinet in the kitchen for each family member.
  • Establish zones within rooms for specific activities. Create a play zone for the kids, and a reading nook for Aunt Sue, for example. Accordingly, you eliminate “catch all” dumping grounds where clutter breeds with impunity.
  • Are decorating tastes at odds or clashing with one another? Divvy up rooms or blend each person’s most important item into an eclectic, vibrant space. At the same time, have fun with the process of designing, unpacking, and organizing! Consider rotating your decor every few months or so, too.
  • Consider each person’s comfort with technology, noise, odors, preferences, etc. Then, design spaces and set up systems with this in mind.
  • Keep an accordion file with a folder for each household member at your command center to contain loose papers.
  • Scan important documents. Simultaneously, make sure others in your household can get to them in an emergency.
  • Be mindful of safety—tripping hazards, lighting, access, etc.

Communication, Ground Rules + Emotional Boundaries

  • Communicate early and clearly. Take responsibility for letting others know your needs, wants, and expectations. Similarly, listen to others. Create a safe environment for them, too.
  • Compromise is essential. You may need to make some tough choices and sacrifices. But, keep focused on the greater good. What benefits do you look forward to? Spending more time with your grandchildren? Feeling energized by the activities of your combined family?
  • Self-care is crucial to preserving your sanity. Therefore, you should normalize and encourage it. Model this behavior by taking good care of yourself.
  • Discuss finances, entertaining guests, and other expectations about your space. However, do this prior to combining households.
  • Make a list of chores that is fair to everyone in the home. What are each person’s strengths? What role would they be good at?
  • Attitude and perspective are key! Don’t treat family as guests. Make them feel welcome and remember that everyone is making sacrifices. In other words, have a “we’re all in this together” attitude.
  • Let go of the past and the small stuff.
  • Catch people doing good things and tell them how much you appreciate them. That is to say, focus on the positives you share.
  • Hold regular family meetings to discuss what to improve and what’s going well.
  • Respectfully tackle issues directly as they arise.
  • Don’t make decisions about anyone else’s stuff! That is, don’t touch other people’s belongings, ridicule them, or throw them out. Equally important, do not criticize family heirlooms or gifts.
  • If an item is important to you, explain why. That is, help your loved ones to understand.
  • Keep strong boundaries and respect others’ boundaries.
  • Employ compassion and humor. Likewise, give folks the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions. In short: keep the big picture in mind.
  • If folks leave things lying around, place items in that family member’s dedicated basket. This way, they know where to find them. Similarly, try not to leave your own things lying around! If you make a mess, clean it up.
  • If grandparents are moving in, discuss expectations around childcare and childrearing. For example, what are the rules for the kids? How can you be consistent?
  • On the flip side, discuss elder care for aging parents. Who is responsible for tracking medications and medical appointments? And, are you comfortable assisting with personal needs, such as toileting?
  • Ground rule—don’t leave dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. Your mom doesn’t live here. Oh, wait, maybe she does!… But don’t make her clean up after you.
  • Keep countertops and flat surfaces clean and free from clutter. Make a commitment as a family to maintain an organized home.
  • Do you have a “use it or lose it” policy? Consider setting a rule to donate items that haven’t been used or worn in X number of days. Allow each person immunity for one item (e.g. their cherished bowling ball, lawn ornament, etc.).
  • Discuss a timeline. Consider whether combining households is temporary or permanent, for example. Ponder doing a trial run during an extended vacation or at a rental property.

Support

  • Ask for help if you need it. It’s absolutely ok to hit the “easy” button and hire out if your budget allows. Here are some ideas for making the most of outside assistance:
    • Dog walker and poop picker upper
    • Meal or grocery delivery
    • Yard maintenance
    • House cleaning
    • Interior designer
    • Professional organizer
    • Daily money manager
    • Laundry service
    • Respite care for caregivers
    • Certified Aging in Place Specialist (to assess the safety of your home)
    • Personal trainer to come to your home and lead a workout for all interested family members
  • Still have too much stuff (or not enough space) after following these steps? Next, consider renting a storage unit to reduce the items in your home. As a result, you make your space safer and more pleasant to live in.
  • Remember that this is an emotional process. It’s also great self-care to work with a therapist or mental health professional.

Resources

I wish you all the best in creating your cozy nest built upon a healthy, cooperative foundation!

PS: After five weeks with us, my MiL was able to return to her senior living community. She’s thriving on her independence and being surrounded by friends in the place she’s called home for the past ten years.

PPS: Remember that the Big Rocks Organizing Team is here to help your family blend your stuff with respect, compassion, and professionalism!