The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


April 3, 2014

Aisha Sultan: Three generations under one roof can be challenging

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — My mother walked in the back door of the house to find a pool of blood on the ground. There was a trail of blood leading to the family room couch, where my elderly aunt had dragged herself after falling down a flight of stairs.

This aunt, my father's sister, is in her late 80s and has lived on-and-off with my parents in Texas for the past 20 years. She survived her recent fall with just a cut to her head, which has since healed. It took much longer for her to recover from a stroke, also occurring in my parent's home, last spring.

She had been paralyzed, and my parents' main-level family room transformed to a nursing facility of sorts. The brunt of her care fell on my mother and father, but all of us -- her nieces and nephews -- rallied around her. She relearned how to talk, feed and dress herself and walk within a matter of months, a remarkable recovery for someone her age.

Doctors acknowledge that one of the most critical elements in a patient's rehabilitation from stroke is the strength and commitment of their primary support system, typically their family. The tenacity of family connections may be a factor that contributes to Hispanics living longer than non-Hispanic whites, despite a higher health risk profile.

Recent research indicates Hispanic study participants had significantly higher survival rates for cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS and other medical conditions such as lupus, diabetes, kidney disease and strokes -- part of the "Hispanic paradox" debated in academic papers.

In some cultures, including my own South Asian background, the typical family arrangement involves at least a period of multigenerational living beyond childhood. Growing up, we always had an aunt or a grandparent spending part of the year with us. Seasonally, one of us gave up our bedroom and moved into a shared space.

It's not so unusual in non-ethnic households anymore, either.

A 2011 report, "Family Matters: Multigenerational Families in a Volatile Economy," published by Generations United, reported that more than 51 million Americans -- about one in six -- lived in a multigenerational household. That's an increase of more than 10 percent since the recession began in 2007.

Yet, as often as tight family bonds and shared living quarters lead to improved health outcomes, they may just as often provoke a host of mental health issues -- specifically, nearly losing your mind because you are living with so many crazy people with whom you share genes and perhaps little else.

I am reminded of this every year when we visit my family for an extended visit. My parents' house, normally home to three generations, expands to four during these trips. It's not the sheer body count that heightens the sense of chaos.

A small person may be messing with the elaborate entertainment system upstairs set up by my adult brother and his wife, who live there. An older person may require a different meal than everyone else because of set-in-stone preferences and routines. Someone gets stuck doing most of the dishes. And sooner or later, normal political differences between adults begin to veer into increasingly ad hominem attacks during evening discussions.

The generational differences can surface in unexpected ways.

I have had a strained relationship with my aunt, who has lived with us for so long, because I have witnessed the extent to which her care has fallen on my mother's shoulders. She doesn't speak English, and her mentality is still very much mired in Old Country, back-home thinking. But I am grateful she, and her older sister before her, have been a constant part of my life. Living with them has taught me something valuable about compassion and tolerance.

I don't know if I could do what my parents have done -- so willingly and generously opened their home to any relative who has needed it, for as long as they have needed it. I've seen my father's brother and his wife, who also live in Houston, do the exact same with their home for as long as I can remember.

But their living example of choosing to give rather than take, of choosing to forgive rather than resent, has been a lifelong lesson in how to love.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.


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