Multi-generational households face the next phase of the pandemic with care

Joty Gill, left, with her grandparents Surjit Shergill, centre, and Joginder Shergill at their Surrey home on Feb. 10.
Joty Gill, left, with her grandparents Surjit Shergill, centre, and Joginder Shergill at their Surrey home on Feb. 10. PHOTO BY JASON PAYNE /PNG

By: Joanne Lee-Young/VancouverSun

‘One part of the group won’t feel out of the woods yet, while the other is starting to look at life ahead. It’s going to be tricky.’

Joty Gill, her aunt, her cousins and her grandparents have long lived in a multi-generational household and they went through the pandemic as one pod, taking care to think of their COVID-19 risks as a group.

But the 25-year-old Surrey resident balked recently when her 78-year-old grandmother, Surjit Shergill, who has had heart bypass surgery and wears a pacemaker, emerged from several weeks in hospital and declared she was heading out to the bank.

“We explained, there are online services. But she said, ‘No, I need to go to TD.’ ”

Gill said that while younger family members in their home have been going out to work, shopping and “wanting to go out and get back into the world, go to a restaurant and have brunch and all that, our grandparents are also watching us.”

She feels the weight of hypocrisy telling them they need to remain cautious while she and her cousin are able to go out more. She knows they have been following the rules even though they miss the camaraderie of bantering with others at Newton Athletic Park or at special occasions like family weddings.

“When I went to the park, my exercise was walking laps around the park, talking to friends,” said Gill’s 78-year-old grandfather, Joginder Shergill.

Pointing to a stationary bike in the background of a Zoom screen, he said: “Now, I exercise at home. Even if things change policy-wise, I will bike indoors until everything (with the pandemic) is done and dusted.”

Shergill and his wife both used their seniors bus passes for years for socializing and weekday outings to the gurdwara, but stopped taking transit when the pandemic began. In recent weeks, he has been venturing out on a bus again, while his wife is grateful her granddaughters can drive her everywhere.

“We’re happy with our family members and being surrounded by family has meant that we have been taken care of and that make us feel accepted and make us feel loved,” said Surjit Shergill.

Even with everyone in the home fully vaccinated and boosted, senior members in multi-generational households have to consider their higher risk of severe COVID, while younger generations are progressing to living with the virus.

There’s going to be a “dual restriction reality” and all the feelings that accompany that in multi-generational households, said Neelam Sahota, CEO of the non-profit DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society.

Living through the pandemic together hasn’t been without its challenges for multi-generational households, but even with the strain and some sacrifices, the risk calculations were more unified than they will be in future.

“They’ve been blissfully under one roof. But in the aftermath, it will be that one part of the group won’t feel out of the woods yet, while the other is starting to look at life ahead. It’s going to be tricky,” said Sahota.

Upkar Tatlay holds a collage containing photos of various family members in White Rock on Feb. 10.
Upkar Tatlay holds a collage containing photos of various family members in White Rock on Feb. 10. PHOTO BY MIKE BELL /PNG

Communication and consideration 

At the beginning of the pandemic, multi-generational households, especially those in working-class areas, were maligned for being overcrowded and a hotbed of spiking COVID cases. But it quickly became clear these homes had higher numbers of front-line workers — health-care workers, retail workers and factory workers.

There was also a realization of the economic and emotional benefits of having different generations taking care of each other as schools closed and care homes struggled. Grandparents were on hand to help with child care, and could be close to their relatives rather than isolated.

“It’s made fun of, looked down upon to live in these multi-generational households, but should it be? Maybe it’s not a failure to launch, but a foundation to survive and thrive,” said Andy Yan, director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University. “It’s about seeing the interdependence as positive instead of being a stigma.”

There is a growing interest in examining the dynamics of multi-generational households. The concept has gained some traction in recent years as families take on the expensive housing market by adding laneway homes and attached suites to share their home equity. New financing options and specialized home builders have been sprouting to cater to this demand.

However, immigrant families in Vancouver, especially those with ties to countries in East Asia and South Asia where living together as an extended family is more common, have been living in multi-generational households for decades. It’s long been a way for families to pool income and savings, and own a home together and to make ends meet, all the while coping with language barriers and hoping to retain cultural traditions while adopting new ones.

The 2016 census showed that the share of multi-generational households was relatively higher in some urban centres where ethnocultural diversity was higher than elsewhere in the country. Abbotsford-Mission showed the highest share compared with anywhere else in Canada at 7.6 per cent, while Vancouver was at 4.8 per cent. In Ontario, Toronto was at 5.8 per cent, Oshawa at 4.3 per cent and Barrie at 3.9 per cent. Surrey‘s own numbers date to 2006, but estimate one-in-10 households in Newton is a multi-family home.

According to StatCan info from 2016, about two-thirds of seniors aged 75-and-over who live in private households and speak Punjabi as a mother tongue live in a multi-generational household. Other groups reporting higher numbers of seniors living in multi-generational settings included those who speak Tamil and Urdu as a mother tongue (over 50 per cent), followed by Mandarin and Tagalog.

Gill was born in Surrey but grew up in a small town near the U.S. border in Washington state in a rancher-style home on a lumber mill site with her grandfather, mother and father, her two siblings and her uncle’s family. When she was in high school, her grandfather retired and the family moved back to Surrey. They were one household with 12 people.

“We had 12 people … everyone’s kids and personalities. We went to high school, the six of us, kids and cousins.”

The closeness from living with each other through those years has been a boon to making things work during the pandemic and it will help as the extended family heads into the next phase of COVID since communication and consideration will be key, said Gill. It’s been easier to gauge true feelings beyond words because they innately know what each other’s facial expressions or change in tone really mean, she said.

On a practical level, they have found a way to consolidate errands such as picking up ingredients or going to the bank as work and social schedules and demands change.

“Because we worked from home for a long time, they would see us at home on our laptops and think that we’re just chilling,” said Gill.

A way of life pre-pandemic and into the future

While at the start of the pandemic, the emphasis was on being sensitive to her grandparents’ loss of independence, said Gill, it’s now about making sure they don’t feel like a burden even though more planning is required to help them now that younger members of the family aren’t home as often as they were before.

Kathleen Zaragosa in Vancouver on Feb. 10.
Kathleen Zaragosa in Vancouver on Feb. 10. PHOTO BY ARLEN REDEKOP /PNG

Over in East Vancouver, near St. Patrick’s Parish in Mount Pleasant, Kathleen Zaragosa grew up with her parents, brother and grandmother in a small, two-bedroom apartment. She learned skills over many years that not only helped her get through the pandemic in a multi-generational household, but also ultimately helped her to conclude that she wants to stay in this arrangement rather than flee it.

In a home with three generations in tight quarters, Zaragosa was the quiet observer. She remembers overhearing heated arguments and how she developed her ability to notice nuances and see each person’s side of things.

“Even though you have the physical presence of a door, you’re no stranger to everyone dealing (with life,) even when they’re trying to deal with it separately,” Zaragosa said.

After graduating from university and hitting some milestones, she spent a lot of time, especially during the pandemic, debating if she should move out on her own.

Her degree from the University of B.C. is in sociolinguistics and she has been focused on how learning heritage languages connects people to their specific history. Her studies reminded her of growing up and watching Filipino TV channels with her family, and hearing her parents and grandmother speak a dialect that is quite different from Tagalog and specific to Oas, the “super-small town” her family is from in the southern Luzon part of the Philippines.

In the end, she’s “realized the importance of hearing more of my older generation, the importance of my cultural traditions and upholding them. They were instilled in the potency of my own home.”

Growing up in a multi-generational home is dramatically different than adjusting to the arrangement as an adult, said Upkar Singh Tatlay, a community health innovator who lives in White Rock.

“Take me, as a child, I grew up with my grandpa in the household. I have always known that system and thereby my children will too. They’re growing up in the same way. In fact, they saw their great-grandparent,” he said.

Tatley’s grandfather, who passed away before the pandemic, lived in their house until he was 96-years-old, along with Tatlay’s wife and children, and his brother’s family.

Sahota said it will be important to recognize the role that adult children and grandchildren play in health care in multi-generational households and how this demographic can be better served. She would like to see some flexibility for caregivers instead of them having to immediately rush back into pre-pandemic schedules.

There can be many daily points of stress in a multi-generational household, such as juggling varying dietary and medical needs, said Tatlay, but some of the most onerous tasks of being a caregiver for his grandfather were also the most rewarding.

“It was substantial in that I was actually lifting a human body every day, out of bed, bathing him, showering him … putting his clothes on. I had a tangible, physical job that ended up evolving. And despite how tough it was, now in retrospect, it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. And my children witnessed it. So there’s a lot of benefit.”