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Covid-19 and multi-generational living: is there a connection?

For the last seven years I have co-hosted The Kingdom Summit with my friend, Ben Akabueze and this year it was all virtual. One of our speakers, Dr. Tom Dooley, commented that the incidence of Covid-19 in Africa, which is much lower than predicted, is due partly to the fact that Africa does not shovel its elderly into old age homes. Many of Africa’s senior citizens live in multi-generational units. Now, I have often said “God is a multi-____ god” but have not fully thought through the implications on our health. The God of the Bible is inclusive: Multi-Nation, -Ethnic, -Gender, -Tongue, -Profession, -Tribe, -Generation. There are exceptions: God is adamant that He is the One True God (three-in-one, actually) and that there is only one way to God, Jesus Christ. 

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12

That said, broad swaths of scripture have multigenerational arms that wrap the reader with context for understanding and application. In a letter to his young charge, Timothy, the more senior apostle, Paul, gives practical intergenerational advice. (1 Timothy 5)

“Honor widows who are truly in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn to fulfill their duty toward their own household and so repay their parents what is owed them. For this is what pleases God. But the widow who is truly in need, and completely on her own, has set her hope on God and continues in her pleas and prayers night and day. Reinforce these commands, so that they will be beyond reproach. But if someone does not provide for his own, especially his own family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

In Ancient Greece, Athenian law required that children care for their aging parents, and the punishment was loss of citizenship (the second most severe punishment for Athenians, besides execution).” (Jeff Anderson, History of Caring for our Elders) So, what Paul urges Timothy to teach was not a foreign concept. As recent as 2013 China passed a law requiring adult children to visit elderly parents… go China!

This scripture got me thinking about multi-generational households. I did some research and found the incidence of multigenerational homes increasing in the USA from a low in 1980. A 2016 Pew Research study found one if five Americans live in a multigenerational household.

While the trend is on the rise “…the American abundance of nursing homes and proliferation of retirement communities are statistical anomalies and confounding for most of the rest of the world: how can so many elderly live in one place and where are their families?” Leah Felderman asks in a Care Pathways article. 

The United Nations has this on their radar in regards to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

“Living with a child or with extended family members was the most common living arrangement among older persons in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, whereas in Europe, Northern America, Australia and New Zealand, living with a spouse only was the most common arrangement, followed by living alone. For example, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, more than 90 per cent of persons aged 65 years or over co-resided with their children or lived with extended family members and fewer than 1 per cent lived alone. By contrast, in Estonia and Finland, around 37 and 36 per cent of older persons lived alone.” (https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/popfacts/PopFacts_2019-2.pdf

Thinking around poorhouses, or almshouses, seems to have been brought to the New World from Britain in the 1700s. Over time, various religious groups and charities began homes that were a step up from poorhouses. “In 1823, the Philadelphia's Indigent Widows' and Single Women's Society, one of the first homes for the elderly, opened in the U.S. While elderly people were no longer forced into the poorhouse, these homes were oppressively institutional and still had much to be desired.” The Federal government became involved with the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. There are many drivers of where we are in North America and Europe today: historical patterns play a role. In the US the culture of individualism assumes that children become independent at 18, married couples go their own way, and the elderly will care for themselves and not be a burden on family. Retirees make their own way to play golf in Florida then slowly ease into assisted living facilities and die away from their families. The third driving factor is money: as 8,000 people a day join the ranks of elderly every day in the USA, there is money to be made serving them. Old age care facilities, mostly paid for by Medicare/Medicaid (established in 1965), are now a $100 Billion business. 

Is it improbable, maybe even too late for North America and Europe to go back to multigenerational living situations? The Covid-19 pandemic has actually forced some families to live together to cut costs. Some NewGen-ers with college debt and few job prospects have moved back home. A Pew Research Center report says nearly half of 18- to 29-year-olds in the United States were living with one or both of their parents in March 2020. Further, thinking on the normalcy of multigenerational living has evolved thanks to immigrant families. 

Psalm 68:6 oozes the Father-heart of God: “God sets the lonely in families.” (NIV)

“God places the solitary in families and gives the desolate a home in which to dwell” (AMPC)

“Father of orphans, champion of widows, is God in his holy house. God makes homes for the homeless…” (MSG)

“To the fatherless he is a father. To the widow he is a champion friend. To the lonely he makes them part of a family.” (TPT)

This blog is not an opinion but rather a set of questions. Is it possible that independent, specialty-focused Westerners might alter their thinking towards more intergenerational living? The Dutch have seen the benefits of children and the elderly interacting. Might singles living in nations away from biological family like to be adopted into host families? How will architecture adapt to multigenerational living? (There’s a good Fast Company article on this topic: https://www.fastcompany.com/90342219/the-future-of-housing-looks-nothing-like-todays) Will people rethink retirement? Will savings for retirement get redirected to multigenerational properties and trusts? Will thinking on “Leaving a legacy” evolve to include contributions to intergenerational sustainability?

What might this mean for God’s people? Since Scottish Presbyterians pioneered life insurance when they created the first actuarial tables, is it time for believers to reinvent “life insurance”? Should financial service providers create multi-family policies that serve the needs of three or more generations? Does it make sense to have retirement villages so big that they have their own postal code? How can families recapture noble callings that are bigger than one generation? Is stewardship of family Purpose more possible in a multigenerational setting? If so, how does one cast vision for generational purposes with input from and dreams big enough for all generations? How can we pause to listen to our elders and hear our young ones? What diseases of life could be cured in multigenerational spaces: purposelessness, financial bleeding, emotional disconnects, isolation, loss of (hi)story, health, depression, loneliness? 

As I said at the beginning, I would not be posing answers in this blog, and I make no apology for this. A woman once asked, as she showed me around her dream project, “Do you have a prophetic word for me?” I replied, “No, but I have a prophetic question.” I would like to know your thoughts, impulses, insights and responses to this conversation. Thanks for reading.

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