I’m on the other side of fifty and childless. When I talk with friends in the same situation about how we will live as we age, inevitably somebody floats the idea of buying a big house and all living together, to look after each other in our dotage.
This is neither a new nor an original idea, and it’s already working for a lot of people. In her engaging new book, How We Live: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, social psychologist Bella DePaulo peers into the lives of some of these people, and others — of all ages — who don’t live in the nuclear family/single family home setup.
To gather research for the book, DePaulo, who writes the Single at Heart blog for Psych Central, traveled the country visiting people in their nontraditional living situations — what she calls “lifespaces.”
These included shared housing, co-housing, places where someone has returned to the family home as an adult, new iterations of elder living, and living alone. She looks at ways people create community through architecture and mutual agreements, find support as single parents, build families of friends, and make roommates of family. She talks to people in long-term, committed relationships who choose not to share a home — she calls this Living Apart Together. (About seven percent of women and six percent of men in the United States live this way.)
“Some of the innovations I learned about in my research were contemporary inflections of longstanding traditions,” she writes. “Living with a group of friends under one roof, for example, is no longer just a young-adult way of living. That arrangement has become so popular among ‘women of a certain age’ that there is an organization devoted to making it happen; it is, of course, called Golden Girl Homes.”
And multigenerational homes, she writes, “might sound old-fashioned, but they, too have become increasingly popular over the past decades. The twenty-first-century versions accommodate more generations and more diverse sets of relatives than ever before.”
DePaulo includes sensate descriptions of physical environments — lots of sunny rooms, lush gardens, and inviting kitchens — as well as home layouts and house rules. In doing so, she introduces readers to more living scenarios than we may have imagined. And she judiciously puts herself in the scene, too: her personable and personal interviews vividly illustrate the people who populate these lifespaces.
While she’s showing us different ways of living, DePaulo also introduces us to different ways of viewing community, friends, family. Many of the people she meets are living with friends. Some were friends before they lived together, some became friends in the course of living together. Some are not so much friends as voluntary support systems living in close proximity.
She writes: “In this nation of ever-shrinking families, sometimes geographically dispersed, there is a claim that people like to make when they have found a group of non-kin who have a special place in their hearts: ‘We’re like family.’ Family has that rock-solid there-for-you sheen that no other kind of relationship has ever achieved. Despite decades of cynicism on all sorts of other matters, family is still sentimentalized. Yet,” she continues, “it may be friendship, more so than family, that captures the essence of twenty-first-century life.”
Although DePaulo presses everyone she interviews for the negatives of their choices, and asks how they would live if they had all the money they need, the book is unabashedly upbeat. (To the latter question, pretty much everyone responds, “exactly as I am!”) DePaulo cops to this positive spin. She’s not interested in quashing what she views as a revolution in how Americans live.
“This book is biased,” she writes. “I wasn’t looking for a representative sample of people, taking the happy with the unhappy. I set out to find people who were (mostly) proud of their lifespaces.”
And while she enjoys visiting, and is intrigued by, the many different lifespaces she profiles, DePaulo ultimately confirms that her own chosen lifespace — living alone, which also gets a chapter in the book — is the best choice for her.
Indeed. Some of the lifespaces described in here sound a little too close for comfort to me. Others sound comforting. Still, whether you’re a traditionalist or revolutionary about how you live, it’s nice to know this many interesting options exist.
Sophia Dembling is author of Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After.
How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century
Atria Books/Beyond Words, August 2015
Hardcover, 320 pages