Peggy and Zach Bell stand near the entrance to their garden in the Volker neighborhood in midtown Kansas City, Missouri. Zach, 34, has been living with Peggy, his mom, since last spring. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

When Peggy Bell’s 34-year-old son, Zach, moved into her Kansas City, Missouri home last March, it was in the middle of the pandemic, so it posed a high risk to the 75-year-old retired teacher. 

Peggy Bell spends most of her time at home with Zach. It’s nice, she said, especially in a time where isolating and staying home has been key to staying safe from the virus. 

“There’s somebody else to speak to and to do things with,” she said. “It’s huge. I would hate it if I had spent this entire time without anybody.”

There was another bonus, too: Zach could repair things she would’ve otherwise left unfixed. 

“He notices it and fixes it, and it’s done,” she said. “Whereas I might’ve left it there, broken, for a long time.”

Zach and Peggy Bell’s living arrangement, of an adult son moving back in with their parent, reflects a broader pandemic trend. 

In the past year, the resulting economic crises have pushed more people into multigenerational living — among those currently living in a multigenerational home, 57% say they are doing so because of the pandemic, according to Generations United, the only national membership organization focused on intergenerational collaboration. 

For these families, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented both benefits and distinctive challenges, from figuring out how to keep multiple people under one roof from getting sick to juggling activities like work and school at home. 

Zach and Peggy Bell’s living arrangement makes them one of over 100,000 multigenerational households in the Kansas City metro area. 

Zach Bell cuts a bundle of flowers from a lilac bush in the garden. During the pandemic, Zach often did repairs around the home that Peggy otherwise would’ve left unfixed. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

A multigenerational household can include an older adult living with adult children, “grandfamilies” with grandparents living with their adult children and their young kids, or great-grandparents living with grandparents, their adult children and their kids. 

Data from the Center for Public Integrity shows there are about 46,000 multigenerational homes in Jackson County, Missouri, making up 15% of all households. 

According to a recent report from Generations United, an estimated 1 in 4 Americans now lives in a home with three or more generations. The study found that from 2011 to 2021, the rate of people living in a multigenerational household nearly quadrupled, from 7% to 26%. 

Local groups help with challenges faced by families of color 

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, groups that work closely with local communities have seen how public health messaging was not always cognizant of the distinct challenges facing multigenerational households. 

Irene Caudillo, president and CEO of El Centro, a community organization serving members of the Latino community living in Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas, said a primary concern among those in multigenerational homes is protecting their older family members. 

“We heard people that said, ‘Of course I wear a mask. Of course I (social) distance. When I get home, I take my clothes off and I take a shower, and I’m trying to do the best,’” Caudillo said. “But of course there are some instances where whatever happened, they were exposed and it went just rampant throughout families.”

For the Latino community, the pandemic also compounded existing issues like a lack of health insurance and lack of information in Spanish, Caudillo said. 

According to the Center for Public Integrity, there are over 5,000 Hispanic multigenerational households across Johnson and Wyandotte counties. In Wyandotte County, 1 in 4 Hispanic households is multigenerational.

The COVID-19 risks for multigenerational households are especially high for people of color, who are more likely to live in a multigenerational home, according to data from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom covering the influence of money and impact of inequality. 

In Kansas City, Black and Hispanic residents have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19. 

Data from Kansas City, Missouri, on COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations found that Hispanic/Latinx people have the highest rates of hospitalizations and deaths per capita. City data also shows that Black residents have the second-highest death rate per 100,000 people. 

At the Mattie Rhodes Center, a community development organization in Kansas City, most families using their services live in a multigenerational home, said Adriana Rangel, bilingual homelessness prevention case manager. 

Rangel said grandparents in the home stepped up during the pandemic to support the grandkids when their parents had to work.

“Grandparents were there, (and) kind of gave them that little push, like, ‘OK, it’s time to log in at 10:30,’” she said.

Mattie Rhodes has offered emergency assistance for families who need it during the pandemic. Rangel said families living in multigenerational homes need the most assistance with utility bills. 

“Most of them are choosing whether they pay rent or utilities,” she said. “So either, ‘Do I keep a roof over my head, or do I want to just risk not having electricity for a couple of weeks?’”

Abdulkadir Bakar is a volunteer for KC for Refugees, which connects with refugee families living in the Kansas City area. He said refugees from the Congo, Somali, Burundi and South Sudan often live in multigenerational households. 

For these households where English is not the first language, scheduling a COVID-19 vaccine appointment is a difficult task. It’s why organizations like KC for Refugees organized to help refugees get the vaccine. 

“One of the biggest problems is the information does not reach them,” Abdulkadir said. “And then the government does not have a process in which to reach these people.”

Benefits of multigenerational households and the need for more support

As Kansas City’s Peggy Bell found, there are benefits to living with her son. When she hurt her back last Thanksgiving and again this spring, Zach was there to care for her. 

They even created a system involving the family dog. 

“If my dog is worried about me, my dog goes and gets my son, even in the middle of the night, and brings him down,” Peggy Bell said. “And he checks on me.”

Peggy Bell takes a break while Zach continues to prepare their dinner in their midtown Kansas City, Missouri home. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

It’s these systems of support that can make multigenerational living a good option for families. Rodney Harrell, a policy expert and vice president of family, home and community at AARP, said the impacts of the pandemic are pushing people to find arrangements that meet their needs. 

“For many families, that can provide an option that works, the idea that we can have families where older adults and younger family members can … support each other,” he said.

As more people choose to live in multigenerational households, Harrell said it’s important that housing options are available for those families. 

“Long term, we should really think about some of these solutions to not only have accessory dwelling units and that kind of thing, but building more housing options,” Harrell said. 

Pandemic takeaway: Recognizing the needs of multigenerational homes

The next challenge for multigenerational households comes with the vaccine rollout. 

Washington was the first state to recognize multigenerational living arrangements in its vaccine rollouts — adults over 50 in a multigenerational household were included in Phase 1B of its vaccine distribution plan. Minnesota also prioritized vaccinations for older adults in a multigenerational home. 

Neither Kansas nor Missouri identified multigenerational households as a high-priority group in their vaccine rollout. According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, about 82,000 Hispanic or Latino people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“Not enough of our community is getting the vaccines,” Caudillo said. “There’s still some hesitancy behind all this.”

Another lesson from the pandemic: knowing how to effectively communicate with people who speak different languages. Rangel said a majority of multigenerational households at Mattie Rhodes speak Spanish, so the organization makes fliers in English and Spanish. 

The pandemic has reinforced the importance of targeted responses that directly meet people’s needs, like those living in multigenerational households. 

“We have got to make sure that the resources that are in place go to those most in need and are directed in a way that is equitable,” Caudillo said. “That’s what COVID has taught us, particularly about multigenerational (households) because they fit every aspect: an older adult, maybe an essential worker and children in the home.”

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Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.