The concept of the nuclear family is a relatively new one, having gradually become more common in western society from the seventeenth century onwards. Moving away from the extended family was in some cases encouraged by church authorities, and the nuclear family unit of two parents and their children became more viable financially with the industrial revolution.
The value of older generations
In the past many people in many different types of society would have lived in an extended family setting, often within a close knit community. Homes would be shared with grandparents who would play an active part in the care of grandchildren.
This is still the case in some cultures around the world. Visit parts of Borneo, such as the Sarawak region and you will find the local Iban people living in longhouses, which accommodate several generations of one family. Other cultures and societies also value the idea of an extended family and it's not uncommon to see these close-knit relationships in Pakistani or Indian communities. The advantages of extended families are the support family members offer each other, with older members taking care of younger members and vice versa.
The changing face of families
In the western world, work tends to take at least one parent out of the home for most of the week. In many countries it is now the norm for both parents to work, and of course with the high rate of divorce, many families have just one parent available, so in many cases looking after an older relative at home is simply not an option. Parents have to pay for childcare whilst elderly relatives who need care sometimes have to rely on outside help.
Of course this arrangement isn't always negative. Older people now have the freedom to enjoy travelling or other leisure pursuits and to lead independent lives whilst still playing an active role in the lives of their grandchildren.
Thanks to innovative mobility solutions such as stairlifts and bath aids, older people are able to continue living in their own properties and enjoy fulfilled lives too. Likewise their children feel more able to move on with their own lives, perhaps settling down further afield or even abroad, knowing that their parents are quite content and happy to lead independent lives of their own.
The practicalities of the extended family
In the UK the extended family is rare. If we were to shift to extended family living, there would be a number of barriers to overcome quite apart from cultural ones. The majority of housing in the UK today is designed for singles, couples or the nuclear family. Very few properties are designed to accommodate a third generation or more.
However, with the decline of the traditional two parent nuclear family, it is possible that we will see an increasing number of three generation households as some parents return to live with their own parents, taking young children with them. In fact thanks to the current housing crisis this is becoming a familiar scenario.
Above all we need to consider not just the needs of the elderly but their wishes too. Some retired couples may appreciate their new-found freedom and financial independence to explore life and enjoy their twilight years to the full, whilst others want nothing more than to support their own extended families and provide childcare for the next generation.
It is important that, as individuals, we do not assume to take the course which society dictates as normal, but to listen to the views of every member of the family and forge a path in life that is uniquely ours. Above all, we must treasure the older generation as surely we would like to be treasured ourselves when the time comes.