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Family ties

Moving trends bring generations closer together — often in the same home

Helen Leviton (right, with her granddaughter Evie) and her husband moved from New Jersey to Brookline to be closer to their grandkids. Helen Leviton (right, with her granddaughter Evie) and her husband moved from New Jersey to Brookline to be closer to their grandkids. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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When they retired, Helen and Alan Leviton could have lived anywhere. After all, during Alan’s career as a chemical engineer, the couple had moved more than a dozen times, both in and out of the country.

Florida? France? San Diego?

In the end, the Levitons decided to make a short move from their most recent home in New Jersey. They headed to the Boston area to be closer to their daughter, Jillian, and her family.

“I never worked when I had children,’’ said Helen, who also has a son, Greg, who lives in Japan. “I stayed home. And I knew it was a difficult job. And all the girls work nowadays, and so I couldn’t figure out how [Jillian was] going to do it.’’

Instead of a relaxing retirement in a faraway locale, the Levitons now haul their twin grandchildren, Evie and Zachary, 5, to day care, ballet, and sports practices. On weekends they often host sleepovers, part of their choice to move closer to their children and help with the grandkids.

“There was a time when, in their 60s, people sort of bought into this ‘Sun City’ myth, that what people wanted to do when they retired was to move to the sun and be carefree,’’ says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that promotes legislation that supports multiple generational living.

In the past 10 years, the number of households with at least three generations living under one roof has increased by 25 percent, according to US Census figures. A recent Pew Research Center study showed that the number of children living with at least one grandparent has climbed gradually over the past decade. One in 10 children now lives with a grandparent.

Families move closer together — or back in together — for a variety of reasons. Some do it out of necessity. In some families, seniors have joined their children after their diminished stock market earnings and 401(k) accounts forced them to downsize and scramble for cash. In others, struggling young couples are desperate for dependable and affordable child care.

Don Bradley, an associate professor at East Carolina University who studies migration, said there’s long been a misperception about what drives people to choose a retirement spot.

“Most people don’t just sit down and look at a map and randomly decide on a place that looks like it would be a fitting spot,’’ he said. “They utilize personal social networks as well as their own experience. Children living in a region or a place can tell you, ‘Oh, the market’s pretty good. The climate’s like this.’ All of that reduces the level of uncertainty you might have and makes it easier to move to an area.’’

For the Levitons, the decision came as they contemplated their retirement move. They never considered lying in the sun. They like being in cities. For a time, they thought of Philadelphia. Then it dawned on the couple that they could be a bigger part of their grandchildren’s lives.

Their decision to move to Brookline means the twins have two sets of grandparents nearby.

“Between both sides, they’ve never had to pay for a baby sitter,’’ Helen says.

The couple has developed a deeper relationship with their grandchildren. Helen creates craft projects for Evie. Alan takes Zach on the MBTA most Saturdays, where they’ll pick a destination and ride to it as part of an adventure.

“It’s really amazing,’’ says Helen. “We used to really have to plan airplane travel to see one another. Now the twins have both sides. They’re so lucky to have so many people around them.’’

Though the Levitons haven’t struggled to adapt to living in the same area as their children, there can be tensions when the grandparents move closer, says Susan Newman, author of “Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily.’’

Some grandparents find it hard to resist being controlling and interfering when it comes to the lives of their grandchildren. In the end, Newman said, those grandparents need to realize that it’s important to provide a united front and to realize that they’ve had their chance at parenting. Their adult child should have the final say.

“Once the kinks are worked out, everyone benefits,’’ Newman says. “The grandparents and adult child get to know each other as people. There’s a deepening sense of family and a greater bond that results. And the grandparents provide a sense of security for grandchildren. And equally important, grandparents carry and transmit family history and tradition that grandchildren will pass on to their children. For parents, who is more in love with your children and better able to care for them and more trustworthy than grandparents?’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.