How to Set Up an In-Law Apartment to Maximize Independence

Light mint basement kitchen room. Mother-in-law apartment

Today, one in five Americans lives in multigenerational households. This is a record 64 million people—up from 51 million a decade ago, according to the Pew Research Center. Increasing lifespans, changing cultural and societal influences and economic pressures are some of the reasons behind this growing trend.

While there are benefits to living in the same household with older generations, it may cause your aging parents to worry about losing their independence. That being said, there are a number of ways to create a space for your aging parents in your home while still allowing them to maintain their own way of life.

Reinforce the Goal of Independence

Maintaining independence is important for aging adults, as they may fear becoming too reliant on their family while living together. When arranging a co-living situation, encourage your older loved ones to keep their own schedules and activities with friends. They should be responsible for as much as they can do on their own safely.

As you contemplate this living arrangement, determine their current health and mental status. Your loved one’s health and abilities may change faster than you expect, so the level of care needed now may be different from what’s needed in the future.

Create a Space that Fosters Autonomy

The ideal space to provide an independent and private environment for aging parents would include a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living area, with a separate entrance from outside so your parents can maintain their independence as much as possible.

Homes with existing separate spaces like a finished basement, room above the garage or an addition can be transformed into independent living quarters for your aging loved ones. If you choose to use space in your current home, consider making the home more senior-friendly so they can move around easily on their own.

Here are some ways to do this:

  • Widen doorways and arrange furniture to allow for easy maneuverability for walkers, scooters or wheelchairs.
  • Install ramps or create access to common areas with fewer steps.
  • Make alterations to kitchens and bathrooms such as raised cabinets, lipless shower stalls, and higher toilet seats to accommodate walkers or wheelchairs, even if your parents don’t need these amenities now. You may need to add safety features such as grab bars, which may require reinforcement of walls.

If you plan to build a new structure onto your existing home, it’s important to understand municipal regulations and zoning codes. Rules can be different if you have a family member living with you or if you plan to rent the space to non-family members in the future.

Consider Lifestyle Factors

In addition to thinking about how the space will work best for you and your aging parents, consider how cohabitating will affect your family’s lifestyle. Keep the following elements in mind:

Financial responsibilities

Remodels of existing spaces will typically be less expensive than adding onto your home. Whether you finish an existing space or add space to your home, you’ll need to discuss the costs and determine who will be responsible for funding any initial construction, maintaining the space and financing ongoing expenses such as taxes and improvements.

Have important conversations: If you use your parent’s money for an addition to your house or for living expenses, are your siblings on board with it? Do you need a family trust? Some people seek a lawyer to make sure financial arrangements are fair for everyone in the family. The cost of care may change depending on the length of time your parent ends up staying with you.

Additional financial needs to consider may include home health care, payment for your loved one’s medications and taking time off from work to make trips with them to the doctor. At some point, you may need to decide whether you’re willing to quit your job to care for your aging loved one full-time or move them into a residential care community. These are all important questions to discuss with the entire family.

Privacy and boundaries

Before entering into a multigenerational living arrangement, consider holding a family meeting to discuss each family member’s vision of what the new living situation would look like. Some families even hire a third party, such as a geriatric care manager, to interview family members. The third party may be able to get an idea of how current relationships are working and help anticipate how the senior moving in could affect family dynamics.

It’s important to address boundaries when it comes to childrearing, privacy concerns and how to respectfully share common areas like the kitchen, living room, laundry and entrances. Consider soundproofing private areas, as younger family members may like loud music or seniors may be hard of hearing and have the TV volume on high.

There’s a lot to consider when transforming your home to accommodate your aging parents, but by allowing them space to preserve their independence, the unique arrangement of multi-generational living can be an enriching experience for the entire family.


Jean Cherry, BSN, WCC, MBA is a former home health nurse and manager of clinical programs at Walgreens. Jean prides herself in helping seniors stay active in their communities and live independently at home. You can find assistive devices for seniors like lift chairs on the Walgreens website.


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