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As Baby Boomers age, Northeastern Wisconsin families remodel homes

In Brown, Outagamie counties, 13 percent of homes are multigenerational

Joan Cooney passes her grandson Archer Phillips to his mother Amanda Phillips
Joan Cooney passes her grandson Archer Phillips to his mother Amanda Phillips on Wednesday, Oct.18, 2023, in Omro, Wis. Wm. Glasheen/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

This story was produced as part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab, a consortium of six news outlets covering northeastern Wisconsin.

Joan Cooney decided to make the move to Omro to be closer to family. Her kids were spread around the country, with one daughter in Alaska, another daughter in Shawano County, and her newly married daughter living in Omro with her husband.

About a year ago, Cooney was living on the east side of Green Bay by herself in an apartment. She felt isolated. She was divorced, her kids were spread far and wide, and she was turning 65. She did most things by herself — and there wasn’t a lot to do.

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“As you get older, you don’t want to be alone anymore,” Cooney said. “It’s just nice to be close to family.”

She was going to retire soon, so she talked to her kids and made the move down near her daughter and son-in-law in Winnebago County. The timing was perfect — Cooney’s daughter, Amanda, was about to become a new mom, herself.

She still wanted to maintain her and her daughter’s independence.

Cooney came across Linked Living, and she and her daughter decided to build an attached space for Cooney on to the house. The space is its own unit, to allow for personal space — not just an extra bedroom.

Now, Cooney has more to do during the day and can spend more time with her kids. She’s been able to spend the summer with them after moving in in June. She helps plant flowers, take care of the lawn, takes her dog on a walk, can still go to the Y, and is trying all new kinds of food because both her daughter and son-in-law love to cook.

When her daughter goes to school to teach, Cooney gets dinner started and starts a load of laundry. And with a newborn at home, she’s glad she’ll be around to help and babysit her grandson. Since the move, Cooney has excitedly become more active and has more things to do with her family.

“I’m not just pent up in the house watching TV,” Cooney said. “My daughter keeps me moving.”

And when they finish their dinner together, they can both go back to their own homes just a few feet away.

“It’s nice — I can still have my own space and have my friends over. We’re not in their way,” Cooney said.

A woman sits on the couch with her grandson while his mother stands in the living room next to them
Joan Cooney, right, holds her grandson Archer Phillips while planning their day with his mother Amanda Phillips on Wednesday, October 18, 2023, in Omro, Wis. Wm. Glasheen USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Since opening in 2018, Linked Living has built additions for more families each year. But its owners think they haven’t even come close to the demand they’ll see down the line.

Multigenerational living is on the rise in the country. According to a 2021 Pew Research Study, the number of people living in homes with at least two other generations in their family quadrupled since 1971.

In Brown County, about 13 percent of homes are multigenerational, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. The same is true in Outagamie County. While it has historically been commonplace for many cultures outside the U.S., more Americans are also choosing to live with their older relatives for several reasons such as finances, caregiving or a close-knit family.

In the Fox Valley, Linked Living Homes expects the need for their services to grow in the upcoming years as the Baby Boomer generation ages. The state Department of Administration expects the population of 65-plus Wisconsinites to grow by nearly 500,000 by 2040 and comprise nearly a quarter of the total population, up from 14 percent in 2010. By 2030, 1 in 4 Wisconsinites are expected to be of retirement age.

“I don’t think it’s hit that hard yet,” said Greg Cops, Linked Living Homes manager. “We know that the baby boomer generation is enormous and that we don’t have the capacity or infrastructure in our existing senior care to take care of them.”

The Appleton-based company builds specific add-ons to houses to keep families together. The company has “mother-in-law” suites for older parents who want to be closer to their family as they get older and also build additions which can accommodate people with special needs.

The idea came about when Tom Cops, Greg’s dad and the company’s founder, wanted to find a way to bring families together while also keeping some of the independence in having their own space.

“These tiny homes for seniors could be in the backyard and a place of their own connected to the family’s home where both families could have their independence and their privacy,” said Greg Cops. “But they could be connected so that they could help one another.”

Customers come to Linked Living for different reasons. Sometimes senior residents want to find something more affordable than assisted living that still gives them their own freedom. Others want to find a way to stay more connected to the family and involved, Greg Cops said.

The suites give them a unique way to help each other out from just a backyard away.

“It’s a lot harder when you’re going through a blizzard, you know that if you just have a little hallway to go through,” he said.

The company is set to complete 16 additions this year, and they’ve done more additions each year since Linked Living Homes opened in 2018.

“That’s the way humanity has kind of done it for a long time and (people) still do it in other countries,” Greg Cops said. “The United States — we’ve kind of gotten away from that, but it is still right for some people.”

Benita Mathew is a health and science reporter for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. Contact Benita at bmathew@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter at @benita_mathew.

This story is part of the NEW (Northeast Wisconsin) News Lab’s fourth series, “Families Matter,” covering issues important to families in the region. The lab is a local news collaboration in northeast Wisconsin made up of six news organizations: the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Appleton Post-Crescent, FoxValley365, The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Journalism Department is an educational partner. Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to fund the initiative. The mission of the lab is to “collaborate to identify and fill information gaps to help residents explore ways to improve their communities and lives — and strengthen democracy.”