Five years ago, Donna McGovern’s friends spent a year traveling, using the time to visit and reconnect with family. The idea of this “adult gap year” really stuck with her, she says.
So last year, she sold 90 percent of her furniture and rented out her one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Midtown East.
At 55, she moved into her childhood home in the Bayside neighborhood of Queens, with plans to hit the road. When the pandemic hit, that’s how McGovern found herself living in a two-bedroom apartment with four other adults.
McGovern’s mother, who is 80, was already living with and taking care of her 91-year-old sister with dementia. After a 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck Puerto Rico in January, her 77-year-old aunt also came to stay with them. For a while, a family friend lived with them and helped care for her aunt. When the friend moved out, her 62-year-old cousin moved in — he is awaiting hip surgery.
McGovern’s situation is hardly unusual in this pandemic year. The percentage of adult Americans who report living with members of their extended family — defined as parents, grandparents and siblings — increased by 5 percentage points over the past year, according to the American Family Survey, released at the end of September.
As Americans face illnesses, deaths, job losses, economic uncertainty, a greater need for help with parents and child care, and a revamped version of their lives, a significant percentage reported that the size of their households has increased since shelter-in-place measures began in March. Half of Black and Hispanic respondents surveyed said they had added people to their household since March.
Three thousand Americans fielded the questions between July 3 and 14, several months into the pandemic. The national scope caught a snapshot of family life months into the health crisis, one that has been punctuated with business shutdowns, a stark unemployment landscape and protests against police violence.
“The results, broadly, suggest pockets of serious trouble but a kind of resilience in the face of adversity that we believe reflects well on American families and society. Though it is important not to ignore the many people suffering, from various causes, the state of the American family seems to be better than we might have expected when we began the process for this year’s survey,” the authors wrote.
Ella Hester, 23, moved back with her parents in Brooklyn after graduating college in the spring of 2019 as she applied for humanities jobs, which were easier to get in New York City. She got three: two part-time jobs and one internship. She was making plans to move out in March when the coronavirus hit New York with a force.
As the city took the brunt of the disease and shut down, Hester’s hopes to move out were dashed. By June, she had been laid off from all three jobs.
She has grown to embrace the time with her parents and is now incorporating them into the way she envisions her future.
She is thinking it would be nice to raise a family in the same building as her parents one day. Living here, she says, also allows her to see her grandmother more, who lives around the corner and needs to be checked on twice a day.
Kathryn Underwood, 38, and her husband decided to divorce at the beginning of the year.
“Not knowing how long this pandemic would last, I didn’t want us to be stuck quarantining together so I moved out,” she said. She moved in with her parents in Maryland.
Since the pandemic started, she has been grateful to have their support.
“It’s been really nice to have a household full of adults and reconnect with my parents on a different level," Underwood said. “The last time I was here, I was just out of college and didn’t know anything. We’ve all had life experiences since then. It’s been weird but it’s been good.”
Despite the close quarters, McGovern feels the same gratitude as she has restructured her idea of her remote year — being just one borough away from her now-emptied apartment. The renters are gone, but she’s staying in Queens for the time being.
“Honestly being here, you figure out how to do it. Now I get to hug my aunts all the time,” she said.
In the morning, she gives her 91-year old aunt high-fives — the pair do leg and arm exercises together daily. She enjoys quality time with her 77-year-old aunt from Puerto Rico, who she normally wouldn’t even see every year. McGovern makes her coffee, and they have early-morning chats.
The everyday intimacy with her mother was a difficult adjustment at first, but now she says the two are able to enjoy the time together.
But it is not easy getting work done with two TVs constantly blaring — at loud volumes for the hard of hearing — and having her schedule dictated by the comings and goings of the home health aide. Still, she says, she is getting the deep connections this year was supposed to have — with her family at least.
Despite all the uncertainty, McGovern knows one thing for sure: When the situation changes, she is going to take her trip on the road.
This time, she will go more than a borough away.