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.
“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 discovered Linked Living Homes, and she and her daughter decided to build an attached space for Cooney onto the house. The space is its own unit to allow for personal space — not just an extra bedroom.
Cooney now 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, takes care of the lawn and takes her dog on a walk. She 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.
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% 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.
Linked Living Homes expects the need for its services to grow in the Fox Valley 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% in 2010. By 2030, one in four 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 builds additions that 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 Homes 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 has done more additions each year since it opened.
“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.”