Rachhpal S. Gill chooses a turban to match his collared shirt and a belt to match his shoes for the one special trip he takes out of the house a day: picking up his granddaughter Kaur from kindergarten.
Rachhpal and his wife Karmjit live with their son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters in a household of six. The Gills share the upper floor of a B.C. box in Langley, a two-storey house as common south of the Fraser River as the Vancouver special is in that city.
There are three bedrooms, one each for the doubled-up kids, parents and grandparents. A tenant is on the bottom floor.
As COVID-19 swept into B.C. last spring, Rachhpal had lung surgery to prevent his cancer from coming back. Kaur had the opportunity to return to preschool when it reopened in May, but the family decided it would be safer for the household to keep her home. But in September, Rachhpal didn’t want Kaur to miss out on the first term of kindergarten.
These are the decisions that multigenerational households have to navigate in a pandemic.
Living in Langley, the Gills are in the Fraser Health region, the hardest hit in the province. But while there is risk to households like theirs — something health authorities have stressed but only vaguely addressed — there is also great resilience.
“At times when it’s just the four of us in the house, my daughter has said to me, ‘We’re all alone now’ in a bad way!” said Dee, Kaur’s mother.
While B.C. has released specific guidelines and infographics for visiting seniors in care homes — everything from designated meeting areas to whether visitors can help seniors eat — the province has nothing on how households with working parents, children and seniors under one roof can keep each other safe.
These households have not entirely flown under the radar of health officials, with mentions by the seniors advocate and doctors at Fraser Health.
And so families like the Gills have to decide what’s best for the family without specific guidance from health officials.
For them, the call to take measures “one step further” has meant the family never ventured out to local parks.
Having the two grandparents at home to watch the kids meant that Dee and her husband Sukhchain could handle all the grocery trips, usually to one-stop shops like Costco and Walmart, and Fruiticana, a local Indo-Canadian favourite. To minimize contact with surfaces outside the house, whoever drives to the store doesn’t push and load the shopping cart. When they get home, they’ll dump their clothes in the wash and take a shower before seeing the rest of the family.
Aside from errands, having grandparents to help out has helped with the couple’s mental health, as both work from home. There is always someone to step in and care for the children.
“When mom and dad need to make a phone call to a friend, go on social media, or do whatever for 45 minutes to an hour, they’re completely unbothered,” said Dee. “They have grandpa to draw and colour with, grandma to make them something delicious to eat. I feel like those are things that we are really, really blessed with.”
For Canadian-borns like their young daughters, time with grandpa and grandma has also meant connecting with their heritage, hearing folktales and family stories.
“My older daughter even knows how to write Punjabi,” said Sukhchain.
While everyone was able to keep physically healthy, Dee and Sukhchain worried how the pandemic would affect the grandparents’ mental health.
“I wish they had considered the impacts for multigenerational households when asking people to isolate,” said Dee. “Unless you’re giving [seniors] something to do, it creates a lot of stress.”
Just as Rachhpal didn’t want his granddaughter to miss out on school, other seniors living with family might worry about relatives choosing not to work or work less to keep them safe.
The pandemic is transforming relationships in these families, with seniors worrying about being a burden, said Neelam Sahota, the CEO of the non-profit DIVERSEcity.
Seniors are traditionally the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family, said Sahota. “COVID completely turns it around, and they become the most vulnerable. This completely changes the dynamic, that they need to be protected.”
The feeling of being housebound eased up for the Gill grandparents in the summer.
In the early months of the pandemic, the extent of their travel was “from the bedroom to the living room and back to the bedroom,” said Sukhchain. They missed going to community events at the Sikh gurdwara.
But when the weather warmed up, Rachhpal spent hours outside gardening, tending to peas, peppers, radishes, tomatoes, onions, squashes and mustard greens. Grandma Karmjit was able to do more cooking from scratch.
When rainy autumn arrived, they were kept inside once again. They sorely missed sunny India, where they’d fly annually to escape the greyer part of the year.
The Gills have many friends and family who live in this kind of household. A friend of Sukhchain’s in Calgary lives with his parents and grandparents, and his 90-year-old grandfather caught COVID-19 and recovered.
They have neighbours who live this way too — it’s not just grandfather Rachhpal; other grandparents can be spotted at the elementary school during pick-up time.
Census data have been pointing to the rapid growth of these households in recent years. While households of roommates and common-law couples have also been increasing, it’s the multigenerational ones that have been growing the fastest, up 38 per cent between 2001 and 2016.
The most families who live this way are in Canada’s north and in urban regions among immigrants, according to Statistics Canada.
The urban regions where this is most common are Abbotsford-Mission (7.6 per cent of all households are multigenerational), Toronto (six per cent) and Vancouver (five per cent). These numbers are higher in certain neighbourhoods. The City of Surrey, for example, reports 10 per cent of households in Newton are multigenerational.
This approach to housing not only allows immigrant families to stick together but helps them deal with expensive housing markets.
While South Asian families aren’t all alike, one professor says that many who live multigenerationally share a “cradle-to-grave” mentality of caring for one another.
These households are able to support each other financially, physically and socially — all the more important in a time of crisis.
And in the Fraser Health region, where many of them are working-class immigrant families, there could be more advice from public health on how to navigate daily life safely, said Satwinder Bains, the director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley.
“They need to be understood, and we need to apply a community plan that supports that kind of living.”
Bains points to B.C.’s summer policy allowing gatherings with a household’s “safe six” bubble of friends and family, an approach likely based on the needs of smaller households. The guideline confused the public and Bains argues it was even more confusing for households with more than six people.
“What are you going to do if you have 10 people in a home?” said Bains. “If you don’t see yourself reflected [in the recommendations] you might think something’s wrong, and even internalize racism when you resent that maybe you don’t have the right kind of household.”
Dee grew up in Squamish in a multigenerational household herself, and the TV shows of her era provided a reflection of other families who always had extended relatives around: Who’s the Boss?, Full House, Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Step By Step.
“My perception was different than just the norm of a nuclear family for everybody,” said Dee. “The TV shows had stepbrothers, single parents and aunts always coming in and out.”
Dee also grew up in a multigenerational bedroom. She shared a room with her grandmother, which at one point became a room of three when an 18-year-old cousin emigrated from India.
Dee was used to aunts and uncles staying with her family. They were new immigrants, and having a place to live temporarily helped them find their footing in Canada.
“There were probably some politics and family issues that went over my head, but for us, it was like a sleepover every night,” said Dee. “[This kind of household] teaches children how to navigate multiple personalities and opinions, learning how they all fit in, and talk about it.”
When Dee turned seven, grandma moved two blocks away to care for other children in the family, those of her niece. When they grew up, grandma moved again to help raise a new granddaughter. When she grew up, grandma moved again to help raise two new grandsons, and lived with their family until she died.
These seniors are a crucial part of households, and she’s hoping public health messaging that will recognize and reflect this in a time of crisis.
“Visual representation is so important,” she said, pointing to a lauded WorkSafeBC Slow Down campaign in 2007. It reminded drivers not to speed near construction sites with signs like “Our mom works here” and “My daddy works here.”
For the Fraser Health region — home to a large South Asian population and where the most common language after English is Punjabi — Dee says signs with pictures of multigenerational families would remind people who lives in their community.
The text is easy, she says. “Keep my baba safe. Keep my bibi safe.”