The Brother in Law on Your Couch Vision of the Apocalypse

Sharon August 19th, 2007

Note: I’d been meaning to write about consolidating housing for a while, and BoysMom gave me the push I needed. Thanks for getting me moving. I’ve divided this into two sections - the first is about getting the idea of living together going, about organizing and planning for it. The second will be about the actual, day to day realities of living with other people.

Ok, it isn’t the apocalypse, but whenever I point out to people that to a large degree hard times means consolidating housing, living with family and friends and taking in refugees you happen to be related to (by biology or friendship), I get a great deal of resistance. I suspect some of us are better prepared to deal with purple-haired mutants invading our neighborhoods than we are prepared to deal with the basic reality that hard times often look like your brother in law, his kids and spouse sleeping on your living room couch for three years. And I get the frequent impression many of us would rather face the mutants, given the choice.

The coming decades bring with them a whole host of reasons why the old system of everyone in their vast houses, isolated from one another, will probably not be able to continue. The first reason is simple demographics. The aging baby boomers will increasingly require help getting along, and the cost of that care will increasingly be shifted onto a smaller working population, particularly since most boomers have comparatively little saved for retirement (The average personal savings was just over $10,000 as of 2004). Most of their wealth is in housing at this stage, and that wealth could easily evaporate entirely during the course of a recession.

Meanwhile the cost of providing elder support will quickly overwhelm existing structures. The annual cost of alzheimers care alone for the baby boomers will consume 98% of Medicare’s entire present annual budget, according to this month’s Harper’s Index. That leaves virtually no money for anything else. While we will certainly expand the amount we pay into the system, it is also true that Medicare will probably get stingier and more limited over time, the nursing homes they will pay for will be worse, the resources fewer. Assisted living is generally purchased with one’s house - again, a very unstable resource, and people who live longer than their resources are evicted from assisted living, either into nursing homes or onto families. The simple reality is that more and more of us will be taking in our parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles - or we will be passing their care and needs off onto increasingly strained and inadequate resources. I know many of us find our relatives annoying, or unlikeable (and yes, I know some people genuinely have reasons not to be able to be around their families), but you’d have to dislike a family member quite a lot to voluntarily pass them off to a bad nursing home - I worked in nursing homes for years, and know just how bad that could be.

The next factor would be climate change. For almost half a milion people, Hurricane Katrina was an experience in shared housing, among other things, and we can expect similar disasters to increase in frequency. The simple reality is that as more and more disasters wrought by climate change occur, and more and more people are dislocated, they will seek out family and friends to provide either transitional or permanent housing. As Thomas Homer-Dixon put it in _The Upside of Down_, “this won’t be the last time we walk out of our cities.” And, of course, in just this decade we’ve seen people walking out of NYC twice (Sept. 11 and the 2004 blackout), attempting to walk out of New Orleans and being turned back by their own military pointing guns at them (Hurricane Katrina), and we will see it again…and probably again and again. Where will the denizens of Las Vegas go as the water dries up (a recent article suggests that this could be within this decade)? Or the residents of Miami, as their fresh water is replaced by sea water? Where will the victims of the next disaster go? Or rather, let us not say “they” - let us say “we.” Because while all of us are not equally vulnerable, any one of us is a potential victim of flood and fire, hurricane and tornado, earthquake and tsunami. We will go to our family, to our friends - and that is as it should be. And those of us who are the hosts and those of us who are the victims will share the common problem of living together in a society of people increasingly unaccustomed to doing so.

Next there’s economic crisis and peak oil. I speak of these two together because it is virtually impossible to seperate out their effects. As energy prices rise, the economic consequences will increase, and as economic consequences expand, energy availability becomes smaller. The simplest reality is that we are presently on the verge of a recession - I daily get an inbox full of news about financial matters, and while at first it was cutting edge sources who were predicting recession (them and Greenspan), now almost everyone is doing so. Whether this is a short term problem or the beginning of a hole we can’t dig ourselves out of, I don’t claim to know, but there is no question that the consequences of both mean greater poverty, more foreclosures, more choices between paying the rent and buying food for the kids, more trouble finding the money to get to work from far away, more need for Grandma or brother to do daycare, because you can’t afford the sitter, more houses that require not just two income earners to pay the mortgage but three.

As energy prices rise and availability falls, some housing will be simply untenable - if you are too far away for resources, if you bought expensive, energy inefficient housing at the peak of the market, if you can no longer heat or cool your house, you may need to leave it. I’ve written before about how to keep your house here: But if you can’t, and can’t buy a replacement house, the next step is to share housing with someone. As interest rates rise, more and more people will lose their houses entirely, and while the government may again provide us with Hoovervilles, most people will prefer to live with friends and family. And less and less able to make ends meet, the unnatural subdivisions that are our lives will consolidate again, and living with your aunt and cousin will be, if difficult, better than the alternatives.

The forces driving us out of our houses and into consolidation are about to become powerful, but we’ve also been driven by powerful forces encouraging us *not* to live together. I think this is a really important point. It is important to remember how deeply our own sense of privacy, like everything else about is is shaped not in isolation by our inner selves, but by outside forces - particularly the marketplace, and the social mores it creates. That is, one of the reasons for the housing boom is that we’ve been consistently told we need bigger houses, more space, and that we shouldn’t live together. American culture is unusually solitary, with a heavy emphasis on individualism, privacy and not sharing things - and it is no accident that these tend to be characteristics that the growth economy encourages. If we don’t share much, we need more things. If we believe it would be an intolerable burden upon our privacy to share space with a family member, we will buy or rent seperate housing. The only way the present housing boom, which some economists estimate may have resulted in the manufacture of more than 750,000 more homes than the market will support could work was with a combination of population growth, but also cultural pressure to move into ever bigger houses, in ever smaller family units.

I am not saying your relatives and friends aren’t awful and annoying and impossible to live with (some of mine are - but I’m certain that none of the awful ones are the relatives who read this blog ;-) . I’m
not saying that need for privacy isn’t real. But the reality is that to some degree our terrifically acute need for isolation from one another is neither natural or personal, but culturally created by our economy and the needs of our marketplace. Some of us won’t be able to live with our parents or siblings, for real and serious reasons. But they can live with friends, or more distant family. There are few, if any of us, who cannot accomodate others when the need arises.

Pat Murphy over at The Community Solution observes that over a 50 year period, we went from averaging 250 square feet per person to almost 800. And we also grew our housing stock per person. Where a family might once have moved in with parents to save money, rented longer or taken in a lodger, now they live in seperate, privately mortgaged homes from comparatively early on. Elders who might have moved in with a sister or friend after widowing now have their own seperate homes. The number of families with second homes also rose dramatically - now comfort was a giant home where Mom and Dad each had their own office, plus their shared bedroom, the kids each had their own bedroom, hypothetical guests also had their own space, and everyone had their own bathrooms. And, if living together in spaces where you need never see one another was too stressful, you could get away from it (them) all at a beach house.

I’ve written before about the tremendous economic costs of moving all if the services traditional provided by family resources out of the home and into the marketplace here: I think it is important to remember the collective individual price we pay for our solitary habits. Now this is the money that fueled the boom, of course, but it is also money that you are not saving for retirement, putting towards your credit card bill, or simply not needing to earn. Instead of families sharing resources, everyone strugggles to pay for all their own needs in the marketplace. I’ve written before about the personal economic costs, but I’d also like to point out that this has psychological costs as well - we begin to naturalize isolation from one another, and the possibility of crossing those boundaries and sharing space becomes unthinkable, terrifying.

We saw this when my husband and I bought this house with my husband’s grandparents. The responses of Eric’s grandparents and their friends of their own age, accustomed to such family consolidation was uniformly positive. But the reaction of many of our family members and our parent’s generation was naked horror that we would do such a thing. We were too newly married, we were told, it would take away time we needed for our children, we would find it too hard, we would have to give up all our privacy. When I mentioned this disparity, I was told by several people “well, of course, *they’d* like the arrangement” - implying that all the benefits of the arrangement fell on the side of Eric’s grandparents. But that simply wasn’t true - we benefitted in a whole host of ways, from the financial (they helped us buy the farm) to the practical (I could run out and leave the baby with Grandma for a few minutes) to the emotional (I had supportive, loving company at home during the day, my children had an intensely loving relationship with their beloved great-grandparents).

Now I don’t mean to suggest it was always idyllic (it wasn’t, and some times it was damned hard, such as during the periods right before and after their deaths), and I freely acknowledge that grandparents are often easier than parents and siblings, and long-planned and prepared for arrangements are easier than those suddenly thrust upon us. But I like to think that there are some strategies we might use to make this easier, and that for most of us, it won’t be as bad as we thought. If I can prevent a single axe murder, fratricide or poisoning within our extended families, I will consider my time on this essay well spent ;-) . So here are my rules for advance planning for living with family - biological or chosen.

Rule #1 - Plan, plan, plan, especially for those who can anticipate a need for help.

We spent several *years* negotiating things with Eric’s grandparents, settling details, building an addition. We could have done things more quickly, but the time was well used in helping them adapt to the transition (transitions are tough for all of us, but especially children, the elderly and the sick), and our one regret was that we didn’t discuss it with them sooner, since before the precipitating event that caused us to broach the subject with them, my husband and I had talked for some years about what we would do when they could no longer live on their own.

If you have elderly or disabled family members, or if you are an older or disabled person, start talking now with your family about what the long term future might look like. If someone is likely to come to live with you (or you with them), my personal opinion is that it is vastly easier to make the change if you do it before a crisis comes. I’m not saying that healthy 50 year olds should give up independence, just that the worst time to do this (and it is only going to get worse with rising energy costs and less transport available) is when someone is in the hospital after a fall, after the sudden death of a spouse, etc… It is terrifically hard for people to give up their privacy or face the reality that they can’t manage on their own, but I believe that it is always better to do this before you really can’t manage - that a crisis relocation is bound to be difficult for everyone. And if you can’t move in together in advance of the crisis, at least make long term plans, negotiate intentions and rules. Knowing what is going to happen can be tremendously comforting - and not just for the elderly, disabled and vulnerable. Helping kids realize “If we can’t live here because Daddy lost his job, we could always live with Aunti Lucy and Uncle David” can be a big relief for anxieties they can’t fully express.

Opening this subject can be particularly difficult for the person who may require care - outside of societies where the expectation still exists that you will care for your elderly family members, it is very hard to initiate this discussion. Which is another reason why you might consider consolidating housing while you are still in good health - because instead of saying “Ok, will you take care of me” you can offer something in exchange - help with the mortgage and the grandchildren, a chance for your sister to take a trip while you care for the dogs, etc… Everyone on earth can contribute something to a household, no matter how elderly, ill or disabled - Eric’s grandmother could rock a baby like nobody’s business, even when she couldn’t chase a toddler. Eric’s grandfather was at the end of his life, but he could and did still tell stories to my sons that were infinitely valuable to us. Figure out what you have to offer, and offer it. Even if you aren’t prepared to move in together yet, you might begin to arrange your life to suit such a set up - moving nearer family, or buying a house that could readily be adapted to sharing.

And this need not be a traditional “young people with older people” arrangement - two older widows might move in together, or siblings might consolidate housing to provide mutual support. A disabled woman might bring in a roommate with another complementary disability, or an able bodied college student who can help out in exchange for reduced rent. An older widower with a house on some land might bestow the property and housing after his death on a younger couple who want to farm the land, and will allow him to stay in his house. But I would argue that the best thing you can do is think in advance about what your choices are.

I strongly recommend intergenerational living even for people who don’t *have* to do it - I think it tends to combine the best of sev
eral possible worlds for everyone. Wealth is heavily concentrated in our society among people in their forties and above, while vigor and energy, hardly limited to younger people, tend to be abundant among people in their 20s and 30s. I think the lives of children are enormously enriched by growing up with older people in their lives. Right now, there are millions of seniors who are wondering what they will do, and whose dream is to live comfortably in their own homes. There are also millions of young people who long for a little land - a small farm or even a good sized suburban yard, and a chance to get ahead. These two groups have every reason to combine their interests and their futures. I recognize that this potentially comes with some difficulties as well, and there is potential for abuse on both sides, but the rewards are so great that I’d hope that others would consider it.

My personal feeling is that the best way to start discussions about these issues is to be upfront and honest. We have been accustomed to a society in which older people are expected to deal with their aging themselves until a crisis point is reached. This system will no longer work (it didn’t work that well to begin with), and adapting will have challenges. The best way to go into this is for everyone to benefit in some way - to recognize that this is not simply an experience of burden for one, and extra work for another, but part of a natural cycle of relationships that the younger person will then enact later themselves.

Rule #2 - Even when you can’t anticipate, plan, plan, plan!

While some of our consolidations can be anticipated, there are plenty of reasons why people who expect consolidation might not be able to make changes now, and reasons why many, probably most of our housing arrangements will be brought on suddenly. Whether a private crisis like a job loss, fire or foreclosure causes our problems or whether whole regions are on the move, many of us should anticipate family coming to us suddenly, unpredictably, and we should anticipate the same for ourselves. In some cases, people might only have minutes to get out, or they may arrive having endured terrible trauma, ill, injured or otherwise in bad shape. But there are still ways we can prepare to deal with all this.

Each of us should plan in two ways. First, we should imagine the situation with ourselves as refugees of some crisis and requiring the help of family. The second is that we should imagine ourselves as hosts, and prepare for an influx. If we’ve been preparing for peak oil and climate change, many of us may be more likely to end up as the hosts, but it is really important to remember that all sorts of things can happen, and, as Robert Burns said, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” If things can gang aft agley, they will ;-)

So start looking around you and imagining scenarios. Start thinking - what would you need if a large number of family members arrived suddenly on your doorstep? Or where would you go if a forest fire or a chemical leak required you to leave your house in minutes? Do you know where vital personal documents are? Do you have bug-out bags - that is a backpack or other kit full of basic items - toothbrush, change of clothes, food, water, a supply of needed medications and maps so that if it takes a day or more to get where you are going you’ll be ok? Do you have stored, stabilized gasoline, enough to get you there without stops - remember, during both Hurricane Katrina and Rita, gas was largely unavailable. Do you have enough food to feed family in a crisis? Basic medical supplies so that you can treat minor problems like muscle injuries, mild dehydration, etc… at home if emergency rooms are overflowing? Are you set up for babies, young children, pregnant women, the elderly, disabled or medically fragile?

Think about the people you know. Who could you go to? There are some people who we all know would welcome us without question, but if there are questions, perhaps it would be wise to ask them ahead of time. Begin with “In the event of a natural disaster, would it be ok if Mom and I came here?” Find out whether you can bring your pets or livestock. If not, what will you do with/for them? Think about who might see your home as a potential refuge, and what issues might they have. Can you bring this up with them, perhaps in a non-threatening way, by saying “since Hurricane Katrina, I’ve been thinking it might be useful to have a plan for an emergency…” The more you think ahead on these issues, the better off you will be.

One of the few virtues of the events of the last few years is that all of us have seen a concrete example of what can happen. The uses of things like stored food and emergency transportation plans are no longer the province of survivalists. All of us need to make these preparations and plans.

Rule #3 - Issue invitations and write it down

One thing I’ve done is write a letter (which I have yet to mail - this essay is a good kick in the pants) to people I love and care for, inviting them to come here if they ever need to, and offering them information I think they might need. This would include back road and highway directions (remember, if there is a large scale evacuation, main routes are likely to be packed), suggestions for what to bring and what not to, how to handle pets and additional family and friends (remember, the people you love best also have other people they love best and may not want to leave behind), and a *gentle* explanation of what kind of situation they might find (“…we may have up to X number of additional people, so you can expect to…”) and any really important rules. Personally, I do not think that this letter is the time to articulate your expectations of other people, for several reasons. First of all, you don’t know what circumstances people will arrive in, and second of all, if they really need you, you don’t want family and friends to be reluctant to come to you. The idea is to have your sister in law come to you before the children are suffering from malnutrition, not after. Yes, at some point, you’ll have to iterate some rules. But you might as well wait until they are here - if your BIL arrives with a broken leg and your 92 year old mother, your rules about how many hours a day everyone has to work to eat might not apply right away anyhow. Be flexible!

The same questions you are answering in the letter should be answered by you for anywhere you might go. How would you get there in an emergency? What would you bring? What would you do with pets or livestock? What kind of facilities might you find? Assuming that you didn’t have to leave in a rush, with only the things in your bug out bag, what might be useful to bring? You might want to designate one or two possible central family members as not only meeting locations, but people to collect messages - remember, after the hurricanes, how long people struggled to find one another.

Crises don’t always occur when we’re all at home together. Make plans now for how you would gather together - who would get the children at school, or stay behind to pack things up? If you were evacuated suddenly, where would you go? Who would you meet? How might you connect? If things get suddenly dangerous, you should have a plan, for example, for gathering children from school or spouses from jobs, who gets who and where you meet up in the end. Have backup communications plans - cell phones might not work, the internet connection might be down. Leaving message with a centrally located family member, or even one out of the country might make sense.

Rule #4 - Think hard about who you are planning for, and prepare accordingly.

To some degree, you may not know. A sudden crisis might leave an old college roommate on your doorstep, when you thought he was in Punjab. But most of us can guess who is likely to need us. Those who are aging or medically fragile. The family members who live closest to the edge financially. Th
e family and friends who live close to coasts, natural disaster prone areas, or in regions already in crisis. The family who don’t have a lot of other supports. People in densely populated, resources stressed urban areas. People near potential military and terrorist targets.

Now let me be clear - everyone is at risk of something, as far as I know. If you live near the Pacific Coast, you’ve got tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes, in the southwest, drought and hurricanes at the Gulf. Gulf Coast, we all know about. West Central - drought, flood and blizzards. Southeast, heatwaves, drought, hurricanes, ice storms, floods. Midwest earthquakes (the biggest earthquake in US history was centered around Missouri), tornadoes, floods and blizzards. Northeast blizzards, ice storms, floods and Godzilla getting lose from New York ;-) . Plus, there are potential human created disasters everywhere. No one gets off free, although Akron is probably less likely to be a terrorist target than Washington DC, and Caribou Maine is comparatively low on Volcanoes.

I’m going to guess that many of us can expect more people than we think if there’s a large scale disaster. It is common for us to say “Oh, My mother, my brother and his wife, and my aunt and cousin.” But remember, these people also have family *they* can’t leave behind. Your brother’s wife has an aging mother, and a divorced sister with three kids. She can no more leave them behind in a disaster than you could leave your sister - and if they don’t have any better options, they’ll be coming to you. After all, you are * family * And realistically, most of us will probably be the only ones in our own families who are prepared. Everyone knows this. So even if your second cousin only sees you at weddings and funerals, he may be thinking of you as his contingency plan. And heck, if this cousin has a well stocked place in a comparatively safe area, you might be thinking of him.

In a large scale, long term crisis, you may have to limit who you can take in. In the short term, we can all endure a few nights crammed on the floor together. And frankly, if the stakes are high enough and you care enough about the people involved, you can live that way a very long time. But if there are other alternatives, you may at some point have to say no to people. Think hard about this one. Think hard about what the price they’ll pay is, and what the stakes are for you. In novels, you always can tell when the food is going to run out - that is, you can sit there and do the math and say ‘nope, sorry, we can’t take care of you.” But in real life, the situation isn’t always static - if you give your last crust to a hungry child, you might starve your own. Or there might be a little more for your kids tomorrow, and you might save a life. The world isn’t black and white, and neither is real life. My personal preference is generally to err on the side of offering care and protection to as many people as possible.

Now I often hear people who have been preparing for peak oil for a while say that they won’t take anyone in, because, after all, they told their families and they didn’t bother preparing themselves. For most people, I think that is, to be blunt, simple posturing. That is, you may say now, “Uncle George and Aunt Lydia and my college roommate Steve will pay for laughing at me about peak oil.” But unless you are a much tougher person than most people are, when Uncle George and Aunt Lydia, Steve, his wife Ki, and his daughter need a place at 2 am, you’ll be opening the door up wide. Because sometimes things are more important than being petty. And even if you don’t think you can feed them forever, you may also be able to provide a period of rest, a temporary solution, while you begin to think ahead. So I’d lose the “nobody but the wife and me” bullhockey right away, and start planning.

Rule #5 - Shop Now

Now not everyone will be able to do this, and we haven’t yet, but my basic feeling is that the ideal situation for most people would be enough stored food for double the numbers in your family for two years. Now don’t panic when you hear that - you may think I’m nuts, that having six months worth of basic foods for your family even now seems beyond you. And I understand that. Remember, I’m not there yet either. Food for 12 for 2 years is a A LOT of food, and storing and managing that much food is work. It also costs money to accumulate it. We do it by buying a little extra every time we go to the coop or bulk store. 25 lbs of black beans or 50 of whole wheat really don’t cost that much, and are well worth it for the security they provide. During the fall, we buy extra potatoes and onions and grow extra as well, and store them. We can give them to the food pantry if we don’t use them - in fact, one of the most important reasons we store food is that it allows us to be generous, to give away to charity even when things are tight for us. And for those of us who may have to rely on others, it can either delay the time of consolidation of housing by cutting down on our need to buy food after a job loss or other crisis, or at least it can allow us to arrive with something in hand.

At a minimum, I would plan on six months worth of food for your family, and a lot of practice making meals out of that food. The sudden arrival of five or ten hungry, desperate and now poor family members will make the wisdom of having a large supply of basic staples around.
If you haven’t begun thinking about food storage at all, I’d start with Alan Hagan’s _Prudent Food Storage FAQ_, one of the very best resources on this. Alan comments here, and has done an amazing job on this My own personal minimum list of foods to store is this. The above assumes that you are buying most of your food at a grocery store or coop, in small quantities. There are plans that use fewer items, and plans that use more and different ones, but this is my own personal suggestion. You don’t need all of these things, and you should adapt to your own family’s preferences, but if I had to store only a few items, but didn’t have to go for absolute minimums, I’d choose these.

Whole Wheat
White Rice
Whole corn
Pinto Beans
Black Soybeans
Canned Pumpkin (1 can per person, per week)
Canned Tunafish (enough for 1 can per person per week)
Powdered Milk
peanut butter
Alfalfa seeds for sprouting
Canned mustard greens
Dried Cranberries
canned tomatoes
Olive oil
cider vinegar (unpasteurized)
iodized salt (very important!)

From this very basic mix of foods, you can make quite a few tasty meals. Beans and rice, with a salad of sprouts and dried cranberries. You could make bread (sourdough), and add a little tenderness and nutrition with canned pumpkin, and have that for breakfast. Or have it for lunch in a peanut butter and honey sandwich. With a few spices, you could make a great chili with two beans and tomatoes, and serve it with cornbread and mustard greens. You can make pasta and serve it with tomato sauce and olive oil, or make a cold rice salad with rice, greens, cold cooked beans, sprouts, olive oil and vinegar. You get the point. In fact, I actually think it is better, whenever possible, to store local foods - what is grown near you, but if you had to work only with a few supermarket options, these would be my choices.

Mostly, the rule is store what you eat, and eat what you store. That means learning to eat and use basic food that can be stored dry, dehydrated or canned - cooking from staples like grains, beans, etc… If you don’t eat this way, you should - here are some cookbook suggestions for how to learn:

I do store two things that I don’t usually eat. The first is canned shor
tening. The reason I do this is that it lasts forever and is cheap. The reason I don’t eat it is that transfats are unbelievably awful for you. My feeling is that shortening is a survival food only - but other oils are good for a much shorter time. The other thing I store is infant formula. Every couple of years I buy a 1 year supply of the cheapest possible generic infant formula. I do this because I’ve seen and heard of too many cases where in a crisis, either a mother was seperated from her infant, or died, or lost her milk or something, and formula is one of those things that can’t be had for love or money in an emergency. I’m a breastfeeding Mom myself, and I don’t have a baby who requires either formula or breastmilk, but I store infant formula just in case - so that no woman I know should ever be desperate for something to feed her infant. The best option, obviously, would be wet nursing. But if that’s not possible, an emergency supply is better than nothing. A few months before the formula expires, I donate the whole shebang to the local food pantry (which is usually pathetically grateful, because they desperately need formula), and buy another year’s supply. I consider it a hedge against a certain evil.

Beyond food, I pick up extra bedding whenever I can, especially blankets at yard sales. Living in upstate NY, and recognizing that if times were hard, we might not be able to provide much heat, storing extra blankets just makes sense. I also have bought a few older futons, in good condition. They can be folded up and stored in a closet to be used if necessary for extra beds. My (crazy-huge) house can currently sleep 10 additional people (beyond us) on beds, plus we have two cribs. But when I was a kid, and my mother ran a daycare, she made up pallets for napping children to sleep on out of old carpet remnents, and so I save these, on the theory that children and younger adults could eventually be kicked onto the carpet, so to speak, if things got really tight.

I believe strongly in having enough dishes, but then again, I love to have people over and cook for a crowd. You can obviously eat in shifts, but yard sales are again a great source of some cheap dishes to stick in a box somewhere. Same with silverwear. A couple of spare sweatshirts and sweatpants in different sizes, if you can afford them, will give people who never had a chance to get anything out of their homes something to wear. Extra soap, toothbrushes and toilet paper will be useful as well. If there are children in your extended family, but none in your home, you might also at yard sales pick up a few ten cent children’s books and toys to put in the same box - it will be much easier for traumatized, exhausted children to do something other than dismember your house and scream if you have a few appropriate things for them - some blocks, a ball, a copy of Harry Potter…whatever.

In terms of medical supplies, first of all, get a good first aid book and read it now. One of the most important things you can do is know when you need a doctor. But if the emergency rooms are closed, or flooded with patients (or water), or you can’t get there, you need to be able to take care of an emergency yourself. Learn CPR, including infant and child, and learn how to tend basic injuries and get along without making things worse. Keep a stack of bandages, peroxide or alchohol, painkillers, and other basics in your house.

Also be ready to leave the house in an emergency. Have a “bug out bag” with light food (dehydrated food, ramen, food bars), a couple of blankets, some water, a change of clothes, baby supplies for babies, basic hygeine items, a few toys and books for older kids, an emergency medical kit and some basic tools (pocket knife, waterproof matches, rope), flashlight (either with extra batteries or a hand charged one), phone numbers, contact information, cell phone and manual phone charger, maps of your area and anywhere you might be going, and photocopies of id and important documents. Mine personally includes a disk of important pictures of my kids.

You should have one bag for each person, and that includes kids. Even if they only carry a few of their most precious things, they can participate in putting the bag together, and you can practice getting out of the house and grabbing it in an emergency. Store extra blankets, water, and a larger first aid kit in your car. Keep stabilized extra gas in your garage so that you can get where you need to go even if the pumps aren’t running. Just in case leaving an area by car is infeasible, you might also wish to have bicycles to help you get out of an area quickly. This might be particularly important for urban dwellers - many cities, such as Manhattan, have no realistic evacuation plan. The reality is that it is simply impossible to get that many people out of a small space in less than four days. So a bicycle gives you a real advantage if you need to travel quickly and over long distance, but can’t rely on public transport or a car being available or usable.

Even if these supplies are never of any use to you, they can always be resold at yard sales, donated to charity or made use of yourself over time. Given that we are in an inflationary cycle, things you buy now will likely serve you better than waiting, so if you can, plan ahead.

Rule #6 - Get your head in order.

Now that we’re through the logistics of physical prep, there’s mental prep. One of the first things we all need to do is take a few deep breaths and relax our preconceived notions about what this will be like. Some of us may be anticipating family members moving in with a great deal of enthusiasm, but others with considerably less. But whatever we’re thinking (and obviously a positive attitude is preferrable to a bad one), we should try and let some of our expectations go, and face things as they come.

The reality is that if we’re the hosts, the people coming to live with us may be coming enthusiastically, or miserably. They may be arriving after lots of planning and fun negotiations, or after incredible trauma and horror. They may drive us crazy because they are like that, or because they are depressed, suffering from illnesses or post-traumatic stress disorder. They may feel like failures because they lost their house or couldn’t keep their family safe, or they may feel like this is the change they need. And this may turn out to be terrible, or it might be much better than any of us ever expected. And if we’re the guests, we may be coming feeling terrible, ashamed. Or we may be hoping for a better future, but unsure of our place with new rules, new family, new arrangements. We won’t know until it happens.

For me, the most important things to remember (and I didn’t always remember them when Eric’s grandparents were alive - something I regret) is that the people whose home you are, or who are home to you (home is the place, when you go there, they have to take you in) are the people who share, for all their imperfections, ties that matter, that are worthy of honor and respect. No matter how maddening they are, no matter how frustrated you are, no matter how difficult moving in together is, no matter how close the quarters or stressful the situation, these people are your tribe. It is in some ways easy not to love and appreciate the people who are always there, especially when you sometimes wish they would be elsewhere, but it is also worth noting that the world is not full of people who will share their homes with you, add water to the soup so your husband can eat, rock your child through a nightmare to let you sleep, give you the coat from their backs and the bread from their table, and say, in a thousand words and gestures, “you are one of us.”

The more we can go into this possibility with the recognition that it is fraught, it is difficult, and it is *possible* the better off we’ll be. By all means let us joke and compare notes about this awful relative and that one. But remember, the jokes are just jokes - they are part of being a family (biologi
cal and non) - but at the root, underneath the joke, there is a good deal more. Don’t forget what’s at the root.

I will write much more about this subject, the daily realities of living together in a future post, whenever I get to it (not this week - I’m out of town). I have much more to say about privacy, and accomodation, and practical ways we might get along.



37 Responses to “The Brother in Law on Your Couch Vision of the Apocalypse”

  1. Bedouina says:

    Interesting… I live in California earthquake country - can see the Hayward Fault area from my house. So of course I’m thinking about the elders in my family and what to do about them in case of major quake.

    However some of this reminds me of the trauma my extended family suffered during the Lebanese civil war - our whole village sacked, everybody evacuated (except my grandmother, who refused to leave her home and lost her life during the -pogrom is the only word).

    Two families - my father’s two brothers, spouses and children - fled by car and later airplane (they had stockpiled US dollars just in case) and arrived on my parents’ doorstep in North Carolina. This was 1985.

    Both my parents were working; they were frugal and owned property and had just finished paying for youngest child’s college. They took out money against their property to stake my uncles to small businesses (all $ was repaid within two years).

    That first year the two refugee families shared a three bedroom, 1 bath ranch house owned by another uncle, deceased. My father gave them $500 cash each month for groceries for ten people - money out of his not very large salary. They got hand-me-down furniture from our friends and neighbors. They tried to get jobs although as middle-aged immigrants with rusty English, that was nearly impossible. It was traumatic for all of them, since their self-identities were wrapped up in their prosperous middle-class landowning Lebanese lives. Twenty-two years later they are all still suffering the aftereffects, even though our land and village were restored to us at the close of the Lebanese civil war (1990).

    I just don’t know how much of this I am going to do. I bought a ten pound bag of pinto beans… I rechecked my earthquake kit in the back yard and I am going to construct proper bugout knapsacks for self and nuclear family. The long term planning and food storage I just don’t think I can manage. But I will be stocking my earthquake kit with bulgur wheat - all it needs is a soak in boiling water and it’s ready to eat, with salt and olive oil. And canned pumpkin - great idea.

    Thank you for this service.

  2. Sara says:

    While you’ve got a lot of good ideas here, your figures on personal savings are well below everything else I’ve read.

    From a 2005 Forbes article called “Retirement Doomsday” (and what a cheery title that is):

    Among the households who owned a retirement savings account of any kind as of 2001, according to a 2004 report by the Congressional Research Service, the average value of all such accounts was $95,943. That number was distorted by the relatively few large accounts, and the median value of all accounts was just $27,000.

    The median value of the retirement accounts held by households headed by a worker between the ages of 55 and 64 was $55,000 in 2001, the CRS says. To that, Stein adds that just 11% of all Americans have retirement savings of $250,000 or more.

    While the news isn’t good, that median of $27,000 is more than double your figure.

  3. feonixrift says:

    I should read to the end before commenting, I know I should, but this got my hackles up. Maybe once I’ve said my piece I’ll be able to go back and read it through.

    I miss group living situations, communal kitchens, and so on from college. But if there’s one experience that has been consistent for me, it’s this: If I’m the only one using my stuff, it lasts. If I let anyone else use it, they will break it, damage it, ruin it immediately. No matter how reasonable and conscientious I thought they were. Let someone use a knife? Nicked, rusted. Let someone use a pan? Scoured and burnt coatings. Hardly anything of decent value comes back intact, and that’s from people who honestly do their best, who listen and adapt and are honestly regretful when they cause damage. People just don’t get how to maintain stuff, and until that gets through their heads anything shared has to be written off.

  4. Deb G says:

    So much here…. A timely reminder for me to keep working on my emergency preparedness-in what ever form that it might take.

    I actually just had a conversation with my mother about our sharing housing at some point. It’s something that happens a lot in my family (especially in how we’ve cared for our elderly). I think that the influence of family members that were immigrants to the United States has shaped our openness to sharing space. That was a very good point about Americans and our “need” for space.

  5. Bedouina says:

    PS - I cook pretty well and can do so without a recipe book, from the pantry. What, pray tell, do you do with one can of pumpkin per person, per week? All I know to do is make pumpkin pie without the crust - sort of pumpkin custard. Or maybe pumpkin bread.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and your posts on ROE (at least I think you’re the same person). It’s amazing how resistant folks are to merging households. We tried to get my MIL to live with us; no deal. We urged her to consider sharing her home with one of her widowed friends or taking in a border; no deal. We have a friend who posted on Craig’s list looking for an elder to share her home and got mostly critical responses from people who seemed suspicious about her motives. I would love to have a bigger household. What we need is a matchmaking site for folks who are looking for someone to share a home.

    Suffolk, VA

  7. Anonymous says:

    The bedding part reminded me of something I always look for: dead electric blankets! They are the cheapest things going (free, even) and are wonderful as the inner layer of a crazy quilt. They will need open-blanket surgery followed by a good washing and are then ready to use.

    To do the surgery, you will need scissors, pliers, and wire cutters. Spread the blanket out flat and trace out the wiring lines. Cut a slit in the blanket thru one layer only at the top and bottom of each wire loop. Cut the wire at the top and bottom and gently pull it out with the pliers. Cut off the cord attachment and pull out its wires. Strip the wires for their copper if you feel up to it, but they are otherwise unusable. You will be sewing the slits shut as you sew on the patchwork so they needn’t be sewn up separately. If the binding is bulky I remove it.

  8. Bedouina says:

    More thoughts - I may have to blog this because I’m taking up too much room on your comments

    1) Pumpkin tahineh - it’s like hummus but made with pumpkin instead of chickpeas. Really good.

    2) Pumpkin kibbe - I’ve got a recipe for it but it starts with five pounds of raw pumpkin. I think canned won’t work because you are supposed to press it to be quite dry. Lebanese Christians eat it at Lent, says my cookbook source, when they’re supposed to abstain from meat. (and it’s early spring and maybe the pumpkins winter over). I have never made this so can’t say what it’s like.

    3) Rebecca Blood did an experiment this summer in which she and her husband ate organic on a food stamp budget. She tracked it on her blog. No, she doesn’t have a garden that I can see, but I think the recipes (and pictures) reveal great ideas for frugal, delicious cooking; and she uses everything up, including preserving a surplus of carrots. I believe she lives in the SF Bay Area, in urban circumstances, too.

    Hope this is of interest to readers of Casaubon’s Book (I mean, it’s a book that includes everything IIRC Middlemarch)

  9. Anonymous says:

    I think we are bit hung up on the thought you need your own room for privacy. Last summer my housemate invited me to her family reunion — as well as another friend, her teen aged son, and a small dog. That was in addition to her 2 parents, 5 siblings, 4 sibs in law, 12 grandchildren (ages 12-22), and a family of five (brother of one of the sil) in 4 2 bedroom cabins. Rather nice cabins, with hot tubs — which brings me to the point, 5 fully dressed teenage boys sitting on the bottom of a drained tub playing cards.

    Dd the elder has reached the point where she wants to be alone for hours a day — so she just goes upstairs to her shared bedroom, leaving the rest of us downstairs. I used to go read under a window on the landing to get away from my brothers at much the same age.


  10. Anonymous says:

    Canned pumpkin left in towel lined colander over night will drain its liquid and become quite dry and thick. Maybe then you can use it for kibbeh? The liquid could be used to cook rice or bread. Also, soup made with pumpkin, beans, spices, maybe some tomato, would be tasty.

  11. Anonymous says:

    You can make a wonderful pumpkin soup just by frying up an oinion, or some garlic, or a leak, or a couple of scallions, or whatever, then adding pumpkin puree (but not with pumpkin spices added) and putting a bit of cheese on the top if you feel short of protien that day.


  12. Anonymous says:

    Well, other than my young-adult son newly out on his own(which would be hard enough having him back here) I can’t even imagine any of my small extended family living here- so I won’t even contemplate it….. I can’t even talk to my mother more than a couple times a year….truly dysfunctional family stuff there…

    Now in terms of friends- that is an interesting one. What I am wondering about is just what we would do with all of our friends who have zero skills other than what they currently get paid to do- computer software for instance-and no interest or ability in even growing a tomato. A friend has been wanting to come and visit-she lives in a suburb and loves it- but has demanded that she must be able to blow-dry her hair somewhere- at a neighbors-as my off-grid house can’t support that- and of course she is Orthodox and must observe the sabbath and only eat food certified kosher from proper authorities, etc- yeah right…. So I have put off her even visiting here- cannot imagine her living here….(we were high school friends…)

    I have an assortment of “high-maintainance” old friends- just can’t imagine them hacking it here- I would spend all my time working outside and cooking and they would be sleeping in……

    I have come to the realization that there is only so much we owe other people- and only so much they owe us-and that in many cases we would jeapordize our own survival or that if our immediate family, by attempting to be there for everyone else. And yes, I know if it was your mother it would be difficult to say no- but in some cases, well- let’s just say they haven’t exactly been there for us either…… It’s a very individual thing and I’m working on realizing that what will be will be and coming to terms with it. I know that I will only destroy myself otherwise. So while I am very open to the idea of friends sharing my place for instance, I realize that not just anyone will work and that many people who are friends are not people I could live with in peace…..

  13. Leila says:

    Thanks for the pumpkin ideas.

    Just wanted to say that I made chutney today from fruit off our back yard trees here in East Oakland, using only ingredients already in my pantry. Blogged at Dove’s Eye View. Thanks for the inspiration…

  14. Anonymous says:

    My husband and I, with our two small children, moved in with my parents for financial reasons and stayed for four years. On the whole it was a very rewarding experience for all of us. Benefits for each generation. Of course we had our moments from time to time, and there are things I would do differently with hindsight. Six years since moving out we have talked about sharing a home again as my parents are aging. Now would be harder, with older children and more cantankerous elders; however, I know it’s definitely doable. Awareness of and respect for each person’s need for space (mental space, especially) is critical.

  15. Shane says:

    I have moved onto a 2 acre farm in subtropical australia with my parents, now in their 60s. We built a small detached dwelling for me to have some privacy in, though I was never that bothered living inside in the spare bedroom (perhaps they were).

    I had been looking at going it alone, buying another property, but the values are too out of whack to consider. A few friends expressed interest in joining in but were in no position to make meaningful contributions. I could have spent the best years of my life behind a computer trying to pay it all off (and probably not getting it done before the crisis comes on). So instead I am working part time, and spending four days a week putting in gardens, veggie patches, a big orchard. We have the occasional argument over what to plant where, but all in all it is working brilliantly. I am lucky my parents have always been very fiscally conservative and can see the trainwreck coming in the financial world, not to mention the energy and environmental issues piling up after that.

    My sister and her young family live on the other side of the village, so I am working toward growing enough food for them also. My other sister lives in the city where I work half the week, and I recently moved closer to them also and regularly bring down fresh produce to them. In the city Im living in a lodging house with an elderly aunt of an ex- and doing a veg patch for her too.

    So I have managed to avoid the spiraling (and unsustainable) house prices, the rental crisis, and the problems with wasting what is left of my youth moving around the country/world persuing ever shrinking dollars. My 400 square meter veggie garden is started, and half of my one acre orchard planted. Ongoing employment options are still being sorted out, but moving into local highschool teaching seems like the most stable option longer term.

    My parents and I are fully expecting my single mother sister and her daughter to have to live with us someday, and for my other sister to need more support (they have a mortgage and her partner works as an artist, probably not the most recession proof job). But I am happier now working to help out the family than I ever felt accumulating degrees and things.

  16. Anonymous says:

    relatives ? friends ?
    think again. the first people to arrive on your doorstep will be the nearest gun toting friendly neighbors. as a former upstater, ) who has spent a lot of time on the farm and in cities , i would guess that the average household in upstate new york has more weapons than the same in texas.
    instead of wasting time letting everyone know how wonderful a person you are , you should be keeping your trap shut and be out stocking up on rifles and ammunition. you are going to need them.
    so much for altruism.

  17. Anonymous says:

    By all means let us joke and compare notes about this awful relative and that one. But remember, the jokes are just jokes - they are part of being a family (biological and non) - but at the root, underneath the joke, there is a good deal more. Don’t forget what’s at the root.

    Your experience of family has been very different from mine; sometimes the jokes aren’t “just jokes” . . . .

    My husband has one (elderly) living relative remaining in the US; I have not seen my biological relations more than four times in the last 25 years. They are all in one small farming community in the Northeast, and I literally cannot imagine the circumstances that would bring them to me.

    When our son graduates university in three years, all of us will be leaving the US to join friends in Europe: the droughts and risk of earthquake here in the Southwest make staying increasingly unappealing, and as another of your commenters pointed out, in the event of a crisis I would prefer to be somewhere with rather less in the way of armament.

    I will agree with your post thus far: negotiation and preplanning is critical. We have done so with friends rather than biological relations, and feel we stand a better chance of surviving in a relatively sane and happy state with them.

    - Sweltering

  18. Anonymous says:

    I can’t imagine not visiting someone because I couldn’t dry my hair — that’s a real hang up.

    But you can have kosher guests in a non-kosher household. Very easy in a in always all-veg. kitchen. Harder if not, but helps if they bring their own food. The untensils get tricky. The non-sustainable way is desposible. The other is that they decided to go milk or meat for the week ends, and bring their own stuff and washing up basin.

    If they are good friends or family memembers it’s worth it.


  19. Anonymous says:

    Your experience of family has been very different from mine; sometimes the jokes aren’t “just jokes” . . . .

    Indeed, there’s a wealth of assumption going into this. Frankly, my “tribe” has rarely done anything to help me, even in the worst of circumstances, while friends have opened their hearts and homes warmly. Not everyone has a “family tribe,” unfortunately — and reassembling those who should qualify could have tragic consequences. OTOH, the world may be fuller of people who would add water to their soup for you than you obviously imagine.

  20. shadowfoot says:

    Overall, a good post! Some good questions posed (where would you go, who would come to you, numbers and papers to include in bugout kit, etc.)

    On the weapons thing, I think it depends on where you live, and how many of your neighbors you know, and what your neighbors are like. In our current neighborhood we know almost everyone on the block and some people the next block over, and people actually look out for each other. Where we’re moving, we’ll be living with my in-laws, and there are siblings, cousins, nephews, nieces, an uncle, an aunt…. all living within 10 miles or so of each other. And of course we have some friends up there as well, and the community is already fairly mutually supportive (yes, one of those little farming communities in the Northeast). Our neighbors won’t be coming to our door with a gun, because they don’t need to — they know they’ll get some help.

    And in the unlikely circumstance of a mass migration from the valley by gun-toting people, our town happens to be somewhat difficult to approach, and therefore defensible by a relatively small number of people — if such were necessary. Quite frankly, if things got that bad, the few wanderers who made it to our out-of-the-way town might find themselves welcomed as extra working hands, even if they’re complete strangers. Because if things were that bad, then likely we wouldn’t have enough fuel to run the tractors and other farm machinery…. why yes, we _do_ still have most of the tools and horse-drawn/oxen-drawn equipment from the 18th c….

    A number of commenters so far have issues with relatives. I have one I wouldn’t live with long-term myself. But since she’s 3,000 miles away and hates the cold, I’m not too worried about having to host her….

    For short-term, I’d be willing to host most of my friends or acquaintances. Long-term, definitely fewer, and we would have to find ways for them to contribute to upkeep and maintenance, or they’d have to move. I do tend to agree that many things I loan tend to come back the worse for wear, although I don’t care as much when it comes to clothing as I do my cooking pots. Which is why I don’t use certain types of cooking pots and pans anymore… even if someone messes up when using a stainless steel copper-bottom pot, it may have a burn mark on it but it’s still quite usable.

    As for food supplies, we’re still working on having enough for 2 people for 1 year, nevermind 4 people for 2 years. But we _are_ working on it. I’m kind of hoping that we’ll end up with enough for 2 people for 2 years, plus couple of months’ worth for 2-4 more people. We’re moving into a smaller place this year, so storage space will be at a premium. We are eventually hoping to have more space for storage and to include more people if needed, but that will probably be a year or two down the line.

    However, we won’t take in everyone we can, even in an emergency, if it’s a long-term emergency. We have to make sure we can feed the core group (however many that may be) from whenever said emergency occurs, through at least the first harvest time. Hopefully no such situation will ever occur, because that would be a hard decision to have to make. I know you mentioned this briefly, but I think it deserves a little more space. If you gave to everyone without thought to the long-term consequences (your mention of if you have enough food that your kids will still have food tomorrow? How about if it’s September and you’ll need food for them 6 months from now?), you and the person you’re trying to help will both starve. If people start keeping track of their stores and how quickly they go through things NOW, then in an emergency situation they’ll have a better idea of if they can in fact take another person in, and for how long.

    Btw, as I mentioned in an post to a previous essay, we’re moving into the 2nd floor apt of my in-laws’ farm house. Not an easy decision, but we had discussions and pre-planning just like in your essay, and I’m feeling fairly positive about it now. We can help around the farm and save money at the same time. It was hard giving up our home and not moving directly to another home, but financially it’s the smartest move we can make, and the in-laws really need to have someone on the premises to help out, even though they’re both still pretty independent (still working!) and even though there two other kids in the area. In an emergency, I don’t think either of them could get the other to a doctor, and I’m not sure how good their first aid knowledge is.

    One of the kids has lived on the second floor for at least the last three generations. A few of my husband’s generation, a couple of the nephews, one niece, and his parents with their young family before them. Separate kitchen and bathroom, so we can spend time together or apart — ideal really, especially for those of us used to having some privacy.

    Some homes have in-law apartments, which can also be a good compromise in that regard.

    Heather G

  21. Seven Trees says:

    Awesome awesome post!

    My partner & I keep scenarios like this at the forefront of our planning for our micro-farm Seven Trees Our kin (enough to populate a mid-sized village) know we have stored food and tools and enough space for people to camp out and grow more food. We also have decent neighbors.

    In the course of operating our blog and discussion forum Green Branch we’ve gotten to know and swap ideas with other alternative-minded ‘steaders and preppers. It’s a necessity to mentally play out scenarios like the ones you mention here. And make sure your household is on board too.

    Anyway, I love your whole blog! It’s so full of information and different ways to get one’s head round the new realities of our future.

  22. homebrewlibrarian says:

    I have been thinking about this situation for a while now and finally broached it with one of my sisters. She is the only sibling of three who is married, has children and owns a home. Myself and my youngest sister are single and living on our own.

    Our parents passed away a few years ago and the only older family member we have living near my sisters is an aunt by marriage. We would, of course, take her in if she needed assistance.

    It was a surprisingly easy conversation. First of all, my family has always gotten along so whether there were elder parents or relatives or siblings or in-laws or whoever, we are able to be around each other for periods of time without feeling the need to flee or strangle anyone. I feel very fortunate for that.

    But here’s the fascinating part. It’s difficult to explain the spiritual nature of my family and its relationships so you’ll just have to do the willing suspension of disbelief thing for a moment. I will say that my father at age 50 felt called to be a priest in the Episcopal church and it was not at all out of the ordinary for him to do so. Nor did the family do anything but completely support him.

    Given that, my youngest sister who is about as in-the-moment as a person can be recently received a call from a fellow she knows well. He told her that a friend of his who had prophetic abilities was having visions that the town she lived in (which is on the Atlantic coast of Florida on a barrier island no less - warning, warning, warning Will Robinson!) was going to suffer terrible destruction. And as with most prophets, he had no idea when this might take place but her friend felt she needed to know about this to get her affairs in order. She called my other sister and asked what she should do…

    No matter what the impetus, my family is starting to circle the wagons. My BIL has been saving up to have stocked away at least a year of his income. They have six more years on their mortgage and have been upping their principle payments. My sister says they will take in anyone but I asked what about the friends of your brother in law or even possibly my ex-husbands and their new families? She needs to consider how far her generosity can extend.

    I live in Alaska and my first line of defense is to see if the friends I have here can gather up and support each other. But it if gets too hard and for too long, I’ll head back to Florida to be with my family. I bring a variety of skills to any group situation so I figure I’ll be welcome pretty much anywhere.

    I am hoping beyond hope that America does not go apocalyptic and life gets truly dangerous. I believe my family can weather an economic depression even if it lasted for a very long time as long as it didn’t get too chaotic. I don’t think any of us think for a minute it will be effortless to live together but we all believe that the success of the family rests on us all. We don’t have to star in our own personal dramas all the time, even if that means listening to a family member tell you to shut up and sit down. I am relieved in some ways because we are very upfront with each other while still respecting each other.

    Living over 3000 miles away from the rest of my family does have some disadvantages. But I am planning for the possibility that I might have to go to them so that it isn’t a shock and surprise if it happens. It’s all I can do.

    In the meantime, I get my ducks in a row. I develop local relationships. I preserve foods. I don’t drive my car except maybe once a week. I ride my bike everywhere. I’m going to begin putting aside a stash of cash in case I have to drive out of Alaska to Florida. What I can do I’ll do. But I am very thankful that I can go to family if I need to.


  23. Anonymous says:

    While there are many good points to this post, I do feel I need to bring something up that I feel has been glossed over. You point to having lived with Eric’s elderly grandparents as proof that this can be done-even if grandma was able to only hold the baby and grandpa able to tell stories, etc. But you did this during a time of relative prosperity-not during energy shortages, ecconomic depression, etc. It would have been, I believe, a whole other thing to have done this during tough times.

    If we eveer do get to such a point as you are fearing, and we are needing to grow most of our food, cut our wood, haul water, whatever, what would be the ramifications of taking in all sorts of elderly infirm relatives or soft and useless friends? If your parent has dementia for instance, it is going to require at least another adult to watch them at all times- thus 2 people not engaged in productive work but requiring food, water and all the rest. If you take in others that have no real skills and are not exactly up to doing any real work that doesn’t require sitting at a computer, are you going to be willing to work all day to keep them fed?

    In your own situation Sharon, you’ve got little ones, and a disabled child- already requiring lots of care. If you were actually needing to produce what your family needed to live on, could you really truly have been able to provide the care that Eric’s grandparents needed at the same time?
    I ask this of you because I do think that while there is much of value in what you’ve said here, you have glossed over some really important issues that perhaps we do need to think about. It’s all well and good to think noble thoughts about rescuing your parents and grandparents and great-aunts and whomever- but if they are all sitting there expecting you to then go out and grow their food, cut the wood for heat, wash the clothes, care for the animals, etc -I don’t think you’ll last long. Being able to tell stories to the kids and maybe hold the baby for a time only goes so far…

    I do think that perhaps this post has created unrealistic expectations and guilt for people who believe that somehow they should want to take their nasty relatives in because they are a “tribe”-yeah right- maybe yours are Sharon but not mine-or care for those who need caring for but it may not be realiztic in fact and just a set-up for burn-out.

  24. Anonymous says:

    There is, IMO, a difference between toxic relations who were abusive, and people we’d just rather not live with.

    As far as some of my extended family concerned, I’m one of those people (and I have to confess, I find them that way too).

    I can’t address the morality of trying to save the life of someone who nearly destroyed you (though I have a feeling that if the abuser is still in control, he or she is certainly going to end up with his or her feet under the table). I just know that if you think you or your children aren’t safe around them, your first duty is to protect yourself and children, not to feed the abuser.

    But however much it gets up my nose when J. put salt on his food before the tastes it, S. can’t refrain from commenting that children need a father, and E. thinks that everything I do as a parent is wrong, I don’t think that justifies my turning them away. I hope they wouldn’t let the fact I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about the need for conservation and planning keep them from offering me shealter when I needed it.

    I don’t know what to do about useless family members, either.



  25. Seven Trees says:

    MEA (and others)

    I think when you have to decide who to turn away it comes down to survival. If you have escaped an abusive situation (as I have) maybe you’ve learned some ahrd lessons. When someone means you harm, blood or any other connection, means nothing. Somewhere in your primal reptilian brain, you need to be able to fire that shotgun or turn the deadbolt when certain people come calling. You have to hone that instinct, because if you don’t, useful, sane, healthy loved ones could suffer and/or die.

    It’s related to that same ‘instinct’ that lets you know the difference between pets and meat animals. Survival. Not always pretty, but something to ponder now, when we have the luxury, rather than the moment some two-legged predator you knew in a past life comes knocking.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I think that it is pretty clear in terms of abusive family members or such as to the acceptability of not bringing them into your home, but then there is the issue of the elderly, infirm, unfit and/or lazy as well as clueless and skill-less be they family or friend. And I do think we are kidding ourselves and setting ourselves up for disaster if we believe we should be noble and take all in need. Maybe I’m cynical but I think that our society here in the US has created a very lazy, out-of-shape and entitled population, most of whom don’t have a clue, whose idea of exercise is looking for the remote. What makes you think they would suddenly change were they taken into your home? The notion that a sedentary and obese population will suddenly “get-it” and willingly be out there all day scything the hay crop and cutting firewood-yeah right. And given the large numbers of such in our population, the odds are most of us have many family members and aquaintances who fit into this mold. I’m not talking about caring temporarily for someone who is injured-say with a broken leg or something-I’m talking about the idea of taking on long-term responsibility for high maintainance people with no way or even desire to “give-back”. Maybe I’m cold-hearted- or maybe I’m just being realistic.

  27. chile says:

    One thing Sharon mentioned briefly was laying down the rules for living in her home. I think that’s a very important part of this whole concept. DH and I have talked about who would be likely to come to us and decided most of our siblings would go to their inlaws for assistance before us. That leaves us with friends, and most of these would be willing to pitch in and work.

    We talked yesterday a bit about rules that would be a condition of living with us, and most of them are very much based on survival, economics, and health. In order to make food supplies last, people would have to be willing to eat what was provided. Bad habits, such as smoking and drinking to excess, would be right out. It’s not that we’d want to be control freaks but that guests will be required to be a hard-working productive part of the household without adding to healthcare costs, short- or long-term.

    What rules would you impose for your guests?

  28. Anonymous says:

    For my family, I think one of the first rules would have to be, learn to let it go. Just becuase someone says they don’t fancy the way the cooked that day, it doesn’t mean they are rejecting you as a person and never liked you etc. and it’s not worth the time, effort, and noise of the ensuing psycho drama. The second one, though, would be learn how to listen when someone tells you something is bothering them. An off hand remark is one thing; saying constantly in front of an adopted child that he “doesn’t look like part of the family,” isn’t either off hard nor constructive. This may sound petty, but it’s wearing to live day in day out with squabbling people.

    I’m less worried about the “don’t work, don’t eat,” because the trouble with most people in my family is that they can’t stop working — they’ll make a sprained joint worse by refusing to rest it and let someone else dig the garden or whatever.

    I think we’d also need strong rules about respect other people’s property and returning borrowed things in good condition, etc. And also up keep of communal property. And a fair bit of you raise your children, I’ll raise mine, since I have very different ideas about what children should read, play with and even wear than many of my relatives by marriage. It’s also complicated because some of them believe that a week in their house,and they’s have had my daughter behaving normally.


  29. ewt says:

    In bug-out bags I use couscous instead of ramen; like ramen it is lightweight and easy to use when only boiling water is available, but it doesn’t take up so much space.

  30. jewishfarmer says:

    You know, every time I write a post about family, I very carefully include repeated references to “biological or chosen” and “I know everyone’s family isn’t like this” (quite a few are in this post if you read it carefully), and every time, I get “but my family isn’t like this - you are assuming too much.”

    I’ve sort of given up worrying about this - no matter how many times I say that family isn’t necessarily biological family, and that some families really are that awful, a certain number of people are going to ignore that part and get outraged that what I say doesn’t apply to them. Ah well.

    I know not everyone has either close friends who operate like family or family itself, but I admit, if I could prepare for hard times in only one way, it would be to build deep relationships with people who care about me. Personally, I can’t imagine going into difficult times without family, honorary or biological.


  31. jewishfarmer says:

    Re: Pumpkin - I love it in baked goods (biscuits, bread, etc…), made into soup (pumpkin tomato), added to rice for risotto, dehydrated into pumpkin leather - heck, I like pumpkin every which way.

    Sasha, I know what you mean about the cultural pressure against moving in together. It is frustrating.

    As for gun toting neighbors, why would I worry about them? My neighbors overwhelmingly have big gardens (5 out of 7 houses on my mile-long road), hunt (5 out of 7 homes - almost everyone but us), have fruit trees or orchards (6 out of 7), put up food (4 out of 7), store emergency food (3 out of 7) and talk about preparedness. Sure, they’ll be coming over - but not to shoot me and take my food
    ;-) . Plus, that’s why I want to store so much - so I can *share.*


    And thanks, Anonymous, for the electric blanket tip - I’ve still got two from DH’s grandparents sitting in my attic - surgery scheduled!


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