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Should you take in family?

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  • During tough economic times, some knock on family's door
  • "Visiting" family should do own laundry, clean up after themselves
  • Relatives should discuss everything, plan an exit strategy
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By Maureen Salamon
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(LifeWire) -- Introductions were a hasty formality when Christopher Wiggins and his family arrived, tousled and tired, at a Greyhound station in Florida in March. Wiggins' wife and three of their kids weren't merely meeting his aunt and uncle; they would be living with them indefinitely.

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Expert advises the combined families to talk often and plan an exit strategy.

Evicted from their New York apartment after failing to comply with the terms of a rent-subsidy program, Wiggins and his wife, Shavone Burke, now share a single bedroom in his relatives' townhouse with their three small children and what's left of their possessions -- a few suitcases of clothes and some of the kids' toys.

"If it wasn't for my aunt and uncle, we'd be in a really bad situation," says Wiggins, 25, a former security guard who is job hunting in Tampa. "Nobody else would have put us up like this."

With rising foreclosure rates and unemployment claims at the highest level since Hurricane Katrina, many other American families could find themselves in similar straits in the months ahead. And while no one relishes the situation -- "I haven't slept in the same bed with my wife in about a month," Wiggins says -- a host family needs to dig especially deep, in both pocket and spirit.

If family lands on your doorstep, what do you do?

Some are reluctant

When Anita L. Allen was young, she lived in her great-grandmother's home with her mother and brother while her father served in the military. But the ethics expert, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, doesn't think such a family model is necessarily desirable.

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"I'm reluctant to see the value develop that says we have to take in relatives in need," says Allen, a regular contributor to the "What Do I Do Now?" column in "O, The Oprah Magazine."

"When we're asked to share our space, we're doing a lot more than sharing space," she says. "We're not just taking people in, but modifying our lives along the most intimately personal dimensions."

Indeed, not all relatives are eager to make such sacrifices. January Iszema said her mother wasn't happy when her 30-year-old daughter moved into her one-bedroom apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, in September with her two young sons and 13-year-old sister, of whom she has custody.

"She doesn't really want us there," says Iszema, who lost her job at a Boston-based student loan company after missing too much work because of illness. "It's not a good situation. We're very overcrowded."

'No Hesitation'

For others, that's just what you do when you're family.

"There was no hesitation," says Lavada Lyons, of Tampa. Her three grandsons have been living in a camper in her backyard with their mother -- Lyons' son's former girlfriend -- since the four were evicted in March from their apartment in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, after the mother was laid off from her job as a secretary for an auto mechanic.

"I'm giving up my space so she can have a place to live. I can help watch the grandkids and keep an eye on her," Lyons says.

But even when relatives are graciously welcomed, tensions may erupt as the novelty of the living arrangement evaporates.

"After a couple of months, it kind of wears thin," says Tony Contrada, a family therapist near Boulder, Colorado, who equates losing a home with other types of major loss and counsels clients accordingly, helping them through shock and grief before brainstorming for solutions.

"Offering up your home, at least initially, may be something you want to do, but there can be a degree of resentment," Contrada says. In some cases, he says, the best way to help may be offering to collaborate on finding other options.

Ways to make it work

How can family members on both sides smooth the situation?

Be a good guest. Do your own laundry, wash your own dishes and pick up after yourself. Be willing to help with household chores or run errands. Just because relatives have opened their home to you doesn't mean they're going to be your maid service.

Talk early and often. Family therapists advise honest communication to keep relationships intact and thriving long after the line for the bathroom disappears.

"The biggest mistake they can make is what I call the no-talk rule," says Leonard Felder, Ph.D., a counselor in West Los Angeles and the author of 10 books, including "When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People."

"They don't want to admit how hard this is, or seem ungrateful or un-hostlike, but that's the invitation to disaster," Felder says. "They need to have a preventive, proactive conversation, which changes the whole tone from frozen no-talk to 'we're teammates and we want this to work.'"

Together, plan an exit strategy. If people feel like the arrangement is permanent, Felder says, "they start to get claustrophobic and overreact to every small slight."

Know you're not alone. "People feel ashamed because they feel they're the only ones who've had to ask for things, or offer things," Felder says. "They need to remember that this is happening to hundreds of thousands of people all over the country -- and these are all good people, and people try to bring out the best in bad circumstances."

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LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Maureen Salamon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.

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