Debbie Rohr lives with her husband and twin teenage sons in a well-tended three-bedroom home in Salinas.
The ranch-style house has a spacious kitchen that looks out on a yard filled with rosebushes. It’s a modest but comfortable house, the type that Rohr, 52, pictured for herself at this stage of life.
She just never imagined that it would be her childhood home, a return to a bedroom where she once hung posters of Olivia Newton-John and curled up with her beloved Mrs. Beasley doll.
Driven by economic necessity — Rohr has been chronically unemployed and her husband lost his job last year — she moved her family back home with her 77-year-old mother.
At a time when the still sluggish economy has sent a flood of jobless young adults back home, older people are quietly moving in with their parents at twice the rate of their younger counterparts.
For seven years through 2012, the number of Californians aged 50 to 64 who live in their parents’ homes swelled 67.6% to about 194,000, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.
The jump is almost exclusively the result of financial hardship caused by the recession rather than for other reasons, such as the need to care for aging parents, said Steven P. Wallace, a UCLA professor of public health who crunched the data.
“The numbers are pretty amazing,” Wallace said. “It’s an age group that you normally think of as pretty financially stable. They’re mid-career. They may be thinking ahead toward retirement. They’ve got a nest egg going. And then all of a sudden you see this huge push back into their parents’ homes.”
Many more young adults live with their parents than those in their 50s and early 60s live with theirs. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 1.6 million Californians have taken up residence in their childhood bedrooms, according to the data.
Though that’s a 33% jump from 2006, the pace is half that of the 50 to 64 age group.
The surge in middle-aged people moving in with parents reflects the grim economic reality that has taken hold in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
Long-term unemployment is especially acute for older people. The number of Americans 55 and older who have been out of work for a year or more was 617,000 at the end of December, a fivefold jump from the end of 2007 when the recession hit, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As with Rohr, those in their 50s move in only as a last resort. Many have exhausted savings. Some have jobs but can’t shoulder soaring rents in areas such as Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Whatever the cause, moving in with Mom and Dad exacts a bruising emotional toll. Even asking to move the family in was difficult for Rohr.
“I said ‘Mom, I’m so sorry but I don’t know what to do,’” she said. “I dreaded it. If it wasn’t for my boys I wouldn’t have done it. I would have lived in my car.”
Jenny Chung Mejia knows how tough it can be. As a public policy consultant at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Los Angeles, she helps people and communities regain their economic health.
“It’s unexpected vulnerability at this point in your life,” she said. “When you’re supposed to be the provider, sort of the rock for yourself and your family and maybe your parents, the table just gets turned on you and the rug gets pulled out from under you.”
That’s what happened to Janine Rosales, who moved into her mother’s San Francisco home two years ago after a career of mostly low-paying jobs left her unable to afford the city’s towering rents.
For Rosales, 53, it represented a personal defeat, an unofficial marker of unmet goals in life.
“I sit here sometimes and I see baby pictures of myself and my teenage years and remember all the dreams I had,” Rosales said. “I never thought I’d end up where I am.”
Cohabitation also brings a slew of more mundane challenges.
Rosales’ mother goes to bed at 7 p.m. and, as she did when Rosales was a child, tells her daughter to do the same.
“I’m being treated like a child, being told when to turn off the lights and when to go to sleep,” Rosales said.
The situation is also trying on elderly parents.
They feel the anxiety afflicting their children. Aging people on fixed incomes also worry that the extra money they spend on utilities or food will drain their own limited retirement savings.
“When I use up all of my money, who’s going to help me?” said Rohr’s mother, Penny Goulart.
After years of living by herself, the arrival of her daughter’s family threw off the daily rhythms of Goulart’s carefully ordered life.
“I know it’s very difficult on them because they feel like they’re invading my space,” Goulart said. “But from my standpoint, I’ve had years of peace and quiet and I like my house in a certain way. Everything in its place. All neat and clean, and then four people move in. There’s more laundry and more drama.”
Goulart sleeps in one of the three bedrooms and uses a second bedroom as her office, Rohr said.
Rohr, her husband and twin 16-year-old boys squeeze into the third bedroom. The boys sleep in the bed, and Rohr and her husband spread blankets on the floor for themselves.
As Rohr has learned, even families that generally get along suffer tension.
When the family moved in in October, Goulart initially didn’t allow Rohr’s husband, Ron, to sleep in the home. He spent nights in his car on the street.
“I come from an era when a man takes care of his family first and foremost,” Goulart said. “My thought was ‘This is your family. You’re the head of the household and you should be supporting them.’”
Rohr, however, thought her mother was being cruel. “She would not let him come in the home at all,” Rohr said. “Not to use the restroom. Nothing.”
After Ron Rohr landed a temporary job, Goulart allowed him back in the house. “I felt like ‘OK, he’s working. He needs a comfortable bed to sleep in,’” Goulart said. “I’m not hardhearted.”
Goulart recently left to visit other family members, and Rohr said her mother asked her to move out when she returns in three weeks.
As she has for months, Rohr is applying frantically for jobs. She’s willing to do anything but has had no luck.
“It’s really hard mentally,” Rohr said. “You feel kind of helpless, that you can’t provide for your family anymore and you have to move back home to Mom’s house.”