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With Three Generations Under One Roof, Pandemic Risks Multiply

The moment Alexander Golinelli calls every evening to say he's almost home, his wife, Claudia Golinelli, springs into action.

She brings a clean T-shirt, a clean pair of shorts and flip-flops to the garage for her husband, whose work as an electrician potentially exposes him to the coronavirus while he's in people's homes and businesses. 

Alexander Golinelli parks his car, changes into clean clothes, leaves his dirty work shirt and jeans in the garage, and goes straight to the shower.

It’s a carefully crafted routine, designed to keep everyone in their home from getting sick — especially Claudia Golinelli’s 82-year-old mother, Luz de María González, who has Alzheimer's disease.

“We try to take care of each other,” said Claudia Golinelli, a Salvadoran who’s lived for 16 years in the United States and in Garland since 2006. “We avoid coming into the house with shoes. Outside I have a bucket with a mix of chlorine, vinegar and water. Everyone that comes in needs to spray themselves.”

Having multiple generations of one family in a single household has long brought financial benefits to low-income Texans who can save money on rent, utilities, and child and elderly care. But during the COVID-19 crisis, it is also a challenge: At-risk seniors have to share common spaces with relatives who are essential workers needing income to pay the bills and kids who have been home-schooled for more than two months.

“Brown and black folks tend to live in intergenerational households. So young people get infected, they seem to be OK, but grandparents in that household won’t be as lucky,” said immunologist James Hildreth, from the Meharry Medical College, to The Wall Street Journal.

According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of Asian Americans, 27% of Hispanics and 26% of African Americans live in multigenerational households. That compares with 16% of white non-Hispanic people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that's one reason — along with lack of access to health care and historical socioeconomic disadvantages — why people of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

“This is something that we should talk more about because it does affect a significant portion of the population," said Sung S. Park, research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Multigenerational households are not uncommon at all.”

A Pew Research Center analysis done after the Great Recession showed that 25.5% of Hispanic households that weren't multigenerational lived in poverty. But only 16% of Hispanic households that were multigenerational were below the poverty line.

“You have more mouths to feed, but offsetting that there’s extra people working,” said Richard Fry, senior researcher at Pew Research Center. “At least back in the Great Recession, this living arrangement was boosting economic welfare.”

But multigenerational households have increased across all races and ethnicities since the 1980s, and especially since the Great Recession. About 5.8% of all Texas households are multigenerational, which is the third-highest rate in the United States. Experts believe that the percentage will increase given the severe economic downturn that has come with the COVID-19 crisis.

“This is a form of private safety net. When the market goes down and people are having trouble getting work, this is one of the adjustments that they do,” Fry said. “Clearly the pandemic has had a devastating effect on the labor market. We expect that we might see more multigenerational living after this.”

González and her husband moved in with their daughter's family in 2012.

“For me, it’s a matter of gratitude," Claudia Golinelli said. "I value all the sacrifice that she did for us."

After González's husband died in 2016, she experienced depression and eventually developed symptoms of Alzheimer's. A year ago, the family had to move her bedroom to the dining room in the first floor of the house because she couldn’t go up the stairs. During the pandemic, her condition has deteriorated. She sometimes tries to leave home, and she loses track of time.

“I’m very afraid for her,” said Claudia Golinelli. “Every time she coughs or sneezes, I worry about her having coronavirus.”

After Alexander Golinelli’s shower each night, the family reunites for dinner. Occasionally there are pupusas, and there are always beans at the table where everyone — including 13-year-old Francesca Golinelli and 12-year-old Alessandro Golinelli — shares food.

Before González got sick, she would help around the house and with the kids. But as her Alzheimer's progressed, that became impossible, and Claudia Golinelli had to quit her job to care for her mother.

“At some point with my brother, we paid someone to help us taking care of her,” Claudia Golinelli said. “But that person made three times what I made, and she wouldn’t do any of the housework. I just couldn’t pay it.”

Work has definitely been slower for Alexander Golinelli, and Claudia Golinelli has been limiting the food she buys.

“Since the moment we started the quarantine, I told my kids that we weren’t going to spend any extra cent,” Claudia Golinelli said. “We need to save in case Dad stops working. We are going to eat beans and rice. And I bought cheese and hot dogs so that they don’t get bored.”

Alexander Golinelli’s work as an electrician has always been considered an essential job, so he's been going out around 7 a.m. to complete as many jobs as he can.

“Particularly in some of these lower-wage jobs, those people cannot call out sick if they're not going to get paid. And they still have to pay their bills,” Park said. “And so that might also increase the likelihood that they go to work and potentially expose other family members if they come home.”

Like many American families, the Golinellis don’t have enough savings to work less.

“My husband risks too much,” Claudia Golinelli said. She’s worried about what the family would do if he gets sick.

For now, Claudia Golinelli is trying to keep her mother active.

“Yesterday we started making face masks. And I saw her motivated. I know that no one else could do this for her,” she said. “These activities give her life and, I hope, will keep her healthy.”

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Juan Pablo Garnham reports on urban affairs for the Texas Tribune and is based in Dallas. In the past, he worked as senior producer for the podcast In The Thick, editor of CityLab Latino and City Hall reporter for El Diario in New York. He has also taught at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He is from Santiago, Chile. Read more about Juan Pablo.