If your house isn't big enough to accommodate your aging parent or if a senior living community is out of the question, an alternative known as a "granny pod" – a tiny house in your backyard -- may be a solution worth considering.
"Most people try to fit a living space for an aging person in their home, but the issue that always comes up is how to make the living quarters from the rest of the family separate, since most adult children doing the caregiving also have children of their own," says home accessibility consultant and architectural designer Michael Saunders, who works with Toronto-based families to adapt their homes for multi-generational living.
"What ends up happening a lot is that the space ends up being a basement apartment, which isn't ideal," Saunders adds.
Saunders says granny pods, also known as MEDCottages or guesthouses, are a useful and relatively low-cost solution that gives aging parents their own space while allowing adult children to easily provide necessary assistance.
Designed by a Blacksburg, Virginia-based company along with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the pre-fabricated, portable homes are typically installed in the caregiver's backyard.
While the homes range in size, a typical granny pod is about 12 by 24 feet and includes a living space, kitchen and bathroom. Costing anywhere from $85,000 to $125,000, these homes tend to resemble a miniature bungalow from the outside with vinyl siding and double French doors that allow access for hospital beds and other necessary equipment. They also come stocked with medical supplies and safety features designed with aging adults in mind, such as the following.
- Hand railings
- Lighted floorboards
- Soft floors
- First aid supplies
- Video devices that inform caregivers and doctors about vital signs, among other important information.
"The most common difficulty I find with granny pods is complying with a municipality's zoning by-laws. As these are a relatively new phenomenon, they aren't explicitly covered in most by-laws, and are thus more likely to fall under 'accessory structures,' which may or may not be permitted, and may or may not include habitable space," Saunders notes.
Still, he says, it's best to approach your city officials and let them know what your intentions are for the home. "Some people are afraid to go to their municipality, but if you explain that it's for an aging parent and that you’re not putting a house on the property to rent it out, they'll be willing to work with you," he says.
Before making the purchase, Saunders advises considering whether your yard has enough space and if it's flat enough to hold the structure. Climate also plays a role. "If it snows a lot, you'll have to build a path to get the person out," says Saunders.
Even with all that granny pods have to offer, some believe the cons outweigh the pros.
"Depending on the granny in question, a person's needs can change profoundly very quickly. So while you might think 'I'll deck out this little cool prefab room and my parent could be happy here for years' if you're really lucky that could be the case. But if you're like most of us as we age, a person's condition doesn't stay stable for any period of time and the likelihood that they'd outgrow the environment that you've created for them is high," says Tracey Lawrence, founder of Grand Family Planning which helps families find solutions for aging parents.
Lawrence adds that tiny homes only provide the “where.” You'll still need to consider access to caregivers, doctors, and medications for your loved one. And if you're comparing the cost of a tiny home to typical assisted living or nursing home costs, she says the price of care encompasses much more than where you live.
"It's about all the resources, such as meals, people who evaluate your loved one, physical therapists, activities that help to enhance the person's quality of life,” she says. “You'll have to have somebody who is going to come in and care for your loved one if it's not you, and if it is you, how realistic is that?"
Lawrence draws on her personal experience of losing both her parents to dementia. Her father passed away within a year of being diagnosed, but her mother lived for several years, living on her own at first, then in assisted living, then with Lawrence and her husband.
"That worked out for a while until she had a psychotic break and we had to hire caregivers to come into my home and help manager her care. In time, living in my home was no longer practical because she was falling and I needed her to be watched more carefully 24/7… I finally settled in a group home which was a small setting that was equipped to handle her behaviors," says Lawrence.
It’s important to remember that if at some point your loved one can no longer live in the granny pod or once he or she passes away, you're left with the home, she notes.
"It's an impractical use because I would imagine the value would go down significantly and for the next user it'd have to be reconfigured completely,” says Lawrence. “The only time I can see something like these having value is if you could lease the home and when your loved one no longer needs it, the granny pod is returned."