Alternative Senior Housing: My Mother Lives in the Backyard

Categories: Tiny House


Portable elderly housing or “Granny Pods” are an affordable alternative to nursing homes and can be used for rehabilitation or long-term care.

The “Granny Pod” is a modular senior housing unit providing 24 hour monitoring next to a senior caregiver's home. The senior housing unit contains a sleeping, bathing, cooking, and living area. Units are transported and installed in the back yard similar to a mobile home.

If that’s your answer to queries about where your elderly mother lives, you and your mom are part of one solution for the looming problem of how to care for America’s rapidly aging population, which is growing at the rate of some 1.7 million seniors each year.

Maybe your mother lives in a portable self-contained medical cottage in your backyard. Dubbed “Granny Pods,” these pre-fabricated and pre-equipped medical cottages can be installed in a backyard behind a caregiver’s home, zoning laws permitting, and hooked up to the existing sewer, water and power lines.

Though some critics see granny pods as little more than storage containers for the elderly, over time these increasingly sophisticated medical cottages have become viewed as viable alternatives to expensive long-term care facilities, one that keeps aging seniors close to families while offering supervision and care when needed, along with the independence seniors desire.

The prototype “granny pod” units cost up to $125,000 installed, have standard safety features like hand railings, defibrillators and first aid supplies, lighted floorboards and a soft floor to minimize damage from falls.

The high tech units are also equipped with interactive video and devices that monitor vital signs, like blood pressure and blood glucose, and transmit real time readings to caregivers and physicians. Cameras at floor level and sensors alert caregivers to a fall, the toilet seat records weight and temperature, a hammock-like chair lift transports a resident from bed-to-bathroom, and a computer reminds residents when it is time to take medications.

Better Care for Seniors

The Reverend Kenneth Dupin, a Methodist minister from Salem, VA, gets credit for the Granny Pod concept, though that’s not what he called the units. (According to the Washington Post, credit for that goes to a Fairfax County supervisor who equated the pods to storage containers.)

As the story goes, after visiting a depressed parishioner whose family had moved her to a nursing home, Rev. Dupin decided America should do better for its aging population. He founded a company, N2Care, and, working with Virginia Tech Research Center in Blacksburg, VA, designed the MEDCottage, now known as the granny pod.

Though several versions now exist, the basic MEDCottage is about 12 by 24 feet, or the size of a master bedroom, has vinyl siding, double French doors (to accommodate a wheelchair and hospital equipment) and looks like a small bungalow. Inside, it resembles a hotel suite, with living space, small kitchen and bathroom.

Though the initial cost may seem steep, proponents point out that nursing home care is also expensive, costing upwards of $50,000 a year for a semi-private room, depending on location, and the company will buy back the units when no longer needed.

Granny pods and other auxiliary dwelling units, or ADUs, offer a blend of independence and 24/7 caregiving, plus closeness to family and friends instead of isolation in a distant nursing home.

Helping Meet the Care Need

More practically, these modular medical care units may be essential to providing care for the soaring numbers of seniors, a number the Census Bureau predicts will more than double from 35 million in 2000 to more than 70 million by 2030.

Since Genworth, a firm specializing in long-term care and life insurance, predicts that at least 70 percent of the nation’s elderly will require long-term care at some time in their lives, the nation’s current 15,700 long-term care facilities may not be sufficient to meet the need. Something more is needed and these self-contained medical units could meet that need.

The MEDCottage, the original granny pod, may have received the most publicity, but as the auxiliary care unit idea has caught on, others have entered the field. Among the other versions are ASAPs, or Architectural Solutions for Aging Populations, developed by an architectural firm in San Francisco. Fab Cab in Seattle also has a pre-fabricated version, as do PALS (Practical Assisted Living Solutions) in Rockfall, Conn., and ECHOAs or Elderly Cottage Housing Opportunity Additions.


Local zoning laws have stalled the growth of the “granny pod” movement in some parts of the country. In 2010, Virginia amended state zoning laws to permit the addition of a temporary health care structure behind an existing home, but with the stipulation that a physician documented the medical need. Other states, including California and New York, followed. (If you are not sure about your area, check with your local agency on aging.)

Yet the prefabricated units still encounter some opposition, especially from potential neighbors who worry about overcrowding, and warn that adding seniors and disabled residents will change the character of a neighborhood, increase traffic, and affect property values. Too, some people simply don’t like the idea of “warehousing” the elderly in a self-contained unit, even one that is close to family and friends.

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