After Millie Donahue’s husband died from Alzheimer’s disease, her health began to decline. She was 80 years old and had congestive heart failure combined with failing kidneys. The doctors told family there was nothing more that could be done. They recommended Millie enter hospice care.
Instead, her family took her in. “I brought her into my house for what I thought was the last three months of her life,” says daughter Meg Donahue, founder of MamaSezz.com. “We renovated a tiny [11′ x 22′] apartment in our detached garage that includes a bathroom, small kitchen area, sleeping nook, and living room so mom could be around family.”
Then something miraculous happened. Millie gradually got better, and within six months she could walk around her little apartment and the family’s driveway.
Today Millie is a thriving 88-year-old living in the tiny backyard house (what some call a “granny pod”) her family renovated for her during her illness.
What is a granny pod, exactly? “A granny pod is a small home, typically between 300 to 500 square feet. It is situated on the same home property of whomever will be looking after the occupant,” says Sophie Kaemmerle, neighborhood expert for NeighborWho. “These homes have a bedroom/living room, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. Most pods are equipped with the following: wide doorways allowing easy access for a wheelchair; even flooring (making navigation easy); and open floor plans. Other smart features available include a system that allows the occupant to remotely or automatically control the door locks, HVAC, lighting, and audio-visual equipment. For those needing more advanced medical care, the ‘MedCottage‘ features a virtual system that can track one’s blood pressure, glucose levels, heart rate, and blood gases, and share that information with the occupant’s family and physician. The system is also equipped to verbally remind the occupant to take their medications.”
Questionable nickname aside, many see these tiny granny pods as a creative caregiving solution that has wide-reaching benefits to both elderly and younger family members. “We often hear about the ‘sandwich generation’ of adults—especially women—who are balancing the demands of caring for their own children while also caring for aging parents,” says Megan Carolan, director of policy research at the Institute for Child Success. “By having grandma and grandpa move into a granny pod out back, they enjoy the benefits of independent living while still having close, likely daily, contact with their adult children and grandchildren, which has social-emotional benefits for these adults.”
There are perks for the the youngest set, too, adds Carolan. “Children also benefit from having a grandparent nearby, as a friend, caregiver, and partner in play, and parents may be able to reduce some of the stress on their own scheduling or the financial pressures of paid childcare by having grandparents so close to pitch in.”
Another perk of granny pods is that they can improve property values, says Brian Davis, co-founder of SparkRental. “Many buyers like the idea of having a detached extra living space, whether to rent out as an income suite, to house guests, or to use as a granny pod of their own,” he says. “Nursing home expenses, in contrast, are simply spent money. They can be extremely expensive, with recurring costs, rather than the one-time purchase of a prefab granny pod.”
Millie and her family agree that granny pods offer all of those perks. “Getting old can be lonely, ” says Meg Donahue. “Mom has her own life and friends, but also has the security of daily interactions with family. Plus, Mom doesn’t have the worry or financial burden of paying for nursing care. Even if we needed to bring in nursing care, it is less expensive than living in a nursing home.”
The trouble is, like other forms of tiny living, there are very real barriers to entry. “Many communities sharply regulate these accessory dwelling units (ADUs),” says Carolan. Some communities impose strict regulations, like requiring off-street parking for each unit, and others ban them completely.
Still, advocates are hopeful as cities and government seek solutions to the growing housing crisis. “By 2020, accessory dwelling units are expected to increase in all U.S. cities, says Kaemmerle. “L.A. went from issuing 142 ADU permits in 2016 to issuing nearly 2,000 in 2017.”
If you’re interested in building your own granny pod (or buying a prefab model home to put on your property), be sure to check local zoning regulations first. It’s also smart to consult with a realtor to ensure your investment will see a return in your area.
More on Tiny House Living: