Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

‘Granny Pods’ Offer a Tiny Home Alternative for Senior Citizens

By Leon Kaye

Wondering where you may live when you are well past retirement age? Virginia-based MEDCottage says it has a potential solution: the “granny pod,” which can best be described as a “tiny house” for senior citizens, an alternative to assisted living.

We don’t know if urban areas will truly become “smart cities,” but one thing is for certain: they are definitely aging. Currently Americans aged 65 or over are about 15 percent of the nation’s population. That ratio will increase to 20 percent, or from about 50 million to 70 million senior citizens, between now and 2030 as the tail end of the baby boom generation enters retirement age.

This demographic shift is already posing plenty of challenges to American society, from health care to pensions to affordable housing for a much larger elderly population. Plus, we’re living longer: Pew Research Center projects that the number of centenarians (people 100 years of age or older) will increase 800 percent by 2030.

So where are our parents, and then us, going to live? One massive problem is what occurs to people as their health and mobility decline. The industries that cover “rehab centers” or “skilled nursing facilities” are certainly profitable, though the reality of these places is a far cry from their literal description. If you think you want, or will need, to live in a pleasant retirement community or assisted living complex as you enter those sunset years, you had better start saving now: currently the average monthly price is about $4,500, though better places will cost more; add the services needed for memory care, and that monthly fee will spike higher.

MedCottage says its options are a far more affordable and desirable alternative to nursing homes. Its marquee product, the CottageClassic (though still referred to as the “granny pod”) is a modular home that can be assembled in one’s backyard. Think of it as a tiny home but also decked out with smart devices that make living in one far more elderly-friendly.

Knee-high lights prevent residents from tripping over rugs or objects on the floor; a computerized system would remind the resident to take those meds and offering games and movies; web cams at ankle height can alert loved ones if something is amiss, yet ensure privacy; and in extreme cases, a lift could even move the occupant from bed to bathroom, negating the need for a 24/7 caregiver. Modern high-tech gizmos are complemented with old school safety features such as hand railings and padded floors for joint comfort. Covering less than 300 square feet, each CottageClass has a bedroom flanked by a small kitchen and bathroom.

For now, this “granny pod” is available only in the state of Virginia - though the company also sells plans if somebody wants to attempt to build one on his or her own. MedCottage says they can be easily installed in a backyard, then connected to a property’s sewer and water lines.

The gut reaction of some may be, “great, just warehouse the parents or in-laws in the backyard.” The granny pod does have some downsides. Entrants to these homes are immediately greeted by the sight of the bed. With little room for anything else but a small sofa and guest bed in the event a home healthcare worker is needed overnight, there is no room for entertaining. Nevertheless, the appeal of having that loved one nearby could be an easy decision for many families. Furthermore, the reality is that many retirement and assisted living centers are far from relatives’ homes, as they are usually in areas where the cost of land and construction is cheaper than in city centers.

The problem with the scaling up of granny pods, of course, is that as more suburban developments are managed by homeowner associations (HOAs), families are going to find it almost impossible to plunk one of these homes in their backyards. In addition, many cities and towns also have restrictive zoning laws, or lengthy wait times for building permits. On that point, MedCottage says it offers a couple alternatives. But housing a parent in the garage or in an RV could be a non-starter for many families.

The “Living Roo” purports to be a happy home that can be constructed within a two-car garage, and is complete with framed high-definition monitors that give the appearance of a gazing out a window. And the “Mother Ship,” which MedCottage defines as “zoning soft,” is a housing option designed on an RV platform that can be leased short- or long-term, and can also be customized for either extended care or for short-term rehabilitation care.

For many of us, these options hardly seem ideal. But give MedCottage credit for trying to offer an alternative to expensive elder care. Many citizens are currently struggling with the high cost of living in many cities. We are going to face even a bigger shock a few decades down the road, when the vast majority of us will be earning far less, yet will need more services if we will maintain any semblance of a quality of life. At a minimum, MedCottage should send citizens and community leaders the message that we need to be more creative as we figure out how to house and comfort an increasingly older population.

Image credits: MedCottage/Facebook

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye