The Not-So-Empty Nest

July 10, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Sandra and Gary Davis learned from their parents’ mistakes — and their own. As Gary’s parents grew older, they began to need help around their three-story Grand Rapids house. Gary and Sandra would stop by to help with household tasks, especially as Gary’s mother’s Alzheimer’s disease progressed. Living on their own was becoming impossible.

“I’d sit with (my mother-in-law) to remind her to keep eating,” said Sandra Davis. “It got to the point that she couldn’t even use the microwave, even if we posted instructions.”

Despite the Davises’ insistence, the parents would not convert a main-floor family room into a bedroom for themselves. Sandra said they worried that making alterations to their home would increase their property taxes.

“We did convince them to make some modifications, which amounted to some additional railings on the back concrete steps, because she had fallen, actually enough to knock herself out,” said Davis.

They also moved the washing machine and dryer to a main-floor closet, but still wouldn’t build the main-floor bedroom. When it became too difficult for them to ascend the stairs to their second-story bedroom, they ended up sleeping on the living room couches.

“They lived in circumstances they chose to be in, but certainly not what most of us would consider to be comfortable or reasonable,” she said.

Eventually, the family convinced Gary’s parents to move into a senior apartment. Gary’s father died shortly thereafter. Sandra believes that the shock of the move was simply too much for him.

“The major change of environment probably contributed to his demise. It didn’t kill him, but it made his life even less than it was when he was living in the circumstances that he chose,” she said. “And I think that strongly encouraging them to make that move was not my better choice.”

Inspired by these lessons learned from caring for his parents, Gary, 69, and Sandra, 63, decided to build a home where they would spend their retirement in a way that could adapt to the realities of growing older. Sandra, who is a planner for the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan, also incorporated her work experiences into the process.

The home, built in 1994, has an open, accessible design that can easily accommodate wheelchairs, walkers or other assistive equipment. The walk-out basement can be converted into living space for caregivers if necessary. Stairways have tread-level lighting for better visibility. Walls are reinforced where hand rails might be added in the future. There is a ramped entry.

Because these features are part of the original design, they did not add to the construction cost.

“And everything you do to make a house more accessible is great fun for everyone else,” she said. “When we moved our baby grand piano in? No problem.”

Inviting aging parents to move in with their adult children — or vice versa, as the Davises may someday do — often provides a practical alternative to placing them in a long-term care facility. But most homes don’t have the forethought in design that the Davises enjoy. As such, finding space for a loved one can become an issue.

Some families make do with spare bedrooms or other ad-hoc living space. Others convert garages or basements, or add new wings to their home. However, by their very nature, these arrangements are temporary. After the elder relative’s death, a newly constructed apartment may not have much use for the rest of the family. The Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity is one option that satisfies this housing need, without affecting the long-term usefulness of the family home.

ECHO units are small, self-contained manufactured homes that are set up on a long-term, temporary basis alongside permanent homes. The advantages of this type of arrangement are obvious. Because they’re prefabricated, an ECHO can be set up in a matter of days, with much less intrusion on the inhabitants of the main home. And, because they’re portable, they can be taken away when they’re no longer needed.

The cost can also be attractive. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, typical purchase and installation of an ECHO unit is less than $25,000. However, in several demonstration projects throughout the country, HUD found those costs to be higher — between $35,000 and $80,000. For comparison’s sake, assisted living facilities fall into that same range for one year’s housing, according to AARP.

The portability and manufactured nature of the units may make them attractive to would-be host families, but those are also among the biggest downfalls of ECHOs. Zoning regulations in many areas (especially urban and suburban settings) don’t allow for any manufactured housing to be installed. Even if zoning variances are available, ECHOs might prove unpopular with neighbors.

“ADUs (accessory dwelling units) often cause ‘not-in-my-backyard’ backlash because of a perceived threat to property values,” read the HUD report. “ECHO unit housing might even project the image of transience because of the temporary nature of the structures.”

Overcoming those misgivings has proven difficult for many jurisdictions. Building and zoning officials who responded to an informal survey of Kent County’s zoning ordinances said that ECHO units would not be acceptable in their municipalities.

ADUs, otherwise known as mother-in-law apartments or “granny flats,” may or may not pose problems with zoning and building codes, depending on their intended use. In some parts of the country — especially on the West Coast — many homeowners are choosing to build secondary living units to house elderly and infirm family members, with the possibility of using the space as a rental property in the future. In areas with inflated housing prices, these efforts are embraced as a means of providing market-rate rental units in an otherwise unaffordable market. However, many communities don’t allow secondary rental units in areas that are zoned for single-family residential use.

Some communities have made exceptions. Santa Cruz, Calif., for example, allows homeowners to apply for a variance allowing them to build rental units (or elder housing units that will later become rentals), but only if the rent is restricted to a level deemed affordable by the city.

West Michigan building officials who responded to a query from the Business Journal said that their municipalities would not grant zoning variances to allow this kind of rental housing. ADUs built for the express purpose of housing family members, however, would not present a problem.

Construction concerns aside, caring for an elderly parent is not always easy on the family. Sandra Davis took that into consideration in designing her home.

“I tried very hard to create an environment where I can remain as long as possible, but with as little burden to other persons as I can conceive of,” she said. She feels that she and her husband have done their part.

“Now my children, who are in their 30s and 40s, are thinking about how they can take care of us as we get older, and also plan for their own lives.”    

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