Senior living, Tiny house style

Recent discussions with my mom regarding some of the issues confronting her as she ages and loses more and more of her mobility has caused me to reflect on some of the opportunities inherent in tiny houses as a solution to an aging baby boomer population.

To give a bit of background, my mom is one of my inspirations in life. She has always been a bit of the black sheep of the family, a non-conformist who prefers to blaze her own path, a true Mother-Earth type hippie. She tried the traditional route, working as a legal secretary and then an executive secretary (this was before it became politically correct to refer to them as executive assistants), but struck out on her own.

As a single mom, she started a business growing, installing, and maintaining live plants in businesses and restaurants in the Nashville TN area. She worked long hours, grew her business, and ultimately was a victim of her own success. She had used a small business loan as start up capital, with a variable interest rate that, through no fault of her own, skyrocketed to a rate over 20% by the spring of 1980. She had just finished her best year ever, pulling in more clients and more revenues than ever before, only to have it all disappear into paying the interest on her loan. Exhausted and discouraged, she became another statistic, a small business that went under due to the national fiscal policies.

A few years later, she decided to follow one of her dreams, and homesteaded a small piece of property in the woods up in the backwaters of a lake, building her own house one room at a time, raising chickens and planting a garden as she built a life for her and my sisters in the woods. She started a new business, growing seedlings and cuttings to supply local nurseries on a wholesale basis. She never made enough to not be considered poor, yet she had a rich life.

As she has aged, she no longer recovers as quickly from some of the bumps and bruises of life, and as a result is no longer able to spend more than a hour or so on her feet before her feet and ankles start to rebel, and is no longer very steady on her feet. A wooded, uneven hillside is not the  best locale for someone with these issues, but currently there is not a better alternative out there.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Denmark started to experiment with the concept of senior co-housing:

A type of collaborative housing in which residents aged 55 and older are consciously committed to living as a community, participating in the operation of the community. The design of the facility encourages both social contact and individual space, consisting of private homes with all the features of conventional homes, built with easy access for all levels of physical ability, but allowing residents to have access to a wide array of common facilities such as open space, courtyards, and a common house. The community may include studio apartments in the common house to provide living quarters for home health aides whose services may be shared by several residents.

This concept provides the residents with both their own private space and access to shared public spaces. If designed right, the private space can include both indoor spaces in their own houses and outdoor space for a small garden or yard area. As a community, there is a fee for the communal services, such as grounds keeping and upkeep of the common house.

These have traditionally been built as traditional 2 or 3 bedroom houses arrayed around a common courtyard, but the concept is ready made for using tiny houses, with some caveats. The design of the tiny houses must be built for accessibility to allow for the potential limited mobility of the residents, which precludes the use of sleeping lofts, for any other than visiting grand kids. As with all tiny houses, maximizing the use of space is still paramount, if not more important, for after all, adding square footage to a house to make up for poor design choices is cheap, but just adds more space for the resident to keep clean, at a time of life when house work is often no longer easy and in fact, more of a chore than ever.

Keeping the houses tiny not only will allow for easier lives for the residents, but also result in a community with a lower entry price point than might otherwise be possible, as smaller houses means more can be included in the same amount of space. The smaller share of shared communal costs also translates into a smaller monthly cost to the residents, again because there are more residents among whom to split the costs.

To bring this back around to my mom and others like her, her strong independent streak and need for maintaining her own private space makes a traditional senior housing apartment community unappetizing. The thought of living in an old folks home makes her shudder. A tiny house co-housing community would be a viable option, the best of both worlds, and something that I will be trying to make happen, simply to provide her that option.

For those that want to explore the idea of senior co-housing further, I recommend picking up “The Senior Cohousing Handbook: A Community Approach to Independent Living, 2nd Edition” by Chuck Durrett.

For those that are still waiting for progress on this particular website and business, the wait is definitely getting shorter. After the aforementioned hiatus due to family medical issues, work has resumed, and I hope to have more to show in the next few weeks.