As the percentage of seniors in our population grows, we need to be looking for alternatives to what we have always done to accommodate this rapidly growing segment of our population. The National Institute on Aging reports that the number of our “oldest old – those over age 85” will more than triple by the year 2040 – from 3.5 million in 1994 to 14 million by 2040. These are staggering numbers. Affordability, access to services and the ongoing cost of care is leading more families and government entities to consider the “Elder Cottage” concept. Known in the aging field by its acronym “ECHO” (Elder Cottage Housing Opportunity) these small, detached structures can be either temporarily or permanently installed on the same lot where the primary caregivers reside. The American Association for Retired Persons has been promoting these accessory dwelling units since the 1980’s after the concept first became widespread in Australia in the 1970’s where they are known as “Granny Flats”.

The typical ECHO is between 400 and 800 square feet and is most often factory built, delivered to a location and placed on a foundation. Costs that I identified online ranged from $25,000 to $100,000 to install one unit. A variation on this concept is the prefab in-law addition that is being heavily marketed by higher end manufactured housing companies across the country such as The Home Store. A major obvious benefit for the elder is sustained independence and privacy while increasing proximity to family. Although there are significant installation costs for the structure itself as well as water and waste disposal lines and other utilities, the recapture of the expense could be quite rapid when you consider elder congregate living can easily cost in the $3000 to $10,000 per month. There are also some proponents taking this to a higher level and changing the name to “Med-Cottages”. These feature monitoring mechanisms and flexible flooring to minimize the impact of a fall.

There are a substantial number of communities across the country that are embracing these as one component in the service delivery system to help manage the explosion of sheer numbers that is occurring in our senior population. Dwellings that are stick built on site would appear to have the highest range of acceptability in the broadest range of communities. Gaining approval from your municipality for this type of addition could be quite difficult, however, and so much would depend upon the amount of land you have available for use and the general zoning overlay in your community. Stringent requirements regarding setback from lot lines and maximum square footage for secondary buildings would be the biggest potential obstacles in addition to the zoning issues. Certainly the less densely populated areas of our Western New York community would be more likely locations to be receptive to installation of these units.

A pilot project is underway near Ithaca in Topkins County called the Better Housing program. It is funded by the New York State’s Department of Housing and Community Renewal. Eligible seniors are allowed to rent these 672 square foot dwellings provided that they are installed adjacent to the residence of a primary caregiver. The property owner is responsible for utility installation and the county government delivers and maintains the dwelling in exchange for a rental payment that is also subsidized by government support. The objective of the program is to study not only the financial impact of this intervention but also quality of life and preventative health care matters.

The New York State Office of Aging has devoted considerable attention to this somewhat novel approach to senior living including references to a great deal of other literature on the topic in its most recent Livable New York Resource Manual. You can find this online at www.aging.ny.gov. Reprinted with the permission of the Buffalo News Homefinder