As of 2014, there were 46 million people aged 65 or older living in the United States. That’s 14 percent of the country’s entire population. In Pennsylvania, 17 percent of the population is in that age cohort.
By 2060, it’s expected that the number of U.S. residents aged 65 or older will swell to 98 million, more than doubling the current tally. We’ve traveled quite a distance over the last century when it comes to longevity – in 1920, people aged 65 or older were just 4.7 percent of the country’s residents.
Now, ponder another set of numbers. It costs, on average, $3,500 per month when someone is placed at an assisted living facility, or $42,000 annually. Keep in mind that median household income in the United States stands at almost $52,000. When it comes to nursing home care, the price tag is even heftier – $248 every day for a private room, on average, or $90,000 every year.
Adults who are grappling with the reality of elderly parents who can no longer fend for themselves are considering an option that lands somewhere in the middle – constructing small, single-story prefab houses on their own property that allow them to keep a close eye on mom or dad and still maintain a modicum of privacy. So-called “granny flats” or ECHO Housing – the ECHO standing for “elder cottage housing opportunity” – can be built quickly and be gone just as fast. They’ve won the endorsement of AARP and have gained a foothold in some places, particularly the West Coast. Peters Township is considering a variance request by a local couple who want to build one on their property, and the township’s zoning hearing board is scheduled to chew it over at its Tuesday meeting. Peters has received similar queries, and it seems likely they will become more and more common. Councilman David Ball indicated he was open to the idea, saying “it’s a very important issue, as our society is pushing people out of nursing homes into homes. I think it’s something we really need to take a look at, rather than rejecting it out of hand.”
The granny flats can take up about 800 square feet, be barrier-free and contain medical equipment and electronic monitoring devices. Council member Monica Merrell cautioned the size of properties could be pivotal in deciding whether these small units would be allowed.
“In a situation where you have three acres, it might not be a problem for anybody,” Merrell explained. “In a situation on a half-acre of property, it’s going to be a problem for the neighbors, potentially.”
One way these “granny flats” have been sold is that they can be converted to other uses once they are no longer being used to house an elderly person or couple, such as a home office or studio. Township officials will have to mull whether they would allow these units to be used for other purposes once they are no longer occupied or demand that they be taken down.
Right now, the township does not allow accessory family units in any of its zoning districts, but we hope it makes an exception for these practical and compassionate ways to house the elderly.