There’s been a lot of talk recently about “granny pods,” and some city councils have been falling over themselves to regulate them.
Granny pods are small, backyard accessory structures to house relatives who may need assistance.
The construction and design of these structures may be new, but there is nothing new about the idea behind them.
My earliest memories of visiting my grandparents’ home in northern Minnesota include a primitive version of a granny pod.
From my vantage point wedged in among the luggage and rolled-up sleeping bags in the back of the blue Plymouth station wagon, I watched as we left the highway and traveled along a dirt road, leaving clouds of fine, dry dust in our wake.
As we went over a hill, we could see the old timber bridge across the Swan River below us. After crossing the bridge and ascending the hill on the other side, we turned right, passing my grandmother’s ample vegetable garden, and pulled into the yard, which was basically a clearing surrounded by tall trees.
In front of us was the house my grandfather built for his family. To our right was a small, white, single-story structure that resembled a cabin. That was Mummu’s house.
Mummu is a Finnish word for grandmother. Mummu was my maternal grandmother’s mother, and although she was gone before I came along, and I never knew her, the structure was always known simply as Mummu’s house.
My siblings and I didn’t think anything of this. We assumed it was just the way things were done in the country, like having a sauna in the basement.
At home in the city, we lived in a duplex, and my paternal grandmother lived in the lower half in her own apartment. I assumed a little cabin in the yard was just the northern Minnesota way of doing it.
The inside of Mummu’s house was like a cozy little one-room cottage. According to my aunt Carol, who was the youngest of three sisters (my mother was next, and my aunt Arlene was the eldest), Mummu did her own cooking and baking, and lived quite independently for most of her life.
Late in her life, when Mummu took to wandering, my grandparents set up a cot for her in their bedroom. There came a time when they were no longer able to care for her at home, and she was moved to the county home in Grand Rapids, where she died at age 89.
Despite these changes at the end of her life, Mummu was able to live comfortably in her own space for many years. Not only was this an economical arrangement, but it kept her close to her family.
The new granny pod trend is simply the latest version of that kind of arrangement, and it makes sense for the same reasons now as it did then.
One thing that has changed since my grandfather built the little house for Mummu is that demand for affordable senior housing is increasing rapidly.
According to one report, 10,000 Americans are reaching age 65 every day.
A 2014 study showed that demand for affordable senior housing was expected to increase by 50 percent over five years, NPR reported.
Not only do these backyard structures allow seniors to remain independent and close to their families they can also make good economic sense.
In Minnesota, the average cost for one year in an assisted living facility is about $40,000. Nursing home care averages $62,000.
Some families who may want to help care for their aging relatives may not have space available in their primary dwelling. Their homes also may not be accessible for seniors.
In 2016, the Minnesota Legislature made it legal to place trailer-type dwellings of 300 square feet or less on a caregiver’s property, unless prohibited by local government.
A medical professional must certify that the family member receiving care needs help with at least two daily activities.
Pre-fabricated models are available from different companies.
Some are more like traditional housing, and hook up to the main residence’s sewer, water, and electric service.
Others are built on trailers to make them portable. Some of these have sewage storage tanks that must be emptied periodically by companies that provide this service.
The new rules have been met with mixed reactions.
Some cities have initially prohibited granny pods, potentially to allow more time for them to study the subject.
Others have been more enthusiastic about providing options that allow families to care for their aging relatives close to home.
One thing seems certain. As the population continues to age (and people are living longer than ever before), we will need practical, affordable living options for seniors. Finding a way to allow granny pods should be part of that discussion.