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Putting Granny Into A Pod

People hoping to provide care and independence for aging loved ones may want to consider the 'granny pod.' That's a high-tech cottage set up in your backyard. Host Michel Martin speaks to Socorrito Baez-Page, who bought one for her mother. Also with them is Susan Seliger, regular contributor to The New York Times' 'New Old Age' blog.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to turn now to a topic that we thought would be good to talk about while many of us are home for the holidays and maybe noticing that our parents, or other loved ones, are getting older and perhaps more frail. It's an idea that caught our attention - it's called the Granny Pod. It's a high-tech cottage that makes a relatively small footprint on your property. The idea is that a relative can live with you, but still have some independence.

Socorrito Baez-Page lives in Virginia; and she recently bought one of these for her mother, Viola. It's called a Med Cottage. She's here with us, to talk about it. Also with us is Susan Seliger. She's an editor and regular contributor to The New York Times blog "The New Old Age," and she's written about Granny Pods.

They're both with us. Thank you so much for joining us.

SOCORRITO BAEZ-PAGE: Thank you.

SUSAN SELIGER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Socorrito, at what point did you decide that your mother's living arrangements had to change?

BAEZ-PAGE: Well, she lived with my father in a townhouse, and as they were getting older, it was getting harder for them to get up and down the steps. When he passed away, we found that she could not work into our life that way. She was uncomfortable with the temperature in the house; needed help for this, and help for that; needed space for her own things so that we weren't constantly moving them around, to get to our things.

And I'd seen the original article about the Med Cottage. And so when it turned out that the county decided that we could not add on to our house, we started the ball rolling in October.

MARTIN: Susan, according to a 2010 AARP study, a growing number of elderly people - in fact, according to this study, 88 percent of those over age 65 said that they'd rather stay at home. And the reason I mention that is that I'm sure a lot of people will listen to this and say, well, why not assisted living - which, you know, is advertised as having so many amenities and it's actually - being senior-friendly, and already kind of designed for that purpose.

SELIGER: It sounds good and it works beautifully for some people. But you know, most people - as you pointed out, in this study, 88 percent of those over 65 really want to be at home. You want to be where you've been all your life. You want to be where you're comfortable, and you envision doing it when you get old as well.

It's not always that easy. Most homes - it's funny; we kind of - we call them Peter Pan housing. You're know, they're housing that's designed for people who think they'll never get old, and they'll never be disabled. It's not the real way to design homes.

MARTIN: Socorrito, to that end, though, you were nice enough to share that this whole thing was actually kind of pricey. It was about $125,000. Wouldn't it have been cheaper to renovate? Or is it just that your lot was too small? Or does your mom require more technology than would have been possible to incorporate into your home?

BAEZ-PAGE: Well, it did cost 125, but $85,000 of it was the unit itself. And it has state-of-the-art flooring that is cushioned and padded so if she falls down, she's not likely to break anything. It has a fully handicap-accessible bathroom with a shower. It has its own climate control, so she can control the temperature. We can modify it from our house through the computer, or we can do it through an iPhone. And we also have safety cameras in there so should she be in there by herself - which is not the case, mostly; one of us is with her all the time. But on those rare occasions where she might be alone for half an hour or an hour while we do something else, we can monitor her from the computer, or from the phone, so we can see if she's OK.

MARTIN: Susan, talk more about this. Of what you're hearing, what do you think is the most attractive thing about it, though?

SELIGER: These Med Cottages - you know, this is a pretty new creation. And they are high-tech and beautifully designed. And there are other versions of this besides this Med Cottage; that involve, you know, sort of a - open layout, homey setting and some of the high-tech wonders.

One of the dangers for people as they age - the big danger is falling. And these floors - you can drop an egg from waist height, and it'll bounce. And it's not that we're scrambling eggs on the floor but if anyone elderly falls, they're scrambling their bones. And this is one of the biggest dangers. So these units are really designed to change as the person ages, with the kind of medical tracking and lighting - you know, you step out of bed, and you step onto a mat that lights your way, immediately, to the bathroom - and these are all lovely design features.

They're not for everybody. As you pointed out, it can cost anywhere from 85,000 to 125,000. It isn't an urban solution, either. A lot of people don't have a backyard where they can plop down a Granny Pod. So it's not a universal solution. But for those who can handle it, it can be wonderful.

MARTIN: Socorrito, we actually talked to your mom earlier. And she said she'd rather be in Puerto Rico, but she is happy; and she likes being with family. You are a retired physician and so presumably, you know quite a lot about how to give your mother the care that she needs - at least. to supervise the skilled nursing care, if she needed that. What about somebody who didn't have your background? What would you do? How would you manage that?

BAEZ-PAGE: Well, the cottage itself has - medical monitoring system that can take blood pressure, pulse, oxygen level and weight, which are the four basic things they do when you go to a doctor's office, anyway, to see what's going on. So those basic monitoring can be sent directly to the doctor, electronically. But in general, this is not really a substitute for a skilled nursing facility. This is for somebody who is in pretty good shape and fairly ambulatory, but can't do the basic things for daily care for themselves.

My mother needs help getting dressed. Pulling her sweater over her head is sometimes tough. She might need help drying off after a shower with her towel - doesn't reach all the spots. She doesn't cook because she's unsteady and doesn't want to cook. So I cook lunch and bring it over, and we eat lunch together in there. You know, things where - she could do all of these things for herself. It may take her longer. But if I'm there, we can get out faster.

MARTIN: Susan, what are some of the things that you think people should be thinking about; given how much of the population is aging, and what a large percentage of the population is going to be - not just old, but what is often called old-old, in the coming years?

SELIGER: Yeah. That's a good question, Michel. It's hard. You can't start thinking about it the day before things start, you know, deteriorating. You've got to do a little advance planning, individually as well as a society. You know, we need to think about the architecture; the way we're designing our houses so that they're good for you when you have young children, and they're also good for you as you age. And the interesting thing is that a lot of the design features that work to protect young babies and young children, you know, as they're becoming ambulatory, would be some of the same safeguards that'll be useful for the elderly as they become less ambulatory.

MARTIN: Socorrito, is there a final thought that you would offer us here? It seems like you are very organized; you're very well-educated, obviously; you're very thoughtful; and you're, obviously, very close to your mother. Everybody doesn't have those advantages. I mean, I hate to say that, you know, some people have fractious family relationships. They aren't as rational in dealing with them as you seem to be, and they don't have the space. Is there anything that you think you've learned from this experience, that you might want to pass on to other people?

BAEZ-PAGE: Well, all I would say that, you know, the early planning that was mentioned is important because ultimately, there are not enough assisted-living and nursing home and rest home and retirement home spaces available for everybody who is going to be 80 years old. We're living longer; we're living longer, healthier. My mother is 87. She has the same high blood pressure that I do. (LAUGHTER) She uses the same glasses that I do. So far, I can still get my clothes on by myself, but she can't; and this is not a problem that's going to go away. So...

MARTIN: Does this make you more or less hopeful when you think about aging, yourself? I mean, sometimes, when you're taking care of a senior, it makes some people feel - I just, I don't want this for my life. On the other hand, some people feel very inspired by thinking that, you know, it's not so bad. When you think about your own aging, does this make you feel more or less hopeful about what's ahead, if you don't mind my asking?

BAEZ-PAGE: Well, we've experienced skilled nursing, home nursing, hospice, assisted living, retirement home, and now the Granny Pod, with various family members over the last few years. So we've sort of seen the - what's available out there. And if possible, I would like to age into something like the cottage. And at the same time, I am thinking that OK, I have to remember not to make my expectations be so solid that I can not be flexible about what's available. And I would like to make sure that I have made my arrangements and my ideas known ahead of time, so that there isn't a conflict or misunderstandings later on.

MARTIN: Socorrito Baez-Page lives in Virginia. She recently bought a Granny Pod so her mother could live with her and her family. And she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. And Susan Seliger writes about aging for The New York Times' "New Old Age" blog. She joined us from Baltimore, Maryland. Thank you both so much, for joining us.

BAEZ-PAGE: Thank you.

SELIGER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And Socorrito, good luck with everything.

BAEZ-PAGE: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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