New Neighborhoods for Senior Living

A major fear seniors face is being cut off from family and friends as they lose function and mobility. Aging in the family home can lead to increasing isolation, but the fear applies equally to residents feeling shunted away in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Even with access to a fully equipped accessory dwelling unit (ADU) attached to the family home or in the back yard, the worry is will it come to “out of sight, out of mind?”

A pushback against this unhappy situation comes from the so-called pocket neighborhood, a cluster of small homes (perhaps eight or ten) sharing a common gathering area or garden, with their adjacency planned to maximize privacy. In a pocket neighborhood, as in any well-functioning neighborhood, your friends and social life are just outside your door.

Just how much of a presence are they in our society? I recently spoke with Seattle, Washington architect Ross Chapin, who has spearheaded the pocket neighborhood movement for 20-plus years. He has designed some 40 such neighborhoods in communities across the United States and has been involved in planning 120 or more.

To Chapin, the pocket neighborhood is only one of several senior housing options now starting to grow and gain recognition in our aging society, but he suggests that, in itself, the concept offers the most “neighborly” opportunity of all—“it puts the ‘neighbor’ in neighborhood. Ideally,” he adds, “these would be community-oriented, with walkable amenities and intergenerational exposure.”

Though zoning issues come into play, as with all small housing options, Chapin notes that local community planners might find pocket neighborhoods to be an appealing alternative to suburban sprawl—an “infill” opportunity offering greater density of occupancy and more neighborly relations on a particular property.

Small homes are more attuned, Chapin says, to the one- or two-person majority of households in the country. “Some 60-65 percent of the market consists one- or two-person households. And yet builders continue to focus most of their efforts on the family-size minority.”

But change is coming with increased perception of the demographic reality, a senior population growing at an unprecedented pace, he says. “We’ve been getting a phenomenal response to the pocket neighborhood throughout the country, especially in the last four or five years.

“The culture, the demographics, the economics, they are all driving us in this direction.”

Progress Update

Smallhomes Update

Some interesting general developments in the small home space say a lot about how this new structural solution is progressing in our society. The promise is there, and growing stronger every day, for people needing safe, affordable housing alternatives for themselves and senior loved ones.

Recently the city of Boston put on display what they’re calling the Plugin House, a 360 square foot structure resembling, in concept, the backyard “granny pod” starting to receive nationwide attention. In this case the public was asked, during weeklong tours, to respond with their ideas for best presentation and use of the space. The Plugin House, basically, is expected to take about five hours to build and cost about $50,000.

The Plugin project was sponsored by the city’s year-old Housing Innovation Lab and its Additional Dwelling Unit Pilot Project. This will explore practical ways people might carve out small, independent dwellings within existing homes—and option that could appeal to family members both young and old.

An offshoot of this would be closer attention being paid to the regulatory framework for small house living which, in many communities, still has major concerns to surmount regarding safety, permanence and overall neighborhood appeal.

Meanwhile the online security firm Webroot recently explored the conundrum presented by the Internet of Things. These small sensor-based devices provide the functionality and safety of small spaces designed to house frail, vulnerable elderly (see, for example, “New Technology for Small House Living”, below). Webroot notes that manufacturers of consumer devices have not fully engaged yet with the threat to privacy and internet security posed by sophisticated computer chips not necessarily engineered yet to meet these needs.

Can these devices be hacked to serve as an opening for the insertion of malware in home-based services? Might devices even be subject to direct interference in function, causing dangerous conditions, such as disruption of cardiac pacemakers?

Webroot notes that regulators throughout the country are just starting to come to terms with these issues, with initial emphasis on upgrading major government and commercial applications. But activity benefitting consumers will grow as IOT starts to take hold in the small home arena.

Preliminary stirrings for small homes



It’s still early times for the small-homes-for-aging trend, but there’s movement afoot worth knowing about.

A recent article from the website Curbed notes a continuing moving away in senior housing from the institutionalized nursing homes and assisted living because people are bothered the lack of individuality and affordability they offer

Author Patrick Sisson describes the “ballooning” interest of the Baby Boom generation in senior housing offering lifestyle amenities, such as fitness rooms, walking trails, lap pools and opportunities to socialize easily and naturally. Universal design, allowing occupants to age in place safely and comfortably, is another growing demand. And urban infill for seniors desiring the convenience and stimulation of city living is starting to develop, particularly as affordability grows in importance.

Even so, most of this growth is still aimed at upper income groups, with entry fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and rents of $3,000 a month or more. Affordable housing is only starting to get the attention it needs.  

Meanwhile the idea of living one’s senior years in a “tiny” dwelling of some sort is getting some fine-toothed attention from organizations such as the AARP, for whom writer Randy Rieland has recently offered helpful analyses.

Rieland notes the growing appreciation of “tiny houses,” particularly accessory dwelling units (ADUs) for family homes, as affordable housing choices for the elderly. But, he says, ADUs  still have legal and regulatory hurdles to surmount in communities throughout the United States.

Part of the problem is getting communities to accept such structures as legitimate neighbors—an attitude that anyone interested in these as a viable alternative should be prepared to deal with.

Rieland also notes the personal decisions that have to be made prior to building and moving into a “tiny” ADU—for example, what about sharing such a relatively small space with a significant other? Will this make sense?

Also, can you really face the need to cull through and part with personal possessions and keepsakes that have accumulated over the years? Some people see the elimination of “stuff” to be the major challenge of any move to senior housing. Some difficult decisions need to be made, and all storage alternatives, including online for important documents, need to be explored.

What about your family’s social life—does it depend largely on in-home parties and hosting? And do your hobbies need significant inside space?

Rieland asks, importantly, can the tiny home you envision be properly equipped to support the needs of aging in place? This is largely the technological realm being explored on this site, and it will pay to stay tuned for developments in this rapidly growing field. Meanwhile, review some of the brief pieces below.


Multi-use furniture enabling small spaces

Courtesy of Resource Furniture

Courtesy of Resource Furniture

Essential to the livability of the “small house” format is the ingeniousness of today’s furniture design. A small space can feel cramped and isolated without careful thought to the interior design and its contents. As spaces get smaller, so much greater is the need for innovation in furnishings.

Courtesy of Resource Furniture

Courtesy of Resource Furniture

Resource Furniture is a New York-based firm that has made a name for itself in the growing niche field of small unit design. Its focus has been upon the so-called microapartment—a unit of 300 to 400 square feet, in specially designed urban apartment buildings.

Today’s projects, such as those now going up in New York and San Francisco, are aimed at appealing to young professionals, both singles and couples, who seek affordable housing choices within highly expensive cities. To date, Resource Furniture has concentrated most of its efforts toward meeting that marketplace.

Courtesy of Resource Furniture

Courtesy of Resource Furniture

But the concepts involved are highly adaptable to a senior housing market growing ever more needful of similar choices, says Steve Spett, company co-founder. “Though it’s not a trend yet, we’re seeing signs of a growing appeal, especially for empty-nesters who are actively planning for old age,” Spett says.
“We aim to make 300 square feet seem like 600 square feet, with plenty of options for living, sleeping and dining. And these apartment dwellings accommodate the recognition that seniors as they age still need ready access to amenities, common spaces and social opportunities, as much as anyone else.”

One need the new microapartments strive to accommodate is that of storage, of particular concern to seniors attempting to downsize or, as Spett puts it, rightsize. “We start by asking the senior to make the hard decisions about what they need now,  what they can do without, and what they need to store. These days family photo albums can be stored electronically, and filing cabinets full of necessary documents can be scanned onto thumb drives. Then they have to decide what they can do without, such as outdated items of clothing.”

Courtesy of Resource Furniture

Courtesy of Resource Furniture

The microapartment designer goes to the limit in cleverly designing good storage space within the unit. Space can take advantage of varying floor heights and stairways, while other storage can be created within and around multi-functional furniture that can be easily lifted, folded or otherwise moved out of the way.
“Getting each piece of furniture to do two things, sometimes three things, is key,” says Spett. “A coffee table can be converted to a dining table or a desk, an ottoman can be folded out as seating for five, beds can become sofas or simply folded into a wall, partitions can be moved to enlarge or reduce a living space, and so forth.”

Courtesy of Resource Furniture

Courtesy of Resource Furniture

The design ingenuity on display in many of today’s accessory dwelling units is amazing. But adding to their feasibility as places for aging in place is the advent of new communications technology that both monitors and supports seniors in their daily living tasks—motion sensors, voice-activated servers and more. will track all this as it develops for seniors and their families in coming weeks and months. The days of super-expensive and not always helpful housing for seniors and their families may well be numbered.

New Technology For Small House Living

The key to small home living for seniors is the new technology that provides home dwellers with the personal assistance they’ve never had before.

Spoken word voice-activated technology can provide medication information, access to shopping, direct contact with a physician’s office, the day’s news or the music of one’s choice. You may have heard of Amazon’s Alexa, the oddly tubular structure to which people speak and give commands from locations throughout the house. Amazon’s Echo Dot is a small disc and gives access to Alexa’s offerings even more conveniently and unobtrusively. Offering similar benefits are Google Assistant, Bixby by Samsung, Siri from Apple and Cortana from Microsoft.

Meanwhile strategically placed sensors can detect when someone has fallen or has stayed in bed too long, immediately conveying an alert to a loved one living in another location. Leading technology companies are developing these monitoring systems, which go by such names as Wellness from or MyNotifi. They are designed not as personal “spies,” watching everything you do, but as motion sensors programmed to give appropriate warnings, enhancing the safety of seniors living alone.
This new technology is crucial to supporting small home living which, otherwise, would amount to stashing older people out of sight and out of mind. That appalling idea is not what granny pods, in-law suites and microapartments are all about for this age group.

This cutting-edge technology is still in very early stages, with advances occurring almost daily and many questions remaining: Will seniors have access to the wi-fi or broadband that enable these technologies? Can sensor technology remain relatively secure and immune to hacking? Will seniors and their loved ones want to deal with these devices and pay their costs, which are relatively minor compared to assisted living and skilled nursing care but still there? Will manufacturers come up with compelling ways to market these devices to homeowners and apartment managers?

All this continues to be worked out, but a good way of keeping track of these developments can be found at the online newsletter Aging in Place Technology Watch, offered for the past decade by aging technology guru Laurie Orlov. Says Orlov, “Voice-activated is our third level of technological innovation, following introduction of the cell phone and the connected web. Useful voice activation has finally become feasible and therefore will become part of our lives.”
Her newsletter can be found at

Bill Thomas: Making MAGIC for Supportive Housing

Anyone familiar with supportive housing for long-term care knows the name Bill Thomas. Dr. Bill Thomas, to be exact, has spent the past quarter-century working to humanize the nursing home experience.

His first initiative was the Eden Alternative, introducing plants and animals into the nursing home environment to both enliven and calm the residents. Next, and just becoming nationally recognized, are his Green Houses, small structures housing 12 to 20 residents each, and each with its own kitchen and living room, surrounded by private bedrooms and bordered by outdoor patios. This breaks up the scale of the large nursing home and offers much more personalized care.

Now Dr. Thomas has stepped up to the next order of business: creating small, safe, affordable houses dedicated specifically to supporting seniors in need. With his unfailing sense of wordplay he calls it the MAGIC project, standing for multi-ability, multi-generational inclusive communities. The “communities” will actually be small groupings of private houses ranging from as little as 325 square feet in size, each with a fully accessible kitchen, sleeping area and bathroom.

This small house, which can vary considerably in basic design, he is calling the Minka, a Japanese term for “the people’s house.”

The Minka itself is created using technology just coming to the fore in design and construction. One such technology is modular construction going far beyond the “trailer home” concept most associated with it. The individual pieces of the home can be printed out using 3D technology, with the entire manufacturing process located close to home to minimize transportation difficulties and costs—a new concept called distributive manufacturing. These then will be assembled in intentional communities, focusing particularly on seniors and aimed giving them a neighborhood feeling, with this new concept being dubbed the pocket neighborhood.

Alternatively a Minka could be built as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in the home’s back yard. Cost? A not inexpensive $60,000, but a one-time cost—far less expensive than $90,000 a year nursing homes or $40,000 a year assistive living facilities.

And if this level of innovation isn’t enough, Thomas proposes to use these structures as testing grounds for research, with family consent, on so-called cognitive prostheses, using computer chips and algorithms to assist cognitively impaired seniors and Alzheimer’s victims with normal brain functioning.

Not surprisingly, all of this is in its very earliest stages. In fact, the first users of MAGIC will be students at the University of Southern Indiana, which is seeking improved housing options for these young people.

But Dr. Thomas sees the ADU concept for senior housing, aided by projects like MAGIC, coming into its own over the next decade.