While the media has fixated on millennials moving in with their parents, they’ve entirely missed the opposite phenomenon. Statistics show that in the past twenty years, the percentage of parents who move in with their children has gone steadily upward. There are several factors behind this trend. One is that people in general are just living longer; the number of octogenarians and sexagenarians has gone up dramatically in the past few decades, thanks to improvements in medical care and health awareness. And for understandable reasons, more and more parents prefer to move in with their adult children instead of into an assisted-living facility or nursing home. This has led to a variety of alternative living arrangements, the most familiar of which is the in-law suite.
Architects have reported a huge surge of interest in in-law suites over the past decade; the only problem is that parents don’t really like them. Aside from the predictable complaints of “you’re going to stick me in the basement?!” there are practical considerations. In-law suites are traditionally in the basement, and if there’s one thing that old people hate, it’s stairs. Walking up a flight of stairs with eighty-year old joints is like taking a car with 300K miles on it onto the freeway. This has led to more people just moving their parents into the spare bedroom upstairs. The problem with this is that you now live with your parents. Remember how you felt when you were 17 1/2 and about to move out and the withering judgment of your parents’ gaze was so oppressive that you just stayed in your room all the time? It’s just the same the second time around. Don’t think that just because you’re paying the bills, your mom won’t slap you in the back of the head if you say the f-word.
This has led to the very latest development in sneaky parent-warehousing – the medical cottage. Also known as a “granny pod,” the medical cottage is a modular high-tech dwelling that you put in your backyard for your elderly parents. It costs well over a hundred grand, which speaks volumes about how badly people want to get their parents out. It comes with all sorts of advanced features; medical-monitoring air filters, railings galore, and a floor so soft that you can drop an egg from seven feet in the air and it won’t break. But underneath all the bells and whistles, it’s really about clawing back some adult independence in the face of family obligations.
It’s all part of a larger cultural trend that one might call the loosening of intimacy. People are waiting longer than ever – well into their thirties – to marry or have kids. (More and more people never do.) It’s easy to live with a significant other or other family members or even randoms when you’re in your early twenties, with communal family life fresh in your memory. But after you’ve had a decade or two to craft a custom-made lifestyle all your own, with all the benefits of solitude and independence, living in close quarters with other people – even loved ones – can seem grotesque and unbearable. Many married couples now keep separate beds, if not separate bedrooms, and a significant amount of new construction offers twin master bedrooms suites in deference to this trend. Some couples have even chosen to maintain entirely separate residences, an arrangement that’s long been accepted in much of Western Europe. (One could also include the decline in monogamy in this general trend, though it might be slightly outside the scope of a real estate blog.)
The medical cottage, then, is anti-intimacy applied to your parents’ reverse boomeranging. Most of us recognize that we have some obligation to take in our parents, in their old age, but we also now recognize that we have an obligation to ourselves, too – an obligation to maintain our emotional sanity, even if that means shelling out a hundred grand on a cyber-guesthouse in the backyard. What comes after the granny pod? Funny you should ask. My mother recently suggested to my sister that it might be getting time for her, my mother, to move in with my sister. My sister’s response was to immediately start looking at houses for sale that are near-ish, but not too near, where she lives. It’s brilliant, in a way – if my mom plays the “you don’t love me” card, my sister can come right back with the “oh really, I just literally bought you a house” retort. I’m just glad I’m not involved – my mom knows my home is always so filthy, with dusty stacks of books and piles of clothes everywhere, that she’d sooner live in her car.