Designing a Backyard Cottage for an Elder with Alzheimer’s: Beauty Adds to the Quality of Life
By the time Nancy Kimura’s mother, Stella, began calling at 3 AM, wondering why the bus to the senior center was late, it was pretty clear that she could no longer live alone in her home of more than fifty years. But what to do? Putting her in an assisted living facility felt like “a death knell” to Nancy and her husband, Marc. So they began thinking about adding an in-law to their property.
Because their back yard is small, Nancy and Marc’s first inclination was to add several rooms to their house as a bump-out. However, one of the manifestations of Alzheimer’s disease is a need to repeat phrases–Stella would sing or count to three for hours on end–so it became apparent that physical separation was an essential part of any solution. Thus they settled on a cottage in the back yard. “Mother is sweet,” Nancy mused, “but the racket she made would have driven us crazy.”
Simplicity is a virtue
About the time they decided to build a cottage, Nancy and Marc noticed a tiny writer’s studio featured in a magazine and contacted its architect, Anne Phillips. In addition to a good feel for small spaces, Anne brought a deep understanding of universal design to the project. To minimize falls, she put everything on one level. To accommodate Stella’s use of a walker, a wheelchair or a hospital bed, she made door openings and passageways at least 3 ft. wide. The bathroom is simple and accessible, with a sturdy grab rail.
To reduce the confusion that frequently overwhelms people with dementia, Anne all but eliminated hallways and interior doors. Only the bathroom has a door and the only hallway is a small area where someone can look into all three rooms–the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen–at the same time. “People with Alzheimer’s can get lost in their own homes,” Anne explained. “So you’ve got to reduce the number of choices they must make to get around. Any choice that confuses them can become an obstacle.” [Note: To keep Stella safe, the kitchen appliances were not hooked up.]
Nature, light and beauty
At Nancy’s urging, Anne Phillips also infused her design with nature, light and beauty.
Because the lot was small and zoning regulations were stringent, the cottage could be no larger than 340 sq. ft. of enclosed space. Fortunately, patios and courtyards were not included when calculating the footprint, so Anne was able to design an L-shaped plan whose sides open onto a patio. For anyone with a small lot, an L layout makes a lot of sense. In warmer months the patio becomes an outdoor room and any time of year it lets a lot of light in.
An L-shaped floor plan is also a good design for an urban dwelling if its largest windows-in this case, sliding glass doors in the kitchen and bedroom-face into the patio and yard rather than looking out into neighboring properties. The Kimura cottage feels private and respects the privacy of houses on either side. Along the back wall of the cottage, which is quite close to the property line, the windows are small and placed high up, for the same reason. The large glass doors into the bedroom also allow Nancy to keep an eye on her mother from the main house.
Above all, the cottage is light and airy. Thanks to the sliding doors and the windows on every wall there’s a lot of natural ventilation. The sliding doors are also 8 ft. tall (standard height is 6 ft. 8 in.) which is unusually large for such a small house, but they make the place feel bigger. As long as there’s any daylight left you can see into the furthest reaches of any cabinet or closet without turning on a light. Abundant light makes any dwelling safer for an elderly person with failing eyesight.
The crown jewel of the design and the source of all that loft and light, however, is the south wall of the bedroom, which rises to a 12-ft ridge and frames a dramatic arched window. The window floods the room with sunlight and warms up the concrete floors so effectively that the unit’s heating bills are pretty modest year-round. A younger person would probably hang curtains to block some of that solar gain but old people are famous for liking it hot. Thus, on most days when Nancy goes out to the cottage to check on her mother, she finds her rocking in front of the window, watching the Japanese cable station, doing her art work and, often as not, singing. A painter since she was a school girl, Stella continues to paint in her 90s.
The question arises, is Stella Kimura even aware of the natural beauty and the nice architectural details? Nancy has an interesting take, “To tell you the truth, I don’t know what lights are still on inside Mother, what she perceives and what she doesn’t. But she knows she’s loved and she’s safe. So she’s at peace.”
Create Your Own In-Law!
If you’re interested in second units, please check out my recent book, Outlaws and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House into Two Homes. The Library Journal named it one of the 10 Best Design Books for 2011. You can get an e-book version on Apple’s iTunes Store, or on the Taunton Press Store. You can also sample In-laws, Outlaws‘ lush color photos at www.cozydigz.com
If you will be renovating a home, there’s no better companion than Renovation 4th Edition, (November, 2012). Its 614 pages, 1,000 photos and 250 detailed illustrations cover home renovation from start to finish and contains lifetimes of practical, field-tested techniques that professional builders shared with me over a 40-year period.
© Michael Litchfield 2012
For readers who’d like to start learning more about issues facing elders (including dementia) here are two sites with good sense, smart writing, and a lot of heart:
As Time Goes By (what it’s really like to get older), edited by Ronni Bennett
healthcentral.com especially Carol Bradley Bursack’s columns on Alzheimer’s disease.
© Michael Litchfield 2012
Make room for the things you love. In the foreground, a painting Stella Kimura painted in her 90s; in the far corner, a sketch of Mt. Fuji made when she was a high school student.
An L-shaped floor plan with a patio has a lot going for it: abundant natural light and ventilation, a pleasant place to take meals or relax when the weather is nice and—because the house and trellis surround the patio on three sides—plenty of privacy for you and your neighbors.
Oversized elements can make small homes feel commodious. Here, high ceilings and a soaring arched window combine to create an expansive sense of space and, on a bright day, concrete floors that will radiate warmth long after the sun is down.
Stella and Nancy
The backyard cottage's 340 sq.ft. floor plan. Typically, municipalities do not include patios when calculating the maximum allowable footprint.