Gran designs: could building my mother an upstairs flat renovate our relationship? | Caroline Baum | Life and style
When my elderly mother came to live with us, a granny flat was not an option. She needed more space than the typical one-room studio. Being frail and disabled, logic might have dictated that she take over the ground floor of our home and we build an upper floor extension for ourselves – the kind real estate agents promote as a “parents’ retreat”.
But, as a longtime top-floor apartment dweller used to expansive views, living downstairs did not appeal to her. She wanted her own self-contained area, with more privacy, away from our guest room and frequent visitors.
Friends thought we were mad and tried to dissuade us from what they thought of as a Faustian pact; taking on too much responsibility – and proximity – in return for a bigger house. We were, they told us, setting ourselves up for nothing but trouble.
Aware of the downsides, we canvassed all the alternatives, including buying a flat close by, or Mum moving in to a residential care facility, but she balked at both suggestions as too daunting, expensive, depressing and isolating.
Despite our misgivings, we went ahead, hoping that the project would renovate our often fractious dynamic and that Mum’s oft-stated desire for her own space and the opportunity to cook her own meals would make explicit conversations about boundaries and expectations unnecessary. I always was an optimist.
Her brief was for an inexpensive, spacious, well-insulated and light self-contained apartment with a kitchenette and sitting room, all reached via a stair chair.
Once plans were drawn, we held the usual beauty pageant tendering process interviewing builders. Only one – the youngest, it turned out – understood, despite introductions, that Mum was the client and spoke directly to her. All the others assumed we were paying (wrong) and making the decisions (wrong).
Despite making it very clear who the boss was, they pushed the plans across the table to us, in front of her, without acknowledging her in any way, their attitude demonstrating the lack of agency that is so common when it comes to care of elderly people: often unconsciously we decide for them, without asking them directly what they want. We give children endless opportunities to express preferences but deny our parents the same right. Understandably put out, she cast her vote accordingly, choosing manners over experience.
As the project progressed, Mum visited showrooms and pored over brochures and samples to choose every fixture, fitting and finish. Always keen to try new things and realistic about her limitations, she had definite ideas, such as deciding that an induction cooktop would mean she would neither burn herself nor leave the gas or electricity on.
Being French, she was used to a bidet as an essential item of personal hygiene, but having lost her balance, straddling one was no longer possible. Instead, she decided on the contemporary alternative: a premium-brand Japanese toilet with a washing function.
She chose a hand-held shower to make washing herself easier and suggested raising power points to waist height to make them more accessible whether seated or standing. A fan of technology, she opted for a front-door camera/intercom system that meant she could hear the (extra loud) doorbell, see and speak to visitors via her iPad and let them in (or keep them out) without having to move more than a finger.
The only modifications we made to her brief were to persuade her to add an undercover deck area for gentle exercise as recommended by her physio, and an overflow spare room that could, if necessary, be converted into a bedroom for a live-in carer, if illness required us to call on long-term additional support, giving her a total floor area of 84 sq m. Unwilling to consider future frailty and wary of strangers, she agreed reluctantly.
The most frustrating setback related to her desire to have a non-slip vinyl floor in the bathroom, instead of ceramic tiles, dictated by her entirely reasonable fear of falling and knowledge of the stats: most falls occur in bathrooms where hard surfaces make them potentially more severe.
It turns out that there are compliance standards for flooring installation. Maddeningly, these vary from state to state. Although it is used in hospitals, the non-slip vinyl my mother wanted could not be installed in her home.
We moved out for the build. When we moved back in, she expressed surprise at how the plans translated into reality.
“Oooh look, I’m cantilevered,” she exclaimed, amazed the the gravity defying engineering of the bathroom. “Won’t it collapse?” she asked, and avoided that end of the shower stall for days.
As soon as she buckled herself in, it became clear that the stair chair was a triumph: safe, quiet, smooth and precision-engineered, it wrapped around the staircase with sinuous discretion, a far cheaper and less intrusive option than a lift. As she rises through the air on her mobile throne, Mum waves regally.
Some things have not worked out as planned: the kitchenette is virtually unused, except for the microwave if we are away. We had lowered the benchtops to accommodate a wheelchair but, while unable to stand at the stove, Mum is not ready to accept the alternative. Her intention of cooking for herself has not become a reality; she glides downstairs for every meal. We have regained some privacy, but not as much as we’d hoped: although she has her own TV upstairs, she prefers to watch in our company. The juliet balcony with sweeping ocean and escarpment views from her bedroom remains unused; perhaps it’s a little too high for someone whose balance is precarious.
Our architect estimates that the customised modifications to door widths for wheelchair access, and the additional work to make powerpoints and light switches more accessible, and the security intercom and safety rails have added an extra 15% to the project’s budget. A small price to pay for peace of mind.
Within months, Mum felt at home. We drew satisfaction from being within reach when needed, while reclaiming our spare room to welcome friends to stay. Even the sceptics are impressed. All of them want a ride on the stair chair.