Va. launching portable housing for aging relatives

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; B01

SALEM, VA. The Rev. Kenneth Dupin, who leads a small Methodist church here, has a vision: As America grows older, its aging adults could avoid a jarring move to the nursing home by living in small, specially equipped, temporary shelters close to relatives.

So he invented the MEDcottage, a portable high-tech dwelling that could be trucked to a family's back yard and used to shelter a loved one in need of special care.

Skeptics, however, have a different name for Dupin's product: the granny pod.

Protective of zoning laws, some local officials warn that Dupin's dwellings -- which have been authorized by Virginia's state government -- will spring up in subdivisions all over the state, creating not-in-my-back-yard tensions with neighbors and perhaps being misused.

Look at how people despise PODS, those ubiquitous big white storage boxes, critics say. Imagine, they add, if you had people living inside.

"Is it a good idea to throw people into a storage container and put them in your back yard?" said Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee). "This is the granny pod. What's next? The college dropout pod?"

Such temporary shelters might work in rural and sparsely developed parts of the state, McKay said, but the impact could be enormous in crowded urban and suburban areas.

"This basically sets up an opportunity to do something legally which, prior to this, had been illegal -- which is to set up a second residence on a single-family property. It turns our zoning ordinance upside down," McKay said.

The idea, Dupin said, came to him after years of leading humanitarian missions to developing countries, and it was encouraged by a growing sense of his own mortality. But he also said it just might make a lot of money, especially since the nation's elderly population is set to double in just 10 years as more and more baby boomers hit retirement age. Surveys by AARP and others also show that large majorities prefer to live in their own homes or with loved ones rather than in retirement communities.

The Katie factor

Past a mobile home park and some car dealerships sits a small brick church. From its portico is a view of the mountains and the roof of a warehouse.

About half of its 235 members were at services one recent Sunday, many in blue jeans, shirt sleeves or even shorts, like the fellow passing the offering plate. Yet their worship service is known for its high production values. Pastor Ken is its star.

Lyrics scroll over two giant screens as a choir rocks to a karaoke-style backing track, and a funny video reminds people of upcoming elections for church officers.

Then Dupin, 55, steps onstage, wearing a baggy black suit, a gold tie and the barest thread of a microphone attached to a headset. His homily is full of self-deprecating humor and awkwardly revelatory stories about his wife, Joy, and their 37 years of marriage. There are many other stories besides.

"He's the first pastor who has been open about his personal life," said longtime parishioner Ron Vanderpool, 61. "That's probably what they appreciate the most."

On that recent Sunday, Dupin chose the story of the fishes and the loaves to illustrate his message about transforming impossible tasks into miraculous realities. Weaving in an anecdote about how his father struck out for Bible college with $11 in his pocket and a battered Sears valise, Dupin lugged the thing onstage as a prop.

"In that suitcase was every dream, every hope he ever had," Dupin said. "My daddy taught me that God asked me to do everything I could do, and then I asked God to do what I couldn't."

It was just such a story that got Dupin thinking about the MEDcottage. As senior minister at what was then Aldersgate Wesleyan Church in Falls Church, Dupin visited a shut-in named Katie. Her husband had served in the Eisenhower administration, and she liked to show off photographs of them dancing at a White House ball.

On one visit, Dupin found Katie in tears. Her adult children had arranged for her to go into a nursing home. Workmen were busy fixing up her home for sale. When he later visited her at the nursing home, she was miserable.

"When I got there, she was absolutely devastated, and she asked me if I could take her home. That stuck in my head -- the patheticness of it," Dupin said. And it stayed with him as he toured the world studying international business development or conducting humanitarian trips to Haiti and Guatemala.

So Dupin, who studied for the ministry at Southern Wesleyan University, hit on the idea of the remote-care pod.

The MEDcottage would be equipped with the latest technology to monitor vital signs, filter the air for contaminants and communicate with the outside world via high-tech video. Sensors could alert caregivers to an occupant's fall, and a computer could remind the occupant to take medications. Technology could also provide entertainment, offering a selection of music, reading material and movies.

The dwelling would take up about as much room as a large shed and, like an RV, could connect to a single-family house's electrical and water supplies. It could be leased for about $2,000 a month, a cost Dupin hopes will be borne by health insurers.

To build it, Dupin has assembled an unusual team: an eighth-grade Spanish teacher, two college professors, a health-care administrator, a medical school instructor, an architect, a physician and the president of a company that makes modular housing.

The new company, N2Care, has won $100,000 in public grants, although the Blacksburg-based venture is still searching for private investors and has no full-time employees. In any case, N2Care appears to be on its way.

Idea gets boost

Without even building a prototype or hiring lobbyists, Dupin and his team managed to persuade the Virginia General Assembly to pass legislation almost unanimously this year that supersedes local zoning laws in the state and allows families to install such a dwelling on their property with a doctor's order. The first of two prototypes is expected to be rolled out in June. Dupin said the first will be named "Katie," in honor of the woman he met long ago in Northern Virginia.

The enterprise has received backing from the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, a collaborative effort between the university and 140 companies to develop commercial technologies. The university is helping with high-tech applications, such as computer technology to create a "virtual companion" -- named Sydney, after Dupin's granddaughter -- who would appear on a screen and remind the occupant to take medications.

"Personally, I believe it really potentially could have a huge impact on revolutionizing health care," said Janis P. Terpenny, a Virginia engineering professor who is working with Dupin.

The Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, whose mission is to create jobs using national tobacco settlement money, gave its blessing to the venture Feb. 16 with a $50,000 dollar-for-dollar grant. The money is to be matched by Charlotte County, where the manufacturing is to be done, with the expectation that the company will build enough models to create jobs in a place where unemployment reached 10.4 percent in February.

But the biggest boost came from the state government. Unable to pay for lobbyists, Dupin and others worked the state Capitol themselves, using templates found online to draft the bill's language. They promised no campaign contributions. Anyway, they said, they could not afford to contribute to political causes. The Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit group that tracks campaign giving and expenditures, affirmed the assertion that no donations were made.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), who sponsored HB 1307, clearing the way for the dwellings, said he thinks the legislation will prove to be one of the most significant measures enacted this year. "The only thing I regret is that I don't have money to invest in the company," Griffith said.

The law defines the MEDcottages as "temporary family healthcare structures" that can be placed only on the properties of single-family homes and occupied only by a relative who is physically or mentally impaired, as certified by a physician. The structures must be less than 300 square feet and conform to local regulations governing sheds or garages. They must be removed within 30 days after the occupant dies, moves or no longer needs to receive care in the dwelling.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who signed the bill April 14, will travel to Salem for a ceremonial signing. The law takes effect July 1.

Dupin, whose grandfather, father, brother and son are clergy members, said he is not interested in the money.

The church's entire annual budget is $178,295, and he said he makes about what the 20 public school teachers in his congregation make. He takes seriously the Methodist heritage of Christianity in action, emphasizing social transformation as well as salvation.

He is also a believer in transparency, often sharing more about the project with potential competitors than his director of operations, Susan Conn, thinks is prudent.

"The most profound effect of transparency is the gift of being able to collaborate," he said.

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