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St. Petersburg couple built their own ‘nursing home’ next door

Jay and Becky Morgan built an 736-square-foot guest house they may move into as they get older, and caretakers will live in their two-story home.

ST. PETERSBURG — When Jay and Becky Morgan grow older and require more care, they won’t need to tour nursing homes or move into a senior living complex. They’ll simply move into their guest house next door.

The guest house is a miniature version of the couple’s 1,450-square-foot main home, built in 1926 and updated to look like a Craftsman, except it’s fully handicapped-accessible.

“Our goal for doing all this was to basically have this be our future nursing home,” said Jay Morgan.

Morgan, 69, the former director of the Sunshine Senior Center in St. Petersburg, and his wife, Becky Morgan, 67, the former director of Stetson College of Law’s elder law program, have plenty of insights into nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. They decided it wasn’t the lifestyle for them.

“Both my wife and I are kind of independent folk, and that does not attract us," Jay Morgan said. "We don’t want to have the same meals all the time, be on a schedule, have people checking up on us all the time. It’s too much of a controlled environment.”

So in 2014, the Morgans bought the small home next to the house they’ve lived in since the 1980s. They tore it down and built a 736-square-foot cottage that will allow them to keep living in their Five Points neighborhood if they become more frail.

The main house, on left, and guest house, on right, belonging to Jay and Becky Morgan in the Five Points neighborhood on Oct. 15 in St. Petersburg. Jay and his wife, Beck,y built a 700-square-foot home on the lot next to them where they hope to move when they need it, while hiring a caregiver to live in their current house.
The main house, on left, and guest house, on right, belonging to Jay and Becky Morgan in the Five Points neighborhood on Oct. 15 in St. Petersburg. Jay and his wife, Beck,y built a 700-square-foot home on the lot next to them where they hope to move when they need it, while hiring a caregiver to live in their current house. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The couple would pay professionals or ask family members to live in the main house to take care of them, Jay Morgan said. And everyone would share common areas — the screen porch, the kitchen, possibly the garage.

“I mean, it’s almost like long-term-care insurance,” he said. “Just knowing that you’re going to be taken care of and in a place you want to be and not have to be uprooted and put in assisted living or a nursing home.”

The project cost about $400,000, Morgan said. Building a new structure would be too expensive for many seniors, said Mark Zdrojewski, president of Strobel Design Build, who built the cottage.

“The Morgans are pretty much an outlier on the structure they created,” Zdrojewski said. “Most people can get by with modifications to their original structure, which is more cost effective.”

The pandemic-induced isolation and widespread deaths at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have more seniors thinking of ways to age in place, Zdrojewski said. The Morgans completed their guest house in 2019.

Zdrojewski has a master’s degree in aging and neuroscience, and his company incorporates so-called universal design features into 90 percent of its projects. Universal design makes homes accessible for people of all abilities, he said.

The National Association of the Remodeling Industry gave the Morgans’ project a Contractor of the Year award for universal design in 2018.

The contractor raised the Morgan home’s surrounding soil to negate the need for steps. The elevation of flooring in the guest house and the ground floor of the main house doesn’t change more than a quarter inch, so wheelchairs can cross smoothly. A covered portico in between allows drivers to pull underneath.

“So if it was a driver with a wheelchair coming back from a doctor’s appointment or something, you wouldn’t be left out in the rain,” Zdrojewski said.

The guest house bedroom and bathroom are big enough to accommodate wheelchairs and a hospital bed. The bathroom’s brown mosaic tile leaves slight outlines in the shower, toilet area and around the sink, so people with impaired vision can still navigate the room.

The shower has backing for future handrails. Electrical outlets were upgraded to handle medical equipment.

The guest house has a living room and kitchenette with a microwave, but the couple plans to use the oven in the main house, as well.

Zdrojewski’s company typically gets three or four requests for universal design work a year, he said. This year, it has been six or seven.

“People are a little bit more nervous now about being in assisted-care facilities and nursing homes,” he said. “So they’re really trying to look and find ways to stay in their homes a little bit longer.”

About 80 percent of Strobel’s universal design projects are modifications made to existing homes, and 20 percent are an addition or detached structure.

Zdrojewski predicts more interest in universal design. A lot of clients make accessibility upgrades to their homes, he said, but this is the first time he’s had clients do this.

For now, the Morgans are happy in their main house. Jay has retired, but Becky still teaches at Stetson. Their friends frequently visit and stay in the guest house. They love their neighborhood, the stores nearby, the safety.

“Who knows what the future holds,” Morgan said. “But we have a facility that’s adaptable.”

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