Seniors, students team up

After her husband died, Elizabeth Hill says she would lay awake listening for bumps in the night in her eerily empty home — so to get some shut-eye, she decided let a stranger live with her.

Since then, the 75-year-old has compiled seven "guest books" filled with photos and thank-you notes from the dozens of young international students who have stayed with her over the past two decades.

Hill is one of a number seniors who have been moving in with students in exchange for subsidized rent and occasional help around the house — often with the added benefit of lasting friendships.

A Toronto elder-care initiative is working to replicate these mutually beneficial living arrangements this fall, in a provincially funded pilot project that aims to set the Canadian standard in intergenerational home sharing.

Researchers say these shared-living programs could help address two of Canada's most pressing social issues: housing affordability and caring for an aging population.

But Hill and 32-year-old Julio Hernandez, who have lived together for seven years, say the benefits can go far beyond reduced living costs, because the care goes both ways.

"At this point, I see her more like a friend than my landlady," Hernandez said. "She's like my Toronto family."

As baby boomers and millennials alike get priced out of red-hot housing markets, schools and community groups across the country have embraced various kinds of shared-living programs — from a housing co-op in Winnipeg where women can grow old together, to a retirement home in London, Ont., that hosts Western University students.

In Ontario, more than half of residents — and three-quarters of those over the age of 65 — live in houses that are bigger than they need, leaving five-million spare bedrooms across the province, according to a 2017 report by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis.

That means many seniors have more space than they can afford, while students struggle to pay rent for cramped living quarters, said Raza Mirza, a University of Toronto researcher with the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly.

The financial stress is exacerbated by growing costs and wait lists for long-term elder care or assisted living, Mirza said, while students face mounting tuitions.

With the Toronto Homeshare Pilot Project, Mirza and a group of researchers, social workers and government officials hope to find symbiotic solutions to these pressures so that seniors can stay in theirs homes, while students find new ones.

By Sept. 1, the four-month program is expected to match up as many as 20 pairs of senior-student roommates through a rigorous screening process. Participants will be asked to sign agreements that can require young boarders to commit up to seven hours per week to running errands or spending quality time with their hosts.

Researchers hope the insights they glean from the pilot project and subsequent studies will eventually be used to develop a home-sharing model that can be tailored to cities across the country.

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