For many seniors with spare rooms in their homes, a common desire is to make better use of that empty space. With McMaster Symbiosis, a co-housing program that matches students and seniors for a mutually-beneficial living arrangement, seniors with the extra space can do just that.

Beyond earning rent for an otherwise empty room, seniors can also get the help they need around the house and benefit from extra company in their homes. What results is so much more than the typical roommate or renter-landlord relationship – these intergenerational pairings often become confidantes, mentors and friends that transcend  age-related boundaries.


How McMaster Symbiosis works

The brainchild of postdoctoral fellow Soumeya Abed, McMaster Symbiosis aims to reduce costs and isolation for seniors and students alike, while promoting the unique benefits of intergenerational relationships in co-housing arrangements. Currently, McMaster students and seniors, aged 55 to 90, are recruited through the symbiosis website, advertising, word of mouth, as well as at various events throughout the year. Once the submitted applications are reviewed, candidates who are eligible for the program are invited for an interview.


Ensuring compatible matches

Candidates are matched based on compatible “profiles” based on personal preferences and hobbies. Once a pair is created, the two parties spend time together to see if the partnership is suitable in real-life. Ensuring the highest quality matches is of utmost importance to McMaster Symbiosis; students are also thoroughly vetted to alleviate some qualms seniors may have about inviting a stranger to live in their homes. Once a compatible match is created, personalized contracts are drafted as volunteers with McMaster Symbiosis continue to check-in and offer their support throughout every stage of the partnership.


Current activities

As of right now, McMaster Symbiosis is in the process of recruiting and interviewing seniors and students for the upcoming school year. The past few years have boasted successful partnerships – many of which will be continuing into the new year, signifying the program’s success – and program coordinators are aiming for more pairs moving forward.


Real-life success story

At the McMaster Symbiosis year-end presentation in April, I met one of the two successful partnerships from this past year. In speaking with Tafadzwa Machipisa, 27, and Constance Jain, who is in her 70s, my previous belief in the benefits of intergenerational co-housing was further strengthened. As I spoke to the two friends about their thoughts on McMaster Symbiosis, the over 45-year age gap was all but non-existent as they excitedly gave praise upon praise – about the program, and about each other.

While Machipisa studied in Cape Town prior to pursuing her PhD in cardiovascular genetics at McMaster University and Jain has been living in her Kirkendall South home alone for the past few years, the two were surprised to find how much common ground they actually shared.

Jain’s husband, who passed in 2016, was a McMaster University professor and researcher, and the two of them had travelled to South Africa many times. For Jain, it was a pleasure to once again share her home with a scientific mind and to offer her wisdom and experience to someone new to Canada. To her, Machipisa is more than just extra company – she’s like a granddaughter.

To Machipisa, Jain is a “very cool friend” who she cares deeply for. She was pleasantly surprised at how Jain was able to hold her own in conversations about research and genetics, and felt further at home upon hearing Jain’s South African travel stories. While Machipisa helped Jain with chores around the house, she felt as though Jain was more of a help to her in sharing life tips, life lessons, and in being her friend.


Insight from a McMaster Symbiosis volunteer


Left: postdoctoral fellow Soumeya Abed; right: Post-graduate Volunteer, Swatie Maharaj

Swatie Maharaj, a recent McMaster graduate, became involved with McMaster Symbiosis after learning of intergenerational housing arrangements in Europe.  “I thought it was a great idea. I really believe that young people can learn a lot from older generations. I had lived and taken care of my own grandmother and felt that it made me a much better person — a more responsible, patient, and kinder person.”

In recent years, there has been a rise in intergenerational co-housing, as people from around the world have come to realize the benefits of senior-student partnerships. Beyond universal benefits such as the mutual sharing of stories and culture, McMaster Symbiosis also boasts some unique qualities. “There has been a lot of cultural learning so far within our program, as our graduate students and seniors come from very diverse backgrounds,” said Maharaj. “We’ve also seen that seniors greatly benefit from the social interactions and sense of safety from having another person in their home, as well as a renewed sense of purpose in being able to [share their knowledge and stories with a younger person] who is there to listen.”


Friendship across boundaries

Like its namesake, McMaster Symbiosis aims to foster “symbiotic” intergenerational relationships between compatible seniors and students in a living arrangement that improves quality of life for both parties. When asked about one thing she would want seniors to know about the program, Maharaj exclaimed: “I want seniors to know that there are many good, trustworthy, and kind-hearted students at McMaster who need companionship just as much [as they do]. Not only does McMaster Symbiosis have practical benefits, but it also offers the unique opportunity to form a meaningful, [mutually rewarding] connection with [a new friend from a different generation]. After all, friendship has no age limit.”


CBC News: The National, Sept 5 2018

Canadian university connects young and old: A Canadian university is connecting young students with seniors who have a spare room. It’s part of a program to provide students with affordable housing, while offering extra support and companionship to seniors in the community.

CBC News – Online

Why these university students love living with seniors:  ‘It’s weird to say, “My roommate, who is 92,” says 23-year old participant in university co-housing program

Hamilton Spectator Article, June 2018

Seniors and students find its all good, living togetherSeniors, students living together through Symbiosis co-housing pilot project

Symbiosis Website:

Blog Post by Michelle Yeung

Updated Nov 28, 2019