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“I pull up Google, and he has an encyclopedia in his brain”: the tale of an intergenerational friendship

Pairing a senior adult with a student is becoming a new age solution for rising mortgages, skyrocketing rent and social isolation, according to the Canada Homeshare program.

A summer ago, Siobhan Ennis had uninvited guests in her house: rats; chewing walls and making themselves at home.

Perhaps, if it was the chef-rat, Remy from Ratatouille, one wouldn’t have complained? But Siobhan Ennis didn’t luck out there. She had to live with the rodents for the better part of last summer, with fewer options out there for housing.

Siobhan Ennis, a student from Simon Fraser University (SFU), much like other students across the nation, felt the weight of skyrocketing rent and the housing shortage.

In the search for safe, affordable housing and fewer options to choose from, she bumped into an innovative program advertised through her university.

Ennis entered an application for Canada Homeshare’s pilot program in Metro Vancouver, for an intergenerational housing option.

Within a short span of time, she was paired with Michael Wortis, a retired professor from SFU, who warmly welcomed her into his house.

There, she forged an unlikely friendship — think Rick and Morty, minus the interdimensional adventures.

The house became home.

“I really appreciate the way in which Michael welcomed me into his family and his home, especially during Christmas,” she said. “It felt like such a storybook kind of Hallmark video kind of experience, where, you know, everything was just warm and fuzzy.”

For Wortis, this was the tale of finding a friend who becomes family.

Wortis, having lost his wife to Alzheimer's back in 2015, was in the search of a new companion in his house after his grandkids moved out.

Enter Siobhan Ennis.

From cooking together, sharing love through shared meals, gardening and shovelling to going cross-country kayaking, the pair overcame the generation gap to find family in friends.

“When you're knocking around at my age, in this kind of big house, it's nice to have somebody who's around once in a while,” the retired professor said.

Wortis, 85, finds solace in spending time with a younger person. Having help navigating technological and physical obstacles is just icing on the cake, according to him.

He believes that there is lot of learning and growth to such a living arrangement. “It's wonderful to have the younger folks around.”

“You know, when my cellphone isn't working, or I don't understand something, Siobhan understands it much better than I do, so I get the problem solved.”

While the professor laughs at the technological mishaps in his life, Ennis marvels at the expanse of knowledge in Wortis’s brain while addressing the generational gap.

“I think the biggest generation gap perhaps is the way that we seek information in that I pull up Google immediately,” she said.

“And Michael has an encyclopedia in his brain that he can just remember things.”

The friendship was forged in an unlikely manner, but both Ennis and Wortis hope their friendship will continue beyond their home-sharing days.


Canada Homeshare program

The tale of Ennis and Wortis is not the first story, and certainly not the last. The intergenerational housing model is gaining popularity across Canada.

Housing shortages and rental woes have led people to seek alternate options.

Two of Canada’s three most expensive places to rent are in British Columbia — led by Vancouver, and closely followed in the third place by Burnaby. 

These factors have made it hard for renters, especially students, who generally are on a smaller budget.

As a solution for students accessing affordable housing, Canada Homeshare, a non-profit organization, has partnered with several universities across the nation to devise alternate options.

In addition to students getting subsidized and safe housing options, this housing model also addresses another concern in our communities: deteriorating mental health in older adults as a result of social isolation due to the pandemic.

Having a helping hand in the house can be a benefit for the older adults, both physically and mentally.

“Having a student around to provide companionship is beneficial to both,” said Jackie Tanner, clinical lead at Canada Homeshare. “For students, they receive safe and affordable housing close to campus and get the benefits of that intergenerational relationship as well."

The program was penned back in 2019, in Toronto. Since its inception, it has expanded to many cities, including Metro Vancouver. Many cities, including Metro Vancouver, are still in their pilot stages and finding a place in the community.

“Getting the word out has been a challenge,” Tanner admitted. “It can be a little bit intimidating and anxiety provoking to share your home, but we're there every step of the way.”

A group of social workers from the local communities aid the applicants throughout the way, navigating this new and innovative way of life.