Symbiosis: Grad Students and Seniors Co-Housing Program

Symbiosis: Grad Students and Seniors Co-Housing Program

Symbiosis is a program that aims to connect graduate students with seniors in the McMaster community for a mutually beneficial housing relationship.


What is your project about?

Symbiosis is a housing project that matches students with seniors in Hamilton and area. The concept – already successfully piloted around the globe – is a win-win. It connects students in need of low-cost housing with seniors who have a spare room and who could benefit from a bit of extra support and company.

International students who are working to improve their English Language Skills could benefit from the conversational English practice opportunities; seniors may benefit from a little bit of help around the house, and both partners could benefit from a sense of shared community/reduced isolation.

What are you going to do?

By connecting students and seniors, we are aiming to fill two needs at the same time: affordable housing for students and company and/or extra income for seniors.


Why are you doing it?

Our vision is to enhance community engagement in order to offer a better quality of life for both students and seniors, by helping them to overcome the current challenges they are facing. As former international students (and current postdocs) who were new to the Hamilton area, we could relate to the feeling of isolation and the difficulty of communicating in this new culture. We realized that other graduate students feel the same way and often contribute to reduced work output and feelings of depression. We also see a lot of elderly persons and through conversations, realized that they feel similarly isolated and love sharing their life experiences. Our project seems like a perfect win-win solution for both students and seniors; or to follow the famous quote “It is in giving that both parties will receive”.  

 Our mission:

The aim of symbiosis McMaster is to enhance the emotional and financial well being of graduate students by helping them to find an affordable accommodation and a smoother integration into the McMaster community through this partnership with established community members, seniors. The aim is also to enhance the feeling of well being of seniors of Hamilton area through social interactions with students, enabling them to share their life experiences, to feel that they are making a difference in someone’s life and hence, be re engaged in our community.


How are you going to do it?

We are aiming to connect students and seniors by offering a personalized service and we commit to make the best possible match to ensure a harmonious cohabitation and the success of this mutually beneficial relationship. This cohabitation is intended to be friendly, without any subordination between the two parts.

We will offer two different housing options:

  • Low cost room
  • Free room in exchange of modest help in the house

 Students and seniors can chose one of those options based on their needs.

 For seniors, we will help them to:

  • Identify their expectations
  • Define their ideal student profile
  • Prepare adequate living conditions for the student
  • Finalize their application
  • Regular follow-up to ensure that a harmonious cohabitation is achieved

 For students, we will help them to:

  • Understand seniors expectations
  • Identify their motivations in this program
  • Chose the best option that matches their needs (low rent versus free rent in exchange of services)
  • Regular follow-up to ensure that a harmonious cohabitation is achieved

This will be done through one-on-one interviews with both students and seniors to understand their needs and expectations better. Once we match a senior with a student, they will meet and discuss their mutual beneficial relationship (We will provide a project charter that will help them to familiarize themselves with their rights and responsibilities regarding each other). We are also planning to organize social events to our members and collaborators to share their experience and to enhance their relationships.

We have secured a team of mature graduate students and collaborations with seniors and students associations highly interested in our project and willing to assist us with the project promotion. More details on this can be found in the collaboration list. 


What results do you expect?

We would like to first set up a pilot program to determine if any adjustments are needed before to scale it up.

We are expecting to offer a solution to students housing shortage as well as reduce social isolation and loneliness among seniors, which we believe are two major problems in our society.

We are also expecting our program to be part of a solution to ESL students learning English and about Canadian culture.

A long-term outcome of this project would be to enhance community engagement and offer a better quality of life for both seniors and students. We predict that our project will have an economic, social, educational and well being impact. 


1- Soumeya Abed, Ph.D/ Faculty of Health Sciences/Postdoctoral fellow (in progress)/role: Soumeya was enrolled, for 3 years, in a similar housing program when she was an international student in France. With her experience, she is able to anticipate potential challenges and to offer adequate solutions. Her role is to set up the pilot project, ensure the follow-up and be the main point of contact with SGS.

2- Swatie Maharaj, Undergraduate/Faculty of Social Science (in progress)/role: Swatie is a co-coordinator for Symbiosis. Her role involves recruiting and matching students and seniors, program development, and communications. 

3 - Savitri Jetoo Ph.D/ Faculty of civil engineering/Postdoctoral fellow (2015/2016)/ Savitri played a major role in building connections and collaborations with students and seniors associations, as well as McMaster Graduate Students Office. As a former graduate student and postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University, she is familiar with students needs and is engaged in the McMaster community. She will continue promoting our project and building new collaborations.

4- Mohamed AbouZahra/ De Groote School of business/ PhD student. Mohamed is a PhD candidate in Information systems. He helped in the project charter writing and will help in the project follow-up and event organization.

5- Graduate students volunteers will be recruited for the social events organization.


February 2017: SPICES grant application

March 2017: Advertising and open house.  Open registrations to seniors and students.  

Early April 2017: One-on-one interviews and house visits to verify participant’s eligibility

Late April 2017: Match students and seniors

May 2017: Short-term contracts start (May to August)

August 2017: Social event for current symbiosis participants and collaborators and survey’s collection.

September 2017: Long-term contracts start (September to April-August)

December 2017: Holiday party

April 2018: End of the year party for 2017 participants (and survey’s collection). Submit the final report. 


Project Team

1. Soumeya Abed (Postdoctoral Fellow), Faculty of Health Sciences, Biotechnology, Founder and Director of Symbiosis Program

2. Swatie Maharaj (Undergraduate Student- Graduation 2018), Faculty of Social Sciences, Gerontology/Political Science, Program Manager (in charge of interviews/matches)

Project Contact


Phone: 647-648-4421

Facebook/Instagram/Twitter: @MacSymbiosis



We received 42 student applications and 14 senior applications, conducted 35 interviews, facilitated 7 matches and obtained 3 co-housing contracts.

For 2018-2019, we plan to organize more social events, open to all community members interested or curious about intergenerational co-housing. Those events are organized in order to increase awareness and knowledge about the program and also to enhance Symbiosis Community.

During the pilot program, we have set established procedures, a thorough student/senior recruitment process and collaborations with student and seniors groups in Hamilton.

We have secured a team of enthusiastic volunteers (Graduate students, McMaster Alumni and seniors) to run the program.

 The pilot year’s agenda was executed as follows:

  • Funding applications/Pitching/Partnerships (May - December 2016)
  • SPICES grant application (February 2017)
  • Establishment of procedures/process (March 2017)
  • Matching forms created (March 2017)
  • Liability/Home insurance (March 2017)
  • Contract draft, reviewed by the Legal Service (March - August 2017)
  • Promoting the program (May - August 2017)
  • Check-in with participants (October 2017 and March 2017)
  • Symbiosis Mixer (April 2018)
  • Recruit new program administrators (March - April 2018)
  • Planning for year 2 and revisiting existing contracts (May 2018)


Lessons Learned

Lack of public awareness or knowledge about co-housing - We learned that while intergenerational co-housing has existed around the world for at least 18 years, many seniors, students and partners were unfamiliar with the concept. By attending events such as the 2017 Senior’s Kickoff Event, promoting through social media and other means, we were able to continue raising awareness of the program and its benefits.


Student expectations - Although we use interviews to assess the students’ interests and preferences, they were also very important for ensuring that students understood that intergenerational co-housing  is about mutual benefit and building relationships rather than just affordable accommodation.


Resistance by some seniors to the idea of co-housing - Many seniors and their family members fear the risks involved in taking in a stranger and habits changes/privacy. Asking students for a criminal background check was helpful in making seniors feel more comfortable with their matches. In some cases seniors required that students provide a schedule of the times they may leave and come home, but this was not feasible for many students.






The feedback given to us by our participants has been overwhelmingly positive and rewarding. Responses gathered through our end-of-year mixer proved that co-housing is beneficial to seniors and students as they both expressed increased sense of community, companionship and learning about different cultures. Students and seniors spent quality time by cooking, dining, and doing recreational activities with each other.


Here’s a testimonial from one of our seniors:

“The symbiosis cohousing is great I think if the right fit is there for the student and landlord, it’s a great experience.  I am so lucky, that (the student) is a perfect fit, she has renewed her stay with us for another 12 months”.


Budget Narrative





Actual Costs




Uber for home visit





Initial purchase





Monthly $45.20 x10 months           



Social Events




Year-end mixer - see table below



Flyers, posters, business cards







Mixer Expenses


Actual Costs


First Unitarian United Church - Fellowship Hall



For advertising mixer at HTAL


2 wireless mics



Batteries for powerpoint clicker



Thank You cards

For guest speakers (participants) and volunteers


Flowers for participants

6 bouquets


Tim Hortons gift cards

For participants and 1 volunteer - 7 cards


Refreshments and snacks

Tim Hortons and fruit plate






The McMaster Symbiosis Program would like to that the following collaborators and supporters for their ongoing assistance


School of Graduate Studies staff (Andrea Cole/Pete Self)

Dr. Ellen Ryan, Hamilton Aging Together 

Helen Barton, McMaster University Retirees Association (MURA)

Gilbrea/MIRA, McMaster University

Anne Swift, Alzheimer Society of Hamilton and Halton

Jody White Van de Klippe, Dance for Parkinson’s Hamilton City Ballet

Lisa Maychak, Age Friendly (Hamilton)

Shelagh Kiely,  Hamilton Council on Aging

Ward 1

Mona Levenstein,  Hamilton Third Age Learning Association (HTAL)

Kathy Hyde, KX 94-7 radio (Hamilton)

Jocelyn Weatherbe, CoHoHO (co-housing Hamilton) group