Symbiosis: Students and Seniors Co-Housing Program (Renewal)

Symbiosis: Students and Seniors Co-Housing Program (Renewal)

Symbiosis is a program that connects students with seniors in the McMaster Community for a mutually beneficial housing relationship.


What is your project about?

Symbiosis is a housing program 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 extra support and companionship.  

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 fill two needs at the same time: Offer an affordable housing for students and extra income or help around the house for seniors. Both parties can benefit from a sense of shared community/reduced isolation.

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 overcome the current challenges they are facing. The program was initiated by McMaster Postdoctoral Fellows (Soumeya Abed and Savitri Jetoo) who were new to the Hamilton area, and who could relate to the feeling of isolation and the difficulty of communicating in this new culture. 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 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.

The pilot program was launched in 2017 through a SPICES application. After a successful year evidenced by student-senior pairs’ testimonials and their decision to continue their co-housing arrangement beyond the pilot, we aim to continue offering this service to seniors and students in the McMaster Community.


Symbiosis Program has been recognized by the City of Hamilton (Age Friendly Hamilton) as one of Hamilton’s top 3 housing achievements in 2017. 

How are you going to do it?

We 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 parties.

We offer two different housing options:

  • Low cost room
  • Free room in exchange of modest help in the house (Light housekeeping, shoveling, yard care, etc…)

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

 For seniors, we 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 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 is done through one-on-one interviews with both students and seniors to better define their needs and expectations. Once we match a senior with a student, they will meet and discuss their mutual beneficial relationship (We provide a project charter that helps them to familiarize themselves with their rights and responsibilities regarding each other). After a mutual agreement between both parties to the Co-housing arrangement, they will sign a personalized “Co-housing Agreement” that highlights what has been agreed upon.

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. More details on this can be found in the collaboration list. 

What results do you expect?

Our focus during the pilot program was to set up a successful matching process and determine if any adjustments are needed before to scale it up.

One important aspect that we would like to focus on in 2018-2019 is to increase awareness and knowledge about the program through social events with community members. Those events are a good opportunity to inform and clarify our thorough process and hopefully overcome resistance by some seniors to the idea of intergenerational co-housing, in particular because of fear of the potential risks involved in taking in a stranger.

Testimonials from our current student-senior pairs are encouraging and we are expecting to see more in this coming year, by offering a solution to students housing shortage as well as reduce social isolation and loneliness among seniors.

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 (Postdoctoral Fellow), Faculty of Health Sciences, Biotechnology, Founder and Director of Symbiosis Program
  2. Stephanie Hatzifilalithis (Ph.D student), Faculty of Health and Aging, Social Gerontoly, Project liaison and treasurer
  3. Swatie Maharaj (Undergraduate Student- Graduation 2018), Faculty of Social Sciences, Gerontology/Political Science, Program Manager (In charge of interviews/matches) 
  4. Carly Whitmore (Ph.D student), Faculty of Health Sciences, Nursing, Outreach Manager
  5. Daphne Payne, Retired, Community Liaison (involved in interviews/matches)
  6. Mohib Hassan (MSc. Student-Graduation 2018), Faculty of Engineering, Special Events Manager




April 2018: SPICES grant application

May 2018: Program promotion.  Open registrations to seniors and students.  

June 2018: Senior’s month Open House.

May-August 2018:

- One-on-one interviews and home visits to verify participant’s eligibility.

- Students-seniors matches.

September 2018: Move-in and co-housing contracts sign-up.

December 2018: Holiday party/Mixer.

April 2019: 

-End of the year Mixer event.

-Collect testimonials/feedback from participants.

- Submit the final report. 


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Edit Outcome Report

Project Team

  1. Soumeya Abed (Postdoctoral Fellow), Faculty of Health Sciences, Director and Founder
  2. Stephanie Hatzifilalithis (Ph.D student), Faculty of Health and Aging, Project Liaison and Treasurer
  3. Sandra Lubert (BA BEd), retired senior, Community member/Liaison

Project Contact



Phone: 647-648-4421

Facebook: @Macsymbiosis

Twitter: @Macsymbiosis

Lessons Learned




McMaster Symbiosis program was launched in May 2017. The objective of our project is to offer affordable housing for McMaster students and enhance the social inclusion of seniors in the Greater Hamilton Area, through a mutually beneficial housing relationship between the two parties. Our pilot project was successful, evidenced by student-senior testimonials and is reflected in the fact that so far, all parties involved have decided mutually to extend their co-housing arrangement for another year. Despite these achievements, we noticed that there was still a lack of awareness about intergenerational cohousing concept in Hamilton area. For this past year, we set three main objectives:


1-    Increasing awareness about intergenerational cohousing

2-    Making good quality matches between students and seniors with respect to cohousing

3-    Enhancing community engagement through our social events





1-    OUTREACH: We contributed to increase awareness about our program and intergenerational cohousing concept in general by:


* Dropping off brochures at various locations, including faith communities, community centres and libraries (over 10)


*  Attending outreach activities and giving talks, including:


- Senior’s month kickoff, June 1, 2018, display table.

- Building neighbourliness across generations (Hamilton Aging Together), June 4, 2018, display table

- Financing Affordable and Inclusive Housing, July 12, 2018, roundtable

- International older adults day, October 1, 2018, booth (shared with Seniors of Canada).

- Binkley Community Roundtable (Binkley United Church), October 4, 2018, brief presentation

- Faculty of Architecture and Urban Design, UofT, November 20, 2018, talk

- Ainslie wood Association General Meeting, January 10, 2019, brief presentation

- Hamilton Seniors Active Leaving & Volunteer Fair (Hamilton Council on Aging), January 11, 2019, booth and presentation.

- Lunch n Learn Presentation: Body & Soul Senior Fitness, January 15, 2019, presentation

- Recreation Professionals of Ontario, March 27, 2019, talk.


Upcoming outreach events:


- Lunch n Learn, Dundas Museum and Archives, Dundas, May 27, 2019, talk

- Seniors kick off event, Michelangelo’s, May 29, 2019, Booth.

- Dundas Annual Seniors’ Information Fair, Dundas Lions Memmorial Community Centre, June 11, Display table.

- Lunch n Learn, Ancaster Senior Achievement Centre, November 27, 2019, talk.


* Social media: We currently have 94 followers on Facebook, and 109 on Twitter


* Media coverage: We have started to receive local and national media coverage including Hamilton Spectator, Cable 14, CBC News, CBC The National, CBC Radio and Radio Canada International.

Symbiosis student-senior co-housing stories have been shared and liked on social media by thousands of people and received hundreds of positive comments.


*Partnerships: Our organization is actively involved in research, education and knowledge exchange. Some of our activities included interviews for a research study on intergenerational cohousing at Queen’s university, and for the private sector. We are also currently in discussion with the Gilbrea Centre for Studies in Aging, Hamilton Aging Together, Q.Reserve, the housing department, the School of Interdisciplinary Science at McMaster University for future collaborations.



2-    MATCHES: Our second goal was to make good quality matches. In 2018-2019, we received 65 requests from students, 25 from seniors, we conducted 38 interviews, and facilitated 8 co-housing arrangements. Our program participants shared their successful cohousing arrangements; some inspiring stories are available here:



McMaster Dailynews

Hamilton Spectator

CBC News

CBC The National

CBC Radio-White Coat Black Art



            3- COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT: The Symbiosis team organized two social events. These events are open to all community members, including our program participants and all those who have supported or are just curious about our program, and they aim to enhance Symbiosis community.


  • December 2018 (Holiday Mixer) (number of attendees: 35)

Our “target audience” was achieved, as our attendees included many students and seniors. The Hon. Filomena Tassi, federal Minister of Senior Affairs attended and offered enthusiastic, vocal support

At this event, we provided an overview of our program

A newly matched student-senior pair shared their experience

We answered some questions from the audience.

We also hosted Seniors of Canada photo exhibit


  • April 2019 (End-of-Year Mixer) (number of attendees: 25)

Our “target audience” was also achieved, as our attendees included many students and seniors.

Returning and new program participants attended.

The aim of this event was to create an opportunity to socialize and mingle and also connect Symbiosis participants with each other to enhance Symbiosis community.


* Successful matches: The best part of our project was the successful matches we have made.

 The feedback provided by our participants has been overwhelmingly positive. Also, all the previous matches made in 2017-2018 decided to extend their arrangement for another year. Local and national media including McMaster Daily News, Hamilton Spectator, CBC news, CBC The National, CBC Radio, have covered some of these successful stories.


*Inspiring and helping new cohousing initiatives: McMaster Symbiosis has already inspired cities across North America and abroad (over 30 requests from university professors, government, students, social workers, senior community centres, seniors and from the private sector). We have shared our experience and the tools we developed with cities from Victoria, BC to Washington DC.


*Creating research opportunities: We received collaboration requests from national and international research institutions, interested in studying intergenerational interactions.


*Multidisciplinary interactions: We have been invited to present our project to a variety of audiences including Recreation Professionals of Ontario and the Faculty of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Toronto. Interacting with different audiences gave us the opportunity to see our project from different perspectives, which was very stimulating.


* Additional services: This year, we have been introducing an “Emergency Housing Service”. Many seniors kindly offered to temporarily host students in financial need.

Budget Narrative


Approved Budget

Actual Expense



$545 + Revised $87

1)   Phone Bill for 12 months $45.20 for 10 months (two months not paid)

2)   Phone Bill for six Months $45.20 x 6


Running  Total:




$755.00 + Revised $30

1)    Materials for Events $350.30

2)    Banner $178.52

3)    Flyers $256

Running total:




$750 + Revised $1,100

1)    Coffee News


2)    Website Development $1,100

Running Total: $1,536



Total: $200

1)    To Interviews $120

Running Total: $120

Social Events

Total: $2,000

1)    Space December 13th  $120

2)    Catering July 18th  $148

3)    Gift Cards December 13th $250

4)    Catering December 13th $240

5)    Microphone/Speaker $100

6)    Catering April 16th $107

7)    Space April 16th  $120

Running Total: $1,085

Total funded: $4,250 (SPICES 3,500 + GSA $750)  

Total Spent: $4,248.82



We would like to thank The School of Graduate Studies staff Andrea Cole, Pete Self, Correen Smith and Judi Pattison for all their support and for funding our project through the SPICES grant. We would like also to thank the Graduate Studies Association for their financial support. We would like to extend our thanks to all those who have helped us promote our program to students, seniors and the broader community:


- Ellen Ryan, Hamilton Aging in Community

- Helen Barton, McMaster University Retirees Association (MURA)

- The Gilbrea Centre for Studies in Aging

- McMaster Institute for Research on Aging

- McMaster Community Engagement Office

- Housing Department, McMaster University

- Michelle Donovan, McMaster Communications

- Frankie Aylward, Newfoundland

- Anne Swift, Alzheimer Society of Hamilton and Halton

- Jody White Van de Klippe, Dance for Parkinson’s

- Lisa Maychak, Age Friendly Hamilton

- Shelagh Kiely, Hamilton Council on Aging

- Aidan Johnson office, WARD 1 councilor

- Mona Levenstein, Hamilton Third Age Association

- Jocelyn Weatherbe, Hamilton senior cohousing initiative

- Brian Snell, Binkley United Church

- Sheryl Wickens-Perrie, Ainslie Wood Community Association

- Hon. Filomena Tassi, local MP

- JD Howell/Sarah Janes, Dailynews McMaster University

- Natalie Paton, Hamilton Spectator

- Kas Roussy, CBC news/CBC The National

- Jeff Goods, CBC Radio One-White Coat Black Art

- Carmel Kilkenny, Radio Canada International

- Tina Tenneriello,

- Helene Caron, CFMU French Toast

- James McMillan, Cable 14- City Matters

A special thank you to all the volunteers who have been involved in the initiation, development, funding requests/pitches or the execution of the program since 2016:


- Savitri Jetoo

- Yacine Touahri

- Mohamed Abouzahra

- Lata Adnani

- Geoff Foulds

- Myles Lake

- Po-Min Shih

- Swatie Maharaj

- Daphne Payne

- Mohib Hassan

- Carly Whitmore


Last but not least, we would especially like to thank our student and senior participants for their trust. A special thank you to our pairs for kindly sharing their cohousing experience at our events and on media. We are truly grateful for their time and for their ongoing support.