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Intergenerational support provided by Toronto’s HomeShare program reduces social isolation among older adults and students during the COVID-19 pandemic

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When first-year University of Toronto student Lee Chang opted to stay with her roommate in the city rather than go home to her family during the pandemic, it was a tough decision. But she has no regrets, and her roommate Catherine Tordoff – an older adult who’s part of the intergenerational Toronto HomeShare program – is grateful she hasn’t had to face the crisis alone.

“I’m a very social person and quite active in my church, so I’m finding this hard,” says Tordoff, who must be especially cautious because she’s immunocompromised. “I’ve also been missing my daughter, who lives outside Toronto. Without Lee here, it would’ve been even more difficult.”

The Toronto HomeShare program pairs post-secondary students with older adults willing to rent their spare rooms. Run by the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (NICE) – housed at U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work – and funded by the City of Toronto, the program expanded to 100 students in the 2019/2020 academic year. When the roommates were matched, no one expected they’d be living through a global pandemic, but in many cases both the students and the older adults they live with have been buoyed by intergenerational support the HomeShare program provides.

Chang, a self-described “homebody,” says she’s grateful to have had a quiet, familiar place to finish up her studies online. Staying in hasn’t bothered her much, but she recognizes that it’s been tougher on Tordoff and has made a point of spending more time with her. The two have started watching a few TV series together and shared a meal recently.

Tordoff gets her groceries delivered and uses seniors’ hours at the pharmacy, but Chang also picks things up for her occasionally. “It’s just nice to know someone else that I’m comfortable with is in the house,” says Tordoff, who decided to get a roommate to supplement her retirement income and allow her to feel more secure in her home of 27 years. “I’d heard about an older friend who died and wasn’t found for several days, and I never wanted that to happen to me. But I wasn’t willing to just put up an ad and interview strangers.”

When Tordoff learned about Toronto HomeShare, she applied right away. The program began as a pilot project in 2018 with 12 post-secondary students paired with older adults willing to rent their spare rooms. Tordoff said she felt reassured by the fact that the program is run by a team of social workers who screen applicants and provide ongoing support such as mediation and conflict resolution. For Chang, the program solved several problems: the commute from home was too long, living with student roommates didn’t suit her and it was nearly impossible to find affordable accommodation.

In exchange for reduced rent, students provide up to seven hours of companionship and/or help with household tasks. “But it’s so much more than a transaction,” says Jackie Tanner (MSW 2019), the program manager and clinical lead. She completed her master of social work degree with a specialization in gerontology at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work last year. “We put a lot of thought and care into creating each match because we’re building relationships.”

Since the pandemic began, Tanner has ensured that a social worker is on call around the clock to manage any concerns from participants. So far, though, they’ve only fielded general questions about COVID-19. “I’m not surprised, because the whole program is founded on an intentionally symbiotic relationship,” she says. “Both sides have been very respectful and committed to keeping each other safe and supported.”

Tanner first learned about Toronto HomeShare from Raza Mirza, a senior research associate at U of T’s Institute for Life Course and Aging, who taught one of her MSW courses. Mirza and his team at the NICE, where he is the network manager, are in charge of implementing and evaluating the program. Their research results from the pilot project show that intergenerational home-sharing not only brings economic benefits to participants, but may also prevent and reduce the increased prevalence of social isolation among both students and older adults.

“The isolation issue is particularly relevant during the pandemic,” says Mirza. “Many people now have a new awareness of the negative effects of being alone for prolonged periods, and it might inspire them to plan ahead so that they won’t face this situation in the future.” Even before the pandemic, there was growing interest across Canada and internationally in replicating Toronto HomeShare, and Mirza predicts this may increase.

“I believe our post-pandemic solutions will have to be intergenerational,” he says. “We need to re-imagine how we live, how we care for each other and how we manage the financial fall-out. Home-sharing is a win-win for all parties.”

As for Tordoff and Chang, they’ve both encouraged their peers to try it out. And as soon as Tordoff’s church opens again, she plans to feature the program at the monthly senior’s lunch.

By Megan Easton

(Pictured above: Staff from the Toronto HomeShare program)

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