I’m a 27-year-old student who moved in with an 86-year-old to save on rent

“That family hierarchy doesn’t exist between us—we treat each other as equals.”

Siobhan Ennis
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Last fall, I was living with three roommates in a rickety 1970s single-family home in East Vancouver. The place was falling apart: our roof collapsed in October of 2020, and our landlords did a lousy job of patching it up (they put a tarp over it and called it a day). Rotting insulation fell around the dining room and kitchen, and rodents had invaded the house through a gaping hole in the foundation. We were four students living in a cheap place to save money—I was only paying $500 a month in rent—but it had become a nightmare.

I started looking for a new place. I wanted to find a rental that was both cheap and close to Simon Fraser University, where I’m a 27-year-old master’s student in virology. I saw an advertisement in our university newsletter for a program called Canada HomeShare, which pairs students looking for affordable housing with seniors who have extra space in their homes. In exchange for cheaper rents that range from $400 to $600 a month, students help out around the house and keep seniors company. I had moved in with strangers I found on Craigslist and Facebook before without any major issues, and this seemed more or less the same. I followed the link on the advertisement and filled out an application form.

Four months later, I received an email from the program inviting me for a Zoom chat with a potential roommate to check for compatibility. There I met Michael: an 86-year-old man who has housed students in search of a rental ever since his own children moved out about 30 years ago. We hit it off right away: we talked about kayaking, which he enjoys and which I picked up just last summer. The social worker had scheduled 30 minutes for our chat, but we were so wrapped up in discussion that we talked for more than an hour.

I felt great about my call with Michael, and even better when I found out that his home was even closer to campus than my old apartment. He lives in a detached three-bedroom home with a workshop, a study offering panoramic views of the North Shore mountains and the Burrard Inlet, and plenty of convertible space to accommodate guests. I’d pay him $400 in rent each month to live in a much nicer space, in exchange for some house chores and company. His home is cheaper, closer to my lab and we got along well—I left my old place and we’ve been living together for a year now.

As soon as I moved in with Michael, I realized how nice it was to have space for myself. I live in the basement and have my own bedroom and bathroom, and his room is on the second floor on the opposite end of the house. The place is large enough to be private when we want it to be, but we spend a lot of time with each other in the kitchen and dining room. We have breakfast together every day, and usually share two or three more meals every week.

Sometimes, I come home late from the lab and he has dinner ready or has a fresh loaf of bread baking in the oven. It’s the best thing I could ask for after a long day of researching. My official role around the house is to take out the garbage and recycling, but we eventually began to cook together and share other household chores.

READ: Rent hikes priced me out of my Toronto apartment. So I moved in with my 65-year-old aunt.

I’m Chinese, and I grew up eating and cooking a variety of Chinese-Singaporean dishes with my mom. To reproduce that at Michael’s place, I thought I might have to bring a wagon of spices with me. But his pantry has all the ingredients I could ask for and more. Not only do we have similar taste in food, he’s a much better cook than I am. He whips up a mean baba ghanoush, and he once made a delicious Chinese-style watercress soup that was better than my own.

We started having weekly movie nights on Saturdays. We’ve covered a lot of ground, from Marvel superhero movies to Bridge on the River Kwai. I also watch much less TV than I used to in my old place: my time is spent with good discussion. I’m pretty liberal, and Michael is even more left-leaning than I am. In our first months living together, we’ve had some pretty intense conversations about reproductive rights, racism, human rights injustices and wars. I learn a lot: he is so well-read and shares perspectives I hadn’t thought about before.

Michael is also the most energetic 86-year-old I’ve ever met. He walks five miles every day, goes on mountain expeditions and loves the outdoors. It’s not uncommon for me to wake up and see him on the roof cleaning the gutters. When a snowstorm hit Vancouver a few weeks ago, we were out shovelling the driveway together. He’s taught me all kinds of outdoor skills, like how to trim unwieldy branches with a chainsaw, how to prune fruit trees, and how to spot different types of birds: this week I became familiar with the northern flicker.

Living with Michael made me realize how my social circle shrunk during the pandemic. Other than my roommates and supervisors in the lab, I didn’t interact with many other people, and spent almost no time with my elderly grandparents in fear of passing COVID onto them. Michael made me realize how much I missed interacting with seniors.

We have a special dynamic. Most people who live with someone older are dealing with grandparents or great aunts and uncles. But that family hierarchy doesn’t exist between me and Michael—we treat each other as equals.

I’ll soon finish my master’s thesis, and I might do a PhD after. I’ll have to go where my research takes me, and that might not be in Burnaby. A part of me would be sad to leave: I have this huge bedroom in a beautiful house with more privacy than I’ve ever had. Compared to my old place with a falling roof, this feels like I’ve stepped into a fairy tale. I hope I can keep this living arrangement for as long as I stay in town—as long as Michael will have me.

—As Told To Alex Cyr