Skip to main content

Retired Simon Fraser University professor Michael Wortis and SFU student Siobhan Ennis work in the garden outside his home in Burnaby, B.C., on June 10.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Michael Wortis spent more than a decade mostly living alone in his house. His wife’s Alzheimer’s and later death meant the 85-year-old retired physics professor, especially during the pandemic, craved the simple pleasure of someone to share breakfast or a coffee with.

Last November, Mr. Wortis, who taught at Simon Fraser University, joined a home-share program that matches SFU students with adults aged 55 and over who have a bedroom available for rent at below-market prices.

Now, Mr. Wortis not only has someone to share a meal with, but also someone who is teaching him internet memes and TikTok courtesy, and someone who can check on him if anything happens.

“It’s lovely for me, and also, I must say, for my kids who don’t live nearby and know that if I fall down on the floor, there’s somebody who will eventually find me,” he said.

Mr. Wortis’s roommate, Siobhan Ennis, said she’s benefited from the program, both practically and mentally.

“Having somebody to share stories with, keep in touch with on a regular basis – that kind of routine, I think of – it was really nice to have that stability,” said Ms. Ennis, a graduate student at SFU.

Mr. Wortis is healthy and mobile, but he understands he is among the at-risk population in circumstances such as extreme weather events. Last week, a BC Coroners Service report found that almost all of the 619 victims of the province’s record-breaking heat wave in June, 2021, died inside, in their homes. A majority of them – 67 per cent – were people aged 70 or older, and 56 per cent lived alone.

Slow response times by emergency personnel and the lack of a provincial warning alert system have been singled out as failures last year. But Jatinder Baidwan, Chief Medical Officer for the BC Coroners Service, also noted that the deaths were partly owing to how we have come to live – alone, without supports and social networks that look out for each other.

“It’s not a failure of the health system. It’s a failure of the way that we live,” Dr. Baidwan told reporters last week.

Canadian Census data identify an aging population and an increase in one-person households. This trend will increase the proportion of B.C.’s population vulnerable to heat-related mortality and morbidity, according to the report.

To prevent catastrophic heat-related mortality, a climate solutions expert said one of the key needs is to reduce isolation.

Mr. Wortis participates in a SFU home-share program that helps match students with adults who are over 55 and have a room available for rent. The students receive a reduced rent in exchange for helping out with housework.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

“What’s really critical to understand is it is social isolation, which is growing very rapidly all over industrialized countries for a variety of reasons. ... The surging growth in one-person households has really significant implications to health and vulnerability across the board,” said Alex Boston, executive director of Simon Fraser University’s Renewable Cities program.

He said people need to identify seniors who live close by and keep in touch with them during heat events. Mr. Boston, who sat on the panel that advised the coroners service on the heat deaths, said there are many innovations that can be made to allow greater connection between solo seniors and the broader population. The home-share program at SFU is one example, he noted.

In August, 2021, the university partnered with Canada HomeShare and launched its first project in Western Canada. The program, which is run by the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly, offers students subsidized rents, ranging from $400 to $600 a month, in return for helping their home provider with chores or sharing an occasional meal.

The pilot project started in Toronto in 2018. The SFU program has made five matches so far and aims to match another five pairs by the end of this year.

Mr. Boston noted Simon Fraser is set to embark on a separate project with Hollyburn Family Services, a multiservice agency providing support to help solo seniors manage their secondary suites in single detached homes.

“Often seniors don’t want to become a landlord, but the responsibility for being a landlord can be taken up by a housing provider. And once again, you can provide a new revenue stream for a senior, you can provide affordable housing for whoever it happens to be,” Mr. Boston said.

“And if you once again provide discounted rent for providing some really basic services, what you begin to have is social connection that happens between that senior and the tenant.”

Joy Hayden, director of innovation and engagement at Hollyburn Family Services, said that when they engaged seniors about this program before the COVID-19 pandemic, many who were in favour of it were financially driven. However, now, she noted, it’s about social connections.

The seniors said they didn’t want to live alone and didn’t want to be isolated again if there were to be another pandemic, Ms. Hayden said.

“So there’s been this real shift.”

Ms. Hayden said the program, which is still in the fundraising stage, will focus on matching seniors with seniors at the beginning, as senior homelessness is skyrocketing. But it will be opened to other demographics gradually, she added.

As episodes of extreme weather have become more common in Canadian cities, some jurisdictions have tried to tackle such crises with different approaches.

After Montreal suffered a deadly heat wave in 2018, the city’s health authorities tried to identify dwellings that are potential hot spots, so their residents can be redirected to cooler facilities during periods of oppressive heat.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.