SFU student, retired professor forge unlikely friendship as roommates

December 17, 2021
Retired SFU physics professor Michael Wortis and Siobhan Ennis, a student in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, are roommates. The pair are the first participants in the Metro Vancouver HomeShare program, which matches university students with older adults with room in their homes.

A retired SFU professor is getting lessons in internet culture, memes and TikTok courtesy of his unlikely friendship with his new undergraduate roommate.

An innovative intergenerational housing solution is pairing Simon Fraser University students in need of affordable housing with older adults looking for help with household tasks and companionship.

Earlier this week, Metro Vancouver HomeShare announced its first match in the Lower Mainland through a partnership with SFU. The program, which is run by the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly, offers students subsidized rents in return for helping their home provider with chores or sharing the odd, optional meal.

It’s been two months since Siobhan Ennis, a student in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, moved in with Michael Wortis, a retired SFU physics professor. The pair, the program’s first SFU participants, have shared meals and chores like leaf-raking and lawn mowing.

“Last week Michael and I cooked up a feast of different curries and masala chai, which we enjoyed over stories of his time in Pakistan,” Ennis says. “I introduced Michael to wolfberries, a staple of traditional Chinese medicine and cooking, and he whipped them up into a delicious loaf of bread with nuts and cinnamon.

“It’s lovely to come home after a long day on campus to the smell of fresh bread and a hearty, ‘Hello!’”

The pair have gardened together, harvested Jerusalem artichokes for a delicious homemade soup and exchanged pottery-fixing techniques. She hopes to learn how to use Wortis’ old Singer sewing machine to make some new cushions for the living room. They’ve also held a weekly movie night and Ennis has helped explain internet culture, memes and TikTok.   

'The best thing is simply to have another person around, a new set of stories to learn and a new person to hear my stories, and links to a world that is offset from mine by about 60 years.'

- Retired SFU physics professor Michael Wortis

Wortis, who applied to be a part of Metro Vancouver HomeShare in August, says there are adjustments to having another person around the house and sharing the kitchen, but that Ennis has been sensitive and helpful.

“The best thing is simply to have another person around, a new set of stories to learn and a new person to hear my stories, and links to a world that is offset from mine by about 60 years,” Wortis says.

Canada HomeShare is overseen by a team of social workers who facilitate the process from application to the end of the match. Rents range from $400-600 per month and students contribute up to seven hours of companionship and light household tasks weekly, such as tidying, walking a pet or sharing a meal, which is optional.

Although the Metro Vancouver HomeShare program is being run in partnership with SFU’s Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology (FCAT), it is open to all domestic SFU students.

“Metro Vancouver is regularly noted as a region with some of the most expensive real estate and rental markets in the world,” Wortis says. “Secure housing plays a critical role in a student's academic success and mental health.”

Kim Hockey, FCAT’s associate director, alumni and community engagement, says other SFU faculties will be formally invited to participate in the program this spring. Students can apply as homeshare applicants now through SFU’s Residence and Housing’s off-campus housing page or FCAT’s community engagement page.

Hockey hopes the Metro Vancouver HomeShare Program will play a key role in providing safe and affordable off-campus housing for students while enabling older adults to age-in-place, in the homes and communities of their choice.

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