$300k funding promotes social connectedness amongst older adults within high-density/multi-unit rental housing communities

January 18, 2023

Dr. Atiya Mahmood, Associate Professor in the Gerontology Department, SFU is the Co-Principal Investigator (PI) of the project titled: Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC): The role of intergenerational social connectedness programming within multi-unit housing in supporting older adults to age in place.

Dr. Mahmood led the grant proposal development and submission of a recently funded MITACs Accelerate Grant of $300,000 ($225,000 from the Mitacs Accelerate Grant funds with a match of $75,000 by Landlord BC. The Department of Gerontology received $150,000 of this fund to support research interns in Gerontology. This funding will cover 10 six-month graduate internships over the time period of Fall 2022 to Summer 2024. The Gerontology MITACs graduate research interns on this project are: Sogol Haji Hosseini, Rojan Nasiri, Niloofar Hedayati and Farinaz Rikhtegaran. Ahad Kamranzadeh is also participating in this project as a research intern from Urban Studies.

Based on the surveys conducted by the Vancouver Foundation in 2012 and 2017, two-thirds of respondents reported experiencing a sense of belonging, approximately one in four reported being lonelier than they would like, and one in five did not have a neighbour to ask for help (Vancouver Foundation, 2017). Since the 2012 survey, there has been a decline in social and community connectedness across all demographics (Vancouver Foundation, 2017). The City of Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health report (Elmer, 2018) on older adults demonstrated that a significant percentage of older adults face social isolation, especially older adults living alone. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the experience of loneliness and social isolation was heightened among older adults compared with pre-pandemic times (Kadowaki & Wister, 2022). Research has shown that the effects of chronic social isolation and loneliness can become self-reinforcing (Elmer, 2018). Finding ways to foster social connections within multi-unit rental housing can help mitigate the negative effects of social isolation. Multi-unit rental housing is becoming the norm for low to moderate income households. Many older adults with limited income live in this type of housing. These older adults are more likely to experience isolation and face greater barriers to social participation (National Seniors Council, 2017). Research has also shown that people living in this type of housing typically have lower levels of connection and community between neighbours, which was exacerbated by the pandemic (Ottoni et al., 2022).

Since the pandemic, people have been encouraged to stick to their core bubble of friends (Holden et al., 2021). In the summer of 2020, the Hey Neighbour Collective (HNC) conducted a survey with residents at Brightside Community Housing and Catalyst Community Development Society in B.C. They found that individuals with four or more confidants had 1.5 times higher odds of reporting excellent or very good mental health, as opposed to individuals with fewer than four confidants who had 2.3 times higher odds of reporting fair or poor mental health (Holden et al., 2021). This highlights the importance of social connection to one’s health and wellbeing. Emerging out of the pandemic, one of the core goals of the HNC is to address this issue and identify and work with promising practice partners to enhance social engagement within high density rental housing (see: The Community of Practice partners on this project include: Catalyst Community Developments Society, Brightside Community Homes Foundation, Concert Properties, Building Resilient Neighbourhoods, West End Seniors Network, and Seniors Services Society of BC.  In addition, there are several learning network partners on this project: Landlord BC, BC Non-Profit Housing Association, City of Vancouver, City of Victoria, City of New Westminster, Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health, BC Housing and United Way Lower Mainland. Recently, HNC has also included aging in place and intergenerational relations as a core focus in its programming and research efforts around social engagement in high density rental housing.

Dr. Mahmood is collaborating with Madeleine Hebert, from Happy Cities to identify the role of the built environment in social engagement and aging in place in multi-unit rental housing in Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island. The Gerontology Department research interns under the supervision of Dr. Mahmood are conducting built environment audits, and behaviour mapping observations. They will facilitate focus group interviews with residents and conduct semi-structured interviews with management/staff of multi-unit rental housing providers. They will also assist in data analysis and knowledge mobilization. There will be four data sets used for data collection, 1) building audits, 2) behavioural observations, 3) interviews with staff and programming information, and 4) focus groups and engagement with residents.  In the summer of 2023, a community forum will be held to showcase the results of the research and discuss how findings can be implemented into future programming initiatives to enhance social connectedness and aging in place. This will be followed by a written report in the fall of 2023.

Two types of built environment audits (indoor public spaces and nearby external spaces) are being conducted in 20 multi-unit rental buildings managed, operated, and owned by Brightside Homes and Concert Properties. These audits will help to identify built environment barriers and facilitators to social engagement and aging in place. Utilizing and adapted tool developed from the Aging in the Right Place (AIRP) audit tool and the Designing Shared Social Spaces toolkit, the research interns are identifying what environmental qualities and features are needed in shared indoor and outdoor spaces to make them effective as places for social engagement, neighbourliness, aging in place and intergenerational connections in multi-unit rental housing. These audits are being conducted across diverse building typologies (low-row, mid-rise, high-rise) to gather data from different types of building layouts and morphologies. These audits are accompanied by behavioural mapping within formal (community and activity rooms, lounges) and informal (lobbies, mailboxes and laundry rooms) spaces to identify the level and types of social engagement within these spaces, and also to identify areas that have the potential to be a social space. The secondary observation tool from Stakeholders Walkability/Wheelability Audit in Neighbourhoods (SWAN) is being used to document outdoor characteristics near (within 2-3 blocks) of each housing unit.   

Both Ms. Hebert and Dr. Mahmood are serving as ongoing supervisors and guiding the interns throughout the data collection, analysis, and knowledge mobilization process. These research internships will help them to develop strong research and knowledge mobilization skills in the area of community engaged research. Under Dr. Mahmood’s supervision the GERO interns will also be doing a scoping review on the role of built and social environment in aging in place and social engagement in high density housing. Other knowledge mobilization planned for this project include the presentation of findings from audits, behaviour mapping, as well as a scoping review at academic conferences and community settings. The data collected from this project will be used to reduce programmatic barriers and enhance social connectedness and aging in place in multi-unit rental buildings. The goal is also to develop some peer reviewed publications based on these different project outputs.

Pictured (left to right): Research interns Niloofar Hedayati, Sogol Haji Hosseini, and Rojan Nasiri.
Pictured (left to right): Research interns Sogol Haji Hosseini, Rojan Nasiri, and Niloofar Hedayati.


Elmer, E. M. (2018). Social isolation and loneliness among seniors in Vancouver: Strategies for reduction and prevention. A report to the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health. Vancouver, BC: City of Vancouver Seniors’ Advisory Committee. Retrieved from:

Holden, M., Mahmood, A., Akbarnejad, G., Martin, L., & Winters, M. (2021, March 29). Bursting social bubbles after COVID-19 will make cities happier and healthier again. The Conversation. Retrieved from:

Kadowaki, L., & Wister, A. (2022). Older adults and social isolation and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic: A scoping review of patterns, effects, and interventions. Canadian Journal on Aging. Nov 8:1-18. doi: 10.1017/S0714980822000459. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36345649.

National Seniors Council. (2017). Who’s at risk and what can be done about it? A review of the literature on the social isolation of different groups of seniors. Retrieved from:

Ottoni, C. A., Winters, M., & Sims-Gould, J. (2022). We see each other from a distance: Neighbourhood social relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic matter for older adults social connectedness. Health & Place. 76, 1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2022.102844.

Vancouver Foundation (2017). Connect & Engage: A survey of Metro Vancouver. Retrieved from: