Montreal

Know a solo senior who wants companionship and extra revenue? This Montreal non-profit wants your help

Combo2Generations helps fight social isolation by making roommates out of students and seniors. The student saves money on rent, and the senior gets companionship, and help with chores.

Combo2Generations fights social isolation and high rents with new roommate program

Dounia Baghdad, 24, and Angelina Gutta, 97, have been roommates for more than two months thanks to a program that encourages intergenerational living. (Gretel Kahn/CBC)

Many university students struggle to pay rent, while too many seniors suffer from social isolation — now, there's a Montreal non-profit working to solve both problems at once.

Combo2Generations finds roommate pairings out of students and seniors after running an evaluation on their compatibility.

Dounia Baghdad, 24, is one of the student in the program.

While pursuing a master's degree in occupational therapy at l'Université de Montréal, she decided it was time to move closer to school.

"I was tired of commuting everyday for four hours from Chambly to Montreal," Baghdad says.

While looking for apartments, she found Combo2Generations.

That is how she met her 97-year-old roommate, Angelina Gutta.

Gutta comes from a big Italian-Canadian family — complete with six brothers — and was married for more than half a century.

"We were very close, but they have all passed away," said Gutta. "I am the only one left."

Gutta had been living alone in her Ahuntsic-Cartierville apartment — where she's been for more than 60 years — when she found out about Combo2Generations through a neighbour.

She saw it as an opportunity to support young people. 

Gutta has lived in her Ahuntsic-Cartierville apartment for more than 60 years. After her husband died, she found companionship with a new roommate. (Gretel Kahn/CBC)

"I have a big heart and I think we need to leave our doors open [for the youth]," said Gutta.

Despite the 70-year age gap, Baghdad and Gutta have many things in common. 

They like talking about fashion, beauty and food.

"It was the first time I was moving out from home, so I was feeling very lonely," said Baghdad.

"But [living here] has made me feel at home with her," she said. "It was really comforting for me during this period of transition."

They have been living together for two months.

Baghdad has become like a daughter to Gutta, who never had any children herself. 

Through sharing a home, they have become like a little, found family.

The two-bedroom apartment is unmistakably Gutta's — the kitchen shows a fine collection of tableware, while the living room is adorned with memorabilia from exotic travels: a porcelain elephant from Thailand, and geisha statuettes from Japan.

Despite the furnishings, Gutta wants to make sure Baghdad feels comfortable.

"She's not just in her room, the whole house is available to her," said Gutta. "This is her home too."

While fine items accrued over a lifetime are a bit of what Gutta brings to the table, an energizing spirit is some of what Baghdad brings to the home.

"I actually feel like working again. Before, I didn't feel like it," said Gutta.

Promoting intergenerational cohabitation

Combo2Generations was founded two years ago by Montrealers Denise Tessier Trudeau and Isabelle Cazes after they read an article about a group in France called Two Generations Together.

They reached out to that group and received mentorship from coordinators in the program. Eventually, a partnership between the two organizations was formed.

"This program really helped us with its expertise," Combo2Generations states on its website.

Montreal's program has three living arrangements — they vary from a student getting free rent in exchange for certain responsibilities, to paying $350 rent per month without commitments, beyond fostering a courteous and kind environment.

"Both [generations] have a lot to learn from each other, and a lot to bring to each other," says Tessier Trudeau.

The organization evaluates the needs and wants of each applicant — like where the student's university is located, what kind of tasks the senior wants their roommate to help with, and what kind of roommate each wants overall. 

Tessier Trudeau is proud of the three pairings she has completed so far.

While the number of participants is small right now, the non-profit is looking to expand.

The problem is many senior citizens are not aware this service is available.

Right now, the team is working to get the word out so they can recruit more to the program.

"Some people are afraid [to have a person in their home]," says Tessier Trudeau. "But they should try. I've seen with the pairs that I have, that they are very happy."

Both Baghdad and Gutta are happy to serve as ambassadors for the program and recommend it to others.

"If all roommates are like her, this is great," says Gutta.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gretel Kahn is a researcher with CBC Montreal.

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