Have You Met My New College Roommate? She's 83

New Israeli program brings together unlikely flat mates by pairing students seeking cheap housing with seniors looking for company.

23-year-old Maayan Pinto at home with her new roommate, 83-year-old Victoria Motai in the northern town of Safed. November 12, 2015.
Gil Eliahu

For every student out there struggling with the high cost of apartment rentals, there’s an elderly person eager for some company.

A new Israeli program is trying to kill two birds with one stone by matching up cash-strapped students with lonely pensioners. 

Here’s how it works: In exchange for spending a minimum number of hours a week engaging with a senior citizen, student participants in the program benefit from virtually rent-free housing at the home of their assigned host and a scholarship that covers a hefty chunk of their tuition costs.

The program, a pilot of which was launched last year, is a joint venture between the government and the National Union of Israeli Students. Building on its success in the first trial year, “Kan Garim” (“Here We Live” in Hebrew), as it is known, has more than doubled participation rates in the recently kicked-off academic year.

“It makes financial sense, and at the same time gives me an opportunity to do something to better society,” says 23-year-old Maayan Pinto, who last month moved in with 83-year-old Victoria Motai in the northern town of Safed. Like other elderly participants in the program, Motai had a spare room in her home that wasn’t being used and was feeling lonely. Pinto, for her part, was trying to save money on housing after living in the dorms during her first year as a nursing student in town.

“I much prefer this arrangement,” she says. “We prepare meals and watch TV together, and it’s much nicer for me than being alone in a room.”

Last year, as part of the pilot program, two students lived with Motai, dividing the week up between them. The arrangement worked so well that Motai’s daughter, Pnina Haddad, decided to sign her mother up for another year on the program.  “For my mom, it’s like having granddaughters in the house to take care of,” she says.

Under the rules of the program, students must commit to spending a minimum of four hours a week with their hosts, and in return, pay just a minimal fee of 250 shekels ($65) a month toward rent and expenses – a bare fraction of what a shared apartment in the city would cost. In addition, they receive 8,000 shekels ($2,000) a year toward tuition. (Tuition at most Israeli universities is about 12,000 shekels, or $3,000, a year). Only pensioners who have a spare room in their home and are able to care for themselves independently are eligible for the program.

Last year, 200 students and pensioners participated in “Kan Garim,” and this year, more than 400 have signed up – the majority at colleges and universities located in the center of the country. Funding is provided by the Ministry of Housing and the newly created Ministry of Social Equality, while the student union vets participants and matches up eligible students with seniors.

“We see this as a program with multiple benefits,” says Adi Vahab, the director in charge from the Ministry of Housing. “First, it makes higher education accessible to many more students by cutting tuition costs dramatically. Second, it creates a huge saving in housing costs, and third, it provides a solution to so many elderly people who suffer from loneliness.”

Students decide on their own how they want to spend their time with their hosts. Last year, Vahab relays, one student helped transcribe the recollections of the Holocaust survivor who was hosting her. Another student made a point of accompanying his host every week to Shabbat services at the local synagogue. Yet another student took on the task of navigating the infamous Israeli bureaucracy for her host, helping her save significant sums on telephone and other utility bills in the process.

Maya Li, a 23-year-old student who lived with Motai last year recounts that she and her host spent many memorable hours together sharing meals and chatting. “We would often watch television together as well, and because she’s a bit hard of hearing, it was an opportunity for me to explain things to her that she couldn’t understand otherwise.”

Ever since his father died several years ago, Moshe Dahan says his mother Mari had problems sleeping at night and was frightened to be alone. Her difficulties were resolved, he says, as soon as a student moved into the apartment with her. “It’s been a great solution for us because it made my mother feel much more confident,” he says. His mother, who lives outside Haifa, is participating in the program for the second year in a row and has a student from the Technion living with her.

According to Gil Naveh, spokesman of the student union, about one-third of the participants from last year are continuing with the program this year. “Thus far, the feedback has been very positive. Many senior citizens have resumed activities they had given up on for whatever reason, and the students report not only a sense of emotional gratification but also a great sense of relief from not having so much financial strain on them.”

To the best of his knowledge, says Vahab, Israel is the only country in the world to promote a program of this kind. “I’ve recently received inquiries from Spain and several countries in South America, where people have expressed interest in what we’re doing,” he says.