Although old age is something that awaits everyone lucky enough to live a long life, for many the actual experience of aging in Ontario is typified by a sense of loneliness and isolation.

85% of Canadians want to age in place. And yet only 2% of seniors receiving home care are able to get by without a patchwork of support from friends, family or neighours. Against this backdrop of 'precarious support', many seniors are seeking out new models of care to help them live independently.



Senior Social Living: An Exploration of Grassroots Models is a research-through-storytelling project aimed at uncovering grassroots models of seniors’ supportive living that are emerging across Canada and the United States. It uses a lead user framework to explore models being developed by seniors, for seniors, which address the issues of aging in place and senior social isolation.

It seeks to find emergent patterns amongst grassroots initiatives, and to provide design principles that can be used in future planning of supportive living services.


The Lead User Approach

Developed by Dr. Eric von Hippel at MIT to describe an approach to innovation whereby companies can gain market advantage by incorporating product ideas that are generated directly by consumers.

Lead User criteria:

  • Users who face needs that will be general in a marketplace – but face them months or years before the bulk of that marketplace encounters them;

  • User who are positioned to benefit significantly by obtaining a solution to their needs.

The Lead User Approach & Health Care

As ‘Patient-Centered Care' becomes the dominant framework for thinking about health care delivery, the Lead User approach offers an amplified modality for engaging with patients:

Patients become creators - Experts of their own experience - Makers of solutions.



  • What might we learn about ‘aging in place’ from user-generated models of seniors’ supportive living?

  • In what ways do these grassroots models address the issue of senior social isolation?


Research Process



Key Insights and Emergent Principles

The following insights and corresponding design principles are a distillation of what these grassroots initiatives are doing to address the issues of aging in place and social isolation.




Health through Participation

Doing things, together, creates meaning and mattering & promotes healthy aging in community. This includes active choice and participatory decision-making.

Create opportunities for seniors to design, build and run their own communities.


Fluidity / Flexibility

Grassroots models have flexible mandates that allow them to adjust the type and intensity of support offerings according to local conditions.

Be flexible; allow for the maximum amount of local customization.


Decentralized Networks of Care

Models emphasize a decentralized approach to ‘caring' and disperses it amongst the community, thereby strengthening its bonds. This provides a larger safety net for seniors.

Create conditions that encourage neighbours to look out for one another.



Make use of existing community assets including natural densities of seniors; existing housing stock and community spaces; local agencies with similar mandates, and retired seniors

Build a network of support using existing assets when gaps in public services exist.



Many seniors are unaware of what services are available to them. Facilitating access through reliable communication can help seniors live independently

Act as a connection point that increases access to services for seniors that already exists.



Building strong relationships, over time, increases chances that seniors are more likely to reach out before a crisis hits. It is not just about “services offered’, but about depth of relationship.

Ensure seniors know they have somewhere to go, and someone to reach out to.


Casual Spaces for Interaction

Incorporating casual spaces for social interaction helps with community building and trust. In cases where there are embedded providers, they are ‘a part of’ the community, instead of separate.

Create spaces for casual social interaction and encourage residents to take ownership over the use of space.



Staying mentally engaged was seen as a way to stay vibrant and was closely linked to preventing the kind of decline that leads to institutionalization

Promote self-initiated lifelong learning programs and create opportunities for seniors to share their wisdom and experience.

read the FULL REPORT

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The full report 'TAKING CHARGE: Participatory Models of Aging in Place, Designed by Seniors, for Seniors' includes expanded narrative case studies and model descriptions.