Chaitanya Sama (from left) Melanie Westover, Alok Deshpande and Alicia Correa are shown in this recent handout photo taken during a Zoom video call. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chaitanya Sama

Chaitanya Sama (from left) Melanie Westover, Alok Deshpande and Alicia Correa are shown in this recent handout photo taken during a Zoom video call. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chaitanya Sama

VIDEO: Seeking a friend for the pandemic, lonely souls find socially distanced connection

A third of Canadians, 10% increase, say they struggled with loneliness and social isolation in 2020

It’s always tough to find your crowd in a new city where you don’t know anyone. But moving to Toronto as lockdown set in last November left Chaitanya Sama feeling resigned that he’d have to spend the rest of the crisis in the sole company of his furniture.

The 30-year-old software developer figured he couldn’t be alone in feeling lonely. In January, Sama posted in a Facebook group inviting fellow friend-seekers to meet online on a weekly basis in hopes of forming a “Zoom family.”

It didn’t take long for bonds to blossom between the handful of “regulars” who sign on to the video-chat hangouts every Tuesday, and drop-ins are always welcome, he said. The eclectic guest list ensures there’s never a shortage of stuff to talk about, said Sama, and the group sometimes shakes things up with game nights and a virtual cocktail soiree.

When COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Sama said he’s looking forward to finally meeting his friends face-to-face.

“Noticing the absence of something can make you realize how important it is,” he said. “Take away the social interactions, and suddenly, I’m feeling like, OK, that was a crucial thing and necessary thing in my life that I could not live without.”

Even before the pandemic sorted us into social bubbles, many Canadians struggled to maintain friendships as adults, say experts. Under lockdown, they say, that need for companionship has become more acute, allowing people to open up about loneliness and forge unexpected connections.

After her university social circle scattered post-graduation, Alicia Correa tried a variety of online tools to find new friends, but most of those encounters fizzled out.

Her isolation intensified when the 27-year-old moved back to Hamilton from Toronto to ride out the pandemic. But when she came across Sama’s Facebook post, Correa was excited to see so many commenters unselfconsciously seeking out an online community to help them cope with boredom and isolation.

In some ways, Correa believes this shared sense of solitude has brought her closer to her fellow members of the “Zoom family,” allowing the group to support each other in ways that could lay the foundation for lasting friendships.

“It’s so much easier to be vulnerable and talk about your experiences about COVID with a complete stranger than it is sometimes with family. And your friends generally get tired of hearing the same thing,” she said. “It feels nice knowing that other people are feeling the same way as you are feeling and can relate.”

In the past year, friend-finding platform Kinnd has built a Facebook group with roughly 8,500 members where people can share what they have to offer a would-be companion, and what they expect in return. The Toronto-based startup also offers paid mate-matching services through its website, and is planning to launch an app in coming months, said CEO Laura Whitney Sniderman.

Sniderman said she founded Kinnd with the goal of facilitating the kinds of meaningful connections that are often neglected in the bustle of modern life. But the seclusion of social distancing seems to have reminded people of the relationships they’re missing, spurring some to reconnect with old pals or search for new ones, she said.

“For the first time ever, the world is opening up and destigmatizing the conversation of loneliness and making it much more normalized to reach out and to recognize this deep-seated need for connection,” said Sniderman, who has a background in clinical psychology.

Close friendships seem to have suffered the greatest strain during the pandemic, with about a quarter of Canadians rating these familiar ties as “only fair” or worse, according to an online survey released by Angus Reid last fall.

Moreover, the non-profit found that a third of Canadians said they were struggling with both loneliness and social isolation in 2020, up by 10 per cent compared to 2019.

The COVID-19 crisis has not only taxed our closest connections, but severed many of the “weak ties” with people we don’t know that well, but who nonetheless play an important role in our sense of social cohesion, said Kate Mulligan, an assistant professor at University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“(These are) the people that we saw in our neighborhoods and in our daily lives that we wouldn’t necessarily think of as our closest friends, but they were part of our sense of belonging to the community,” said Mulligan, citing examples such as the ticket collector on your daily commute or a fixture at your favourite coffee shop.

There’s research to suggest that loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking, and has been linked to heightened risks of cardiovascular disease and even shorter lifespans, said Mulligan.

That’s why some health-care providers are taking a more holistic approach to treating their patients through “social prescribing,” which aims to reconnect people by referring them to community supports, she said.

“It’s not a failing of that individual person to feel lonely or to be excluded, and it’s something we can take on as a structural matter,” said Mulligan. “I find that empowering to know it’s not me, it’s something that I can change.”

Many communities have organized grassroots initiatives to help cultivate a sense of camaraderie in weathering the crisis.

Michelle Della Fortuna, a mother of two in Brantford, Ont., said she never sought to stray beyond her tight-knit circle of friends she’s had since college.

After the pandemic hit, Della Fortuna decided to join a “food fairies” Facebook group in an effort to teach her children about the importance of giving back. The exchange enlists anonymous “fairies” to drop off delicious goodies on each other’s doorsteps, while recipients try to catch them in the act.

Della Fortuna said she’s not only found new friends through the group, but feels closer to her neighbours than ever after seeing how the “fairies” have rallied to nurture each other through tough times.

“I get goosebumps just knowing that you brighten somebody’s day, or relieve pressure from a mom who’s just cooked out,” she said. “It just goes to show you how much people actually care.”

Coronavirus

Just Posted

Pictured here are Stettler-based band The Jazz Guys, who are launching this season’s Entertainment in the Park series at West Stettler Park on June 24th. photo submitted
Stettler’s The Jazz Guys to launch ‘Entertainment in the Park’ season June 23rd

This year’s festivities will consist of the following 10 free concerts

Alberta is now below 3,000 active cases of COVID-19, as the province reported 2,639 Wednesday. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Red Deer below 100 active COVID-19 cases for first time since March

69.7 per cent of Albertans 12 and over have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

Premier Jason Kenney says the provincial government is doing everything it can to encourage Albertans to get vaccinated. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Travel prizes added to Alberta’s vaccine lottery

More than 40 travel rewards available for those who are fully vaccinated

Stettler town hall
Town approves Canada Day fireworks show, using phase two health restrictions

The funding for the fireworks show has already been allocated

Castor Evangelical Missionary Church Pastor Brent Siemens, celebrating five years in Castor, reflects on the journey that brought him to the community. Kevin J. Sabo photo
Castor pastor celebrates five years of serving the community

Brent Siemens is the pastor of Castor’s Evangelical Missionary Church

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

A vial containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a vaccination site in Marcq en Baroeul, outside Lille, northern France, Saturday, March 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michel Spingler
mRNA vaccines ‘preferred’ for all Canadians, including as 2nd dose after AstraZeneca: NACI

New recommendations prioritizes Pfizer, Moderna in almost all cases

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., center left, reaches over to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., joined by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus as they celebrate the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act that creates a new federal holiday to commemorate June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people after the Civil War, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 17, 2021. It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden to sign bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday

New American stat marks the nation’s end of slavery

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.-Alberta’s Indigenous languages, art and culture

Advisor says initiative supports the urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., May 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Report calls for airlines to refund passengers for flights halted due to COVID-19

Conclusion: federal help should be on the condition airlines immediately refund Canadian travellers

Green party Leader Annamie Paul speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Paul has survived another day of party strife after a planned ouster shifted course, leaving her with a tenuous grip on power ahead of a likely federal election this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Green Leader Annamie Paul blasts ‘racist,’ ‘sexist’ party execs who sought ouster

Fallout has continued, with two of the federal council’s members resigning

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S President Joe Biden shake hands during their meeting at the ‘Villa la Grange’ in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)
Biden says meeting with Putin not a ‘kumbaya moment’

But U.S. president asserted Russian leader is interested in improved relations, averting a Cold War

A nurse prepares a shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Yukon Convention Centre in Whitehorse on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Thomas
Vancouver couple pleads guilty to breaking Yukon COVID rules, travelling for vaccine

Chief Judge Michael Cozens agreed with a joint sentencing submission,

Most Read