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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary. March 2021. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Reports of student attendance ‘dwindling’ at Surrey schools: teachers’ association

STA president said he’s heard from staff that students might not attend in-person for 4th quarter

(Photo: MOSAIC/Facebook)
Organization receives $10K from B.C. government to tackle racism in Surrey, White Rock

Funding to go toward forum for International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

A police officer aims a radar gun at oncoming traffic during a school-zone speed trap traffic blitz outside Peace Arch Elementary in 2017. (File photo)
White Rock council heeds residents’ plea for better speed signage

Roper Avenue concerns note proximity of two elementary schools

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: B.C. lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

B.C. homeowners are being urged to take steps to prepare for the possibility of a flood by moving equipment and other assets to higher ground. (J.R. Rardon)
‘Entire province faces risk’: B.C. citizens urged to prepare for above-average spring flooding

Larger-than-normal melting snowpack poses a threat to the province as warmer weather touches down

Vancouver-based Doubleview Gold Corp. is developing claims in an area north of Telegraph Creek that occupies an important place in Tahltan oral histories, said Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO)
B.C. Indigenous nation opposes mineral exploration in culturally sensitive area

There’s “no way” the Tahltan would ever support a mine there, says Chad Norman Day, president of its central government

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Stz’uminus Elder George Harris, Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, and Stz’uminus Chief Roxanne Harris opened the ceremony. (Cole Schisler photo)
Symbolic red dresses rehung along B.C. highway after vandals tore them down

Leaders from Stz’uminus First Nation and the Town of Ladysmith hung new dresses on Sat. April 17

A Western toadlet crosses the centre line of Elk View Road in Chilliwack on Aug. 26, 2010. A tunnel underneath the road has since been installed to help them migrate cross the road. Saturday, April 24 is Save the Frogs Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress File)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of April 18 to 24

Save the Frogs Day, Love Your Thighs Day and Scream Day are all coming up this week

Local carpenter Tyler Bohn embarked on a quest to create the East Sooke Treehouse, after seeing people build similar structures on a Discovery Channel show. (East Sooke Treehouse Facebook photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. carpenter builds fort inspired by TV’s ‘Treehouse Masters’

The whimsical structure features a wooden walking path, a loft, kitchen – and is now listed on Airbnb

The Attorney General’s Ministry says certain disputes may now be resolved through either a tribunal or the court system, pending its appeal of a B.C. Supreme Court decision that reduced the tribunal’s jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Court of Appeal grants partial stay in ruling on B.C. auto injuries

B.C. trial lawyers challenged legislation brought in to cap minor injury awards and move smaller court disputes to the Civil Resolution Tribunal

Most Read