Abeer Yusuf’s “corona pod” disbanded after just one dinner.
Yusuf, who is 30 and lives alone in Vancouver, formed the group with two friends at the start of March to share occasional meals through these strange, dystopian times. The friends agreed to see only each other, but as the pandemic intensified and government officials ordered Canadians to stay home, the corona pod was cancelled.
“That’s when it hit me I was going to be completely alone until all this ends,” Yusuf said. “I have no one. … I don’t live with a pet, a partner or a roommate, or have parents in Canada.”
Knowing Yusuf is by herself, family in India and Malaysia frequently video call to check in, while local friends chat with her on WhatsApp and Instagram. Working from home, Yusuf now rarely leaves her apartment: She made just one grocery run and took one walk with a friend in the past month. They encountered glares from strangers, Yusuf said, even though they strolled two metres apart. A third outing brought her to a patch of grass just beyond her apartment building. It was a friend’s birthday; Yusuf gifted her Nutella brownies studded with candles in a “contactless exchange.”
“I’m trying to make peace with the fact that nothing about this is normal,” said Yusuf, a co-ordinator at a local non-profit. “I’m having to confront my isolation and my loneliness.”
As nationwide quarantines drastically alter Canadians’ daily lives, those who reside alone experience unique challenges. Home isolation orders mean those who live solo may not get to see a familiar face in person for months. Research into quarantine shows mental health often suffers, especially when people are separated from their loved ones. By contrast, those with dense social networks and “someone to share their worries with” are less likely to experience long-term mental-health issues after emerging from quarantine, according to a report released last month by Ontario’s Alliance for Healthier Communities. Amid jarring realities, families, friends and health care providers are getting creative to make sure the most isolated among us stay connected.
“We need physical distancing and social solidarity," said Eric Klinenberg, professor of social science at New York University. “We have to be in touch with relatives, neighbours and friends. We have to think about who’s most at risk.”
One-person households now outnumber those with couples with children, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada. More people are living and aging alone than ever before, Klinenberg said, and they benefit greatly from public spaces that keep them engaged: “social infrastructure” such as libraries, parks, coffee shops, restaurants and community centres.
“The problem now is that people who live alone suddenly see their gathering places disappear. Shared spaces are now off-limits. The danger is that people who are accustomed to living alone but also to being social are now forced to be isolated,” said Klinenberg, author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.
Isolation is problematic because it has been linked to a host of health ills, experts have found.
“Prolonged isolation can be depressing, it can generate anxiety, it’s confusing and it can make us lonely. One reason that’s worrisome is that all those conditions exacerbate stress. When we feel stressed, our bodies get less healthy and become more susceptible to catching viruses,” Klinenberg said.
Colleen White has lived alone for 13 years in a century-old house in Midland, Ont. White, 63, is diabetic and suffers from an autoimmune disease.
Since mid-March, White has ventured out just four times for gas, groceries and dog food for her Yorkshire terrier. She has no internet, relying on a radio for news, a landline phone to speak with her brother and her son, and a cellphone to text friends. She and an elderly neighbour who lives alone up the road ring each other every three days: "We made a pact that we’re up here on our own, so let’s just keep tabs on each other.”
White passes this time reading, painting, meditating and picking seedlings for the spring. “I love the solitude,” she said. “A lot of people would go stark-raving mad.”
She credits the local Chigamik Community Health Centre with helping her maintain independence. Since stay-at-home orders came down, staffers at the community centre have called White at least six times to check in. A counsellor also calls weekly and employees arranged a hamper of fruits and vegetables to be delivered for free to her back door in the coming days.
“It’s a really good feeling to know there’s somebody out there,” said White, urging others living on their own to reach out. “You have to be diligent and ask, for your health and well-being.”
Community organizations across the country like Chigamik are rapidly innovating to keep those most at risk of isolation connected through the quarantine orders.
“There are going to be people who are going without human contact if we don’t reach out to them,” said Kate Mulligan, director of policy and communications at the Alliance for Healthier Communities, an Ontario network of community health providers.
Before the pandemic, the alliance ran a “social prescribing” pilot project that had medical professionals across the province screen patients for isolation during their health care visits. Navigators then prescribed activities such as baking classes, coffee clubs, swim groups and community gardening. The project sharply lowered loneliness by 49 per cent. But with in-person activities now going by the wayside, they’ve had to get inventive.
“Group programs are going virtual, from volunteer and peer-led chronic disease management chats, to virtual yoga and group exercise on Facebook Live, to online literacy mentoring,” said Mulligan, adding that volunteers and seniors who participated in past programming are being enlisted to phone one another.
In Toronto, staffers now call their most frail and isolated clients at home to ensure they have food and contact with family and friends, making referrals where necessary, said Cliff Ledwos, director of primary care at Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services, which helps newcomers.
Vancouver’s CityHive, a non-profit that engages youth in civic processes, launched a new guest speaker series called “Distant, Not Disengaged” for isolated youth. Exploring pandemic-related issues such as worry and resilience, the sessions are held online over Zoom.
For some solo dwellers, technology is proving a great connector amid quarantine. Four or five nights a week, Vancouver’s Ho Yi Kwan organizes dinner dates with friends on FaceTime or Skype.
“It feels like I’m eating with somebody else, so it doesn’t feel like I’m totally alone,” said Kwan, a software developer who’s lived on her own for nearly two years.
Kwan, 25, uses WhatsApp to chat with her parents, who are in Coquitlam, B.C. And every week, she and five co-workers catch up over Zoom during “Moscow Mule Thursdays,” which involve coffee, not vodka.
She has made a point of staying busy, alone. She runs or cycles near the seawall in Kitsilano, makes gnocchi, soups, stews and upside-down pineapple cake from scratch, and has been taking an online course from the Museum of Modern Art and learning watercolour painting from the website Skillshare.
Even with her healthy routines, human contact remains critical: “I try to take the initiative to reach out when I know I’m going to be feeling lonelier,” Kwan said. “It’s really nice when friends check up on me.”
Still, others who live alone have had to set boundaries around a stream of video calls beaming into their living rooms nightly.
Calgary’s Colina Marshall, 33, has lived alone for a year and a half. She went from long days and highly social nights working in beverage alcohol sales, to strikingly quiet stretches doing the job from home, with all but three of her 187 restaurant clients shuttered since mid-March.
Marshall says she feels the days spent alone have been a “grounding experience": she’s found herself resetting old habits, contemplating her aspirations and diving into experimental cooking.
Family, friends and laid-off colleagues frequently call through FaceTime, Zoom and Houseparty. Some nights, she’s planned dinner and a walk to the river for herself, only to sit on an unexpected video call for hours. Marshall said her solo-dwelling friends have been similarly inundated and wonder if the virtual hangouts shouldn’t be prescheduled.
Marshall stressed that while she is grateful for human contact, she’s also holding on tight to this new solo time: “There have definitely been a few times where it’s like, ‘All right, guys. I’m fine.’ ”
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