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Ann Cruickshank does more than good deeds when she volunteers at a Florida church while a snowbird. She makes friends. ‘The job takes your hands,’ she says, ‘but it doesn’t take your mind, so you chat, chat, and chat. Before you know it, you have friends.’

Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail

A few years ago, after attending a Sunday service at her neighbourhood church in Florida, Ann Cruickshank offered to help set out coffee and snacks for the congregation. Then she signed up for community dinner cleanup duties. It didn't take long before she was pitching in nearly every week.

She's still helping out – at least during the winter months the Quebec resident spends in the Sunshine State each year.

Volunteering for the church isn't just about doling out cookies and straightening napkins, though. Cruickshank, a seventysomething single snowbird who has spent seven winters in Florida, volunteers in order to build her social network and make friends there.

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It works. Now she'll head out to see movies or have dinner with a group from her church. She has also started stuffing envelopes for Habitat for Humanity as another volunteer gig.

"You sit at a table with other people. The job takes your hands, but it doesn't take your mind, so you chat, chat and chat. Before you know it, you have friends," she says.

Cruickshank, who is divorced, is on to something. Spending the winters in the snow-free South is a great way to beat the winter blues for many Canadians over 55, but perhaps not so cheery if they're alone.

In some cases snowbirds go down as a couple, but after one spouse dies, the survivor needs to create new supports. Others were never married in the first place. And with the proportion of divorced and separated seniors growing – their number has tripled in the past three decades, according to Statistics Canada – dodging loneliness as a snowbird is more relevant than ever.

Maintaining relationships is important for their health and well-being, explains Steven Mock, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who studies adult development, aging and coping skills.

"Social support from family and friends is very important later in life. Possibly even more so than in other times," says Mock, who is also a director of the university's RBC Retirement Research Centre.

Numerous studies back him up and indicate that social isolation can have serious negative consequences for someone's lifespan. In one study from Brigham Young University, which analyzed data from 148 studies totalling more than 30,000 participants, social isolation was deemed as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an alcoholic or never exercising.

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Apparently, friends come with health benefits, including companionship and safety. If seniors have someone to meet for coffee, they'll leave the condo and get some walking in, which leads to greater mobility and slower cognitive decline.

Making friends and being around people has helped Dale Yeo, a Saskatchewan senior who has been widowed since 1992. Until poor health "put a kibosh" on her snowbirding a couple of years ago, she spent time in Yuma, Ariz., each winter.

It took a friend with a trailer home a few years to convince Ms. Yeo to go down, but she's glad she eventually made the leap to warmer climes.

"I found that when I was by myself a lot, especially in the wintertime, I would get depressed," she says now. "If I'm around people, that doesn't happen."

It also helped that the RV resort, like the other 60 in Yuma that cater primarily to snowbirds, made it incredibly easy for singles to fit in and socialize from the get-go. Not only do these gated resorts throw "welcome home" parties in the fall, but if couples attend clubhouse activities (think shuffleboard, billiards, poker, Spanish classes and dancing), they're split up and given a new partner. In a way, everybody's single. No one feels like a third wheel.

And as Ms. Yeo puts it now, unlike what she experienced in Canada over the years, snowbird wives never gave her the cold shoulder, fearing she was after their husbands.

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"Down there everybody interacts. It was like a big family," she says.

Yuma is known as a prime snowbird destination for those living in Western provinces and the Americans in bordering northern states, with roughly 90,000 winter residents adding to the city of about 100,000 each year. It is Arizona's warmest winter city and the sunniest year-round in all of the United States.

With weather like that, no wonder snowbirds have a little extra pep and energy to make new friends, says Jane Meili, who now lives in Stratford, Ont., but spent much of her life in Calgary. She has wintered in Yuma for several years with friends. She expanded her social circle down there, too.

"Everybody is so happy to be where there's no snow and no ice. So you all get out to go do things all the time," she explains.

RV resorts are a good choice for single snowbirds since they offer a built-in community that returns year after year. Residents hang signs declaring they're hosting a happy hour that night and neighbours arrive with drinks in hand. When Meili wanted to go golfing with a group, another woman shared her husband's golf clubs.

"You're part of a community. You're accepted," she says.

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Men can have a tougher time breaking into social circles and feeling connected, concedes Mock, explaining that women tend to bounce back faster socially after a divorce or death of a spouse.

Go with a friend. Don't feel comfortable spending months away from home on your own? Convince another single friend to travel with you. Not only can you split the cost of a rental property, but your companion is a built-in security blanket.

How to buddy up

Go with a friend. Don't feel comfortable spending months away from home on your own? Convince another single friend to travel with you. Not only can you split the cost of a rental property, but your companion is a built-in security blanket.

Check out the clubs. In communities where snowbirds congregate, there are often social clubs just for Canadian seniors. For instance, the Canadian Club of the West Valley in Phoenix hosts coffee get-togethers and picnics.

Try a Meetup. Hit the computer and search snowbirds.meetup.com for a list of Meetup groups. Some are specifically geared toward singles who want to hike together, dine together and check out local arts events together.

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Hit the links. For single snowbirds, finding golf buddies is relatively easy. Just show up to practice on your own at the same time of the day for a few weeks and you're bound to connect with a group.

Smile and introduce yourself. Studies show that smiling is contagious. Humans are hardwired to smile back. So go ahead and grin. Then say hello. As icebreakers go, it doesn't get easier than that.

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