Lone strangers: Albertans who overcome their loneliness by helping others

“It’s so hard to describe, lonely. It’s something like a disease, I think. It catches you by surprise.”

Tom Greyson’s life became a lonelier place after his wife of 46 years died. The Edmonton senior misses her every day but he says he has eased his loneliness — and that of others — by becoming a volunteer with a car service for seniors.

Even in today’s world, with social media keeping us in constant connection with others, people can find themselves feeling isolated and alone, says filmmaker Brandy Yanchyk, who explores the topic in a new documentary.

Social media platforms are not a solution, Yanchyk told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM this week.

“You spend all this time on Facebook and you have 500 friends but do you actually have someone who’s going to come over to your house if you need something? Or just to say hello? Or to have a cup of tea?” she said.

“That isolation that many of us find ourselves in is for all ages and all people.”

John Chief Moon, centre, is an elder-in-training and an Indigenous peer support worker at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Calgary. (Submitted by Brandy Yanchyk)

Breaking Loneliness, filmed in Edmonton and Calgary, speaks to Albertans from different walks of life but who have all “overcome their own loneliness by helping other people,” she said.

For John Chief Moon, an elder-in-training and an Indigenous peer support worker at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Calgary, this translates to helping people — at detox centres, drop-in centres and on the street — combat loneliness by connecting them with their culture.

“I go out into the community and give out homeless hampers to the homeless people and give them resources on the Canadian Mental Health Association and also other agencies in the city,” Chief Moon says in the documentary.

Bothered by teen suicides

“What got me into this work was the teenage suicides, it really bothered me,” he says. “It’s not part of First Nations culture, it’s not part of Blackfoot culture.” 

Another CMHA employee interviewed for the film is Jace Laing-Schroeder, who identifies as trans and non-binary and is a 2SLGBT liaison and peer support worker.

Offering peer support means Laing-Schroeder uses personal experiences with social isolation, loneliness, mental illness to support others.

Jace Laing-Schroeder is a 2SLGBT liaison and peer support worker for the Canadian Mental Health Association in Calgary. (Submitted by Brandy Yanchyk)

“All I need to say is ‘Yeah, I’ve experienced that, too’ or ‘Yeah, I’m a part of the LGBT community as well.’ Or ‘Yeah, I know what it feels like to experience gender dysphoria or social dysphoria. I can relate, you’re not alone’ —  and mean it,” says Laing-Schroeder.

“And that’s very powerful.” 

Back in Edmonton, Greyson began volunteering as a way to get out of the house and meet with other people. He started with an organization that ran bingo for the blind, then became a driver for a service called Drive Happiness.

Helped him after wife’s death

“This is a wonderful program where they pick seniors up in a car and they drive them to medical appointments or activities … a service that’s offered to seniors in Edmonton who have limited income, mobility or other health-related issues,” Yanchyk says.

“And Tom found that he sort of was able to move — not move on — but it helped him get over his wife’s passing. … He feels like when he’s driving the other people around it’s like his wife is sitting in the seat next to him.”

Yanchyk hopes the documentary will inspire people to take a look at their own lives, “not be embarrassed to say that I’m lonely or I’m isolated,” and reach out from there to connect with others.

But she also hopes that everyone will stop and take a look at the people in their own lives and consider who might be alone or isolated, whether it is aging relatives or a colleague who is newly on maternity leave. 

“Call them, take them out, make the gesture,” she says. “Even a telephone call is better than nothing.”

The Alberta premiere of Breaking Loneliness takes place Saturday, Sept. 28 on CBC TV at 7 p.m. or on CBC Gem. In Edmonton, there is also a free screening at the West End Seniors Activity Centre, 9629 176th St., on Oct. 5 beginning at 6 p.m.

Breaking Loneliness is part of the CBC series Absolutely Canadian.

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