Winnipeg teen’s online social group for seniors fights loneliness, isolation during pandemic

Every Sunday afternoon at 3:30 sharp, 17-year-old Rhea Gupta sits down at her computer and logs into Zoom. 

Waiting for the Winnipeg teen on the other end are about a dozen seniors, eager to catch up with one another and see what activities Gupta has planned.

Last Sunday, for their 41st meeting, Gupta taught the group how to make face masks out of ankle socks.

Some people had socks that were too long. Others were using scissors that were too dull. But when all was said and done, the masks barely covered the smiles on their faces. 

“Rhea made me young again,” said Sumita Viswas, who hasn’t missed a meeting since January. 

Gupta’s group, called Sustaining Strength of Seniors, has been faithfully meeting since January. Over the past 10 months or so, she’s noticed its impact.

“Near the beginning, their faces would be glum,” said Gupta, a Grade 12 student at St. John’s-Ravenscourt School.

“But as the meetings progressed, there would be so much visible radiation of just pure joy. And even with each other, they’ve formed such deep connections.”

Gupta has managed to plan two in-person picnics with her social group for seniors at St. Vital Park. (Submitted by Rhea Gupta)

Since starting the group, Gupta has brought in speakers like a doctor and a tax expert to chat with the group. She hopes to have an expert on palliative care come in soon.

She also likes to lead craft activities, like making tote bags out of old T-shirts. In the summer, she even managed to bring the group together for a couple of in-person picnics at St. Vital Park. 

At first, she tried to make the meetings as structured as possible, but she’s since learned to leave time to simply chat. 

‘How do you spend so much time with us oldies?’

The idea for the group came to Gupta earlier in the pandemic, when she realized how lonely her grandmother — or “dadi,” in Hindi — was. She lives alone in Chandigarh, India, and the isolation took an emotional toll on her. 

“And then I thought, if my grandmother is experiencing this back in India I’m sure that people in Winnipeg who are part of the seniors community are experiencing similar emotions,” Gupta said.  

She reached out to a number of seniors in her life — mainly family friends, including a few she had heard about but never actually spoken to before, she said. There were also a couple of people who were complete strangers to Gupta prior to joining.

All of them, though, loved the idea of starting an online group. Because of the time change, Gupta’s dadi can’t join, but they try to Zoom on their own as much as possible too. 

One of the Winnipeg seniors Gupta connected with was Pat Walmsley, who lives alone. Walmsley has known Gupta — who calls her “Granny” — since she was born.

Pat Walmsley only knew one person in the group when it started. She says she now considers everyone in the group her friend. (Zoom/CBC)

Walmsley only knew one person in the group when she signed up, but now, when she logs in, she knows she’s among friends. 

“This group has been absolutely delightful,” she said, adding her collection of Indian recipes has grown substantially since January. She’s now cooking up plans to teach the group how to bake scones. 

Surekha Joshi, who has been attending since the beginning, says the group has made a difference in her life during the COVID-19 pandemic too.

“I, for one, felt like this isolation would just kill me. I was getting so depressed,” Joshi said. 

“And when Rhea started this group, I thought it was such a fantastic idea.” 

Joshi said she didn’t think the group would last as long as it has, but Gupta’s commitment to making each meeting unique and meaningful has kept her and others coming back.

The group has been a game changer for Surekha Joshi, who has been attending since it started meeting in January. (Zoom/CBC)

“She’s devoted all this time to just keeping us entertained, connected, alive,” Joshi said.  

“How do you spend so much time with us oldies?”

Gupta’s answer is simple.

“I was trying to help people who were in a similar position as my grandma, and that made me feel good,” she said.  

Gupta is well aware of the impact the group has had on her as well over the past 10 months.

“Being in their company, you learn so much,” she said. She would like to see Sustaining Strength for Seniors continue, and even grow, for the foreseeable future. 

“This group also sustained me.”