Social interaction is a vital component of the human experience. Whether celebrating or consoling, we depend on others to be there with us. But for millions of Americans, especially those over the age of 65, loneliness and isolation replace connection and companionship. And sadly, there is significant evidence that loneliness and isolation are linked to a number of serious health conditions including heart disease, stroke and mental illness.
Social isolation can significantly increase the risk of premature death and is associated with an approximately 50 percent increased risk of dementia. Twenty-five million people over age of 60 suffer from chronic loneliness—more than the number of Americans with diabetes—and this number is expected to grow to 35 million by 2030 when the entirety of the baby boomer generation has retired. The impact of isolation on physical health is severe. One study found the effects of loneliness are on par with smoking about 15 cigarettes per day. Besides the personal toll, loneliness has another cost: Social isolation is estimated to add about $6.7 billion in spending annually for Medicare patients alone.
Launched in 2017, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s Member Connect program has been helping Medicare Advantage members make social connections and access community resources. Looking at each individual’s social support system as well as their health including complex conditions such as congestive heart failure, cancer or depression, Anthem Medicare Advantage members may be identified as at-risk for loneliness—from there a connection is made. Social Care Partners—community health workers with a background in social work, counseling and community resources—reach out to these identified members through routine phone calls, offering a personal connection while also performing assessments and screening for barriers to connectivity such as lack of transportation. The relationship between the member and Social Care Partner is ongoing allowing more complex needs to be addressed as well as developing personalized plans to eliminate barriers to social activity.
Anthem also offers Medicare Advantage members identified as low-to-medium risk for loneliness the opportunity to join the Phone Pal program. This program matches the member with an employee volunteer with shared interests or a geographically convenient location where they can connect via a weekly phone call.
Last year, with stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines in place, the risk for senior loneliness and isolation was even greater. During the first six months of the pandemic, the Member Connect program saw a nine fold increase in participation. In addition to social isolation, many members struggled to access food and medications. To meet these new needs, Anthem quickly adapted the program, offering participants new ways to connect socially as well as connecting them with services to help with food and other necessities.
Regardless of participation in the Social Care Partner or Phone Pals programs, Anthem’s Member Connect encourages seniors to connect through social activities such as joining a social media group or fitness program. The results speak for themselves, according to a member survey from May to June of 2020, since joining the program:
- 78 percent agreed/strongly agreed that they have had more meaningful connections
- 79 percent agreed/strongly agreed that they have had an increase in activities that bring them joy or a sense of purpose
- 75 percent reported that they have changed how they take care of themselves, including increase in exercise, healthier eating habits and increase in medication adherence
- 66 percent reported that they are happy/very happy when taking all life aspects into account over the past seven days