People are inherently social creatures. For this reason, not having meaningful connections in life makes some feel it is less worth living. If someone doesn’t believe life is worth living, would they take their medication as prescribed? See their doctor for a physical exam? Care about what they eat? When people lack connection their health suffers, and that is the unfortunate reality for millions of our nation’s seniors struggling with loneliness and social isolation.
The numbers are staggering: 25 million people over age 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.
Loneliness in seniors doesn’t happen overnight. It slowly envelops people over a span of several decades. Many experience their children leaving home during their 50s and retire from the workforce in their 60s, resulting in a shrinking social network and loss of purpose. The 70s bring reduced mobility and by their 80s, 50 percent of women and 20 percent of men have lost their spouse. Scientists are gaining a more refined understanding of the effects of loneliness and isolation on health, and many physicians are realizing the need to treat chronic loneliness like any other biological disease.
Wider Circle created the Connect for LifeSM Program in 2015 to address this silent epidemic of the third age. Our mission is to help older adults rebuild critical connections for well-being and independence, knowing that better health and lower use of healthcare services will follow. The program brings together health plan and physician members in neighborhood groups -- which are led by a Wider Circle facilitator -- to form lasting relationships while solving one another’s healthcare navigation problems and providing lasting motivation to take better care.
How do we do this? We start by analyzing health records of at-risk seniors and using behavioral science strategies to assemble groups that are built to last. We take a number of factors into account including people’s comorbidities, cultural background, interests, physical abilities and location. Once an affinity group is identified, people are invited to break bread together and learn about the program. The group then meets on an ongoing basis with a trained facilitator who fosters genuine connection amongst members, helping people make friends that routinely call to check in on one another and drive each other to doctor’s appointments. One group even all got their flu shots together at a group meeting.
The bonds formed and knowledge gained in the program give participants the motivation and the tools to take better care of themselves, ultimately leading to improved health outcomes. One group of participants in the program experienced a 19 percent improvement in mental health and 17 percent improvement in physical health, with savings in health spending expected to exceed $1,000 per member per year. Beyond the improvements in mental and physical health and savings to the healthcare system, our peer to peer support groups serve as a platform to introduce seniors to programs that address other important social determinants of health, like transportation, housing and food insecurity.
Our hope is that by helping seniors rebuild social connections, we’re not just adding years to life, but life to those years.
Wider Circle is funded in part by BlueCross BlueShield Venture Partners, L.P. , a corporate venture fund licensed by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, an association of independent Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies. The fund invests in promising emerging companies of strategic relevance to Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans. These companies are bringing creative, cutting-edge solutions to the healthcare marketplace.