COVID-19 has only made loneliness worse among seniors. Here's how Anthem is tackling this issue

COVID-19 has only worsened social isolation, but Anthem is addressing senior's loneliness through a "wrap-around" program that encourages them to reach out.

Through Member Connect, seniors are assigned a social care partner, who assists with connecting them to community services to address their social needs. They also have a phone pal, a volunteer Anthem associate who reaches out to them weekly.

Many members (78%) said they either agreed or strongly agreed that participating in the program led to more meaningful connections with people. In addition, 66% said they are happy or very happy when taking into account all facets of their life in the past seven days.

Robin Caruso, chief togetherness officer at Anthem, told Fierce Healthcare that the phone pals become a critical bridge to necessary services, such as exercise or behavioral health, that the member might otherwise avoid.

"When you add just one person to someone's life, that connection helps to engage them more and they start caring more about themselves," she said.

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An Anthem phone pal, for example, could challenge the senior to get out and take a walk, and then the two can compare their experiences in their call the following week.

Many of the program's members (74%) have said they changed something about the way they care for themselves after joining Member Connect. That includes engaging in more exercise, better eating habits and improving medication adherence.

Caruso said that when a senior joins the program they're given a psychosocial evaluation that flags any social or behavioral health needs beyond loneliness that the social care partner may need to address.

If a member's roof is leaking, for instance, that may be the bigger issue in the moment than their loneliness, she said.

"We won't have any impact on their health and well-being until we can impact those needs at that time," she said.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic forced shutdowns nationwide, the Member Connect team had to find ways to go digital to reach seniors. Phone pals offered simple tech support during weekly check-ins, teaching members about using video calls or social media to connect with loved ones.

Member Connect also leaned on Well Connected, a platform that offers a "senior center without walls," to help members stay connected to their peers in a virtual way, Caruso said.

One member, who was active in her senior center, said staying at home under the pandemic was bringing back feelings of anxiety and depression that she felt prior to the program, Caruso said. Through Well Connected, she was able to reconnect digitally, and now leads multiple quilting classes for others on the platform, Caruso said.

The Member Connect team also mailed out activities that members could do over the phone or video call to help facilitate fun conversations for these seniors, she said.

The key, she said, is finding ways to connect members with activities that give them "joy and meaning" in a digital way. Seventy-nine percent of members either agreed or strongly agreed that the program led to an increase in such activities.

"There’s a lot about addressing loneliness and isolation because of the pandemic," Caruso said, "but as social workers we have seen this issue...we already had an epidemic of loneliness prior to the pandemic."