CARUSO COLUMN: Fighting loneliness

Published 12:18 pm Monday, January 29, 2024

By Robin Caruso
Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield

Lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60% according to the Surgeon General’s advisory about the devastating impact of the epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the United States. The physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. 

As February marks Senior Independence Month, it’s crucial to address a silent yet widespread public health crisis that affects our aging population — loneliness. 

Contrary to common belief, loneliness is not just a fleeting emotion; it is a severe condition that can be as deadly as daily smoking. Older Americans bear a disproportionate burden, with more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older experiencing loneliness and nearly one-fourth of those aged 65 and older considered socially isolated.

The impacts of loneliness on physical and mental health cannot be understated, leading to chronic diseases, cognitive decline, and increased healthcare costs. Older adults face a heightened risk of social isolation due to various factors such as changes in social connections, aging-related challenges, and the loss of loved ones. 

Spotting signs of loneliness in older adults is crucial, and as family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, we have the opportunity to make a difference. Changes in appetite, withdrawal from social events, and mentioning people from the past who are no longer involved in their lives are all indicators. By being vigilant and compassionate, we can rally around our loved ones and provide the support they need.

Our Member Connect program, initiated in 2017, stands as a beacon of hope in the fight against loneliness. This clinical initiative addresses the social challenges faced by older adults. 

Member Connect engages community health workers and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield associate volunteers, known as phone pals, to build personal connections with individuals, empowering them to make behavior changes that reduce isolation and loneliness.

The program’s impact is evident with staggering numbers: more than 216,833 phone calls have been made with 87% of participants reporting more meaningful connections and 79% experiencing an increase in activities bringing them joy and purpose. Sometimes it just takes a phone call from someone who cares to serve as a catalyst to make meaningful lifestyle changes.

In addition to the Member Connect program, there are various resources and tools older adults can adopt to combat loneliness, including creating a regular schedule, adopting a pet, volunteering, and staying connected with a phone pal. 

By acknowledging and addressing loneliness, we can collectively contribute to the solution of this epidemic.

This Senior Independence Month, join with me in taking action against loneliness. By embracing programs like Member Connect, checking in on our elderly loved ones, and fostering a sense of community, we can make a positive impact on the lives of older Americans and provide the help and connection to ensure that no one is left to face the challenges of loneliness on their own.