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A Simple Tool for Reducing Loneliness Among Older Adults: Phone Calls

A Consumer-Centered Health System Story June 28, 2022

The Member Connect program is a unique solution that pairs Elevance Health associates with seniors who live alone and are managing health conditions.

Sometimes a good way to support someone’s health and well-being is simply to check in with a regular phone call. That has become even more true since COVID-19 forced so many people into isolation. Loneliness is a pressing problem among older people in the United States, where 24% experience social isolation and 43% of adults aged 60 and over report feeling lonely.

That’s where programs like Member Connect come in.

Member Connect pairs employee volunteer “phone pals” with seniors who live alone, are managing health conditions, and appreciate a friendly and helpful voice on the other end of the phone. The seniors receive regular phone calls in addition to check-ins from a social care partner. 

Deb Burson is a senior learning experience designer for Elevance Health who lives more than 700 miles away from her phone pal, Joy. She checks in every Thursday with her 85-year-old phone pal, who lives by herself in New York City. “We’ve gotten to know each other more and more. There are days that I can tell she doesn't want to talk, but the minute she knows it’s me, she starts to talk,” Burson said. “It’s that opportunity for her to have someone who cares. At the end of the year, she told me she had prayed that God would bring someone into her life that she could talk to and who loved talking as much as she did.”

A Win/Win for Seniors and Associates

Associate volunteers say they get nearly as much out of the program as their phone pals do: 91% of Member Connect phone pals said their work has more meaning and purpose since participating in the program. That is true anecdotally as well, said Robin Caruso, who oversees the program as chief togetherness officer for Elevance Health: “A few years ago, one person who worked in claims told me that the program had made her a better work colleague. She said, ‘It’s made me a better daughter, too, so I remember to check in with my mom and dad. And then my cousins and I got together and made a phone tree for our grandma.’ By doing volunteer hours, you’re now giving back to your community, too.”

The Member Connect program launched in 2017, and its goals are to reduce loneliness among older adults and improve health outcomes by helping them re-engage in healthcare, connect to community organizations, and increase their physical activity. These are all important aims because isolation and loneliness can have a real impact on health. Studies have found that social isolation is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia and increases a person’s risk of premature death. Loneliness has been associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

To qualify for Member Connect, a senior must meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • Live alone
  • Live with others, but majority of their day is spent alone
  • Have no social support nearby
  • Self-report loneliness or isolation
  • Newly widowed with little social support
  • Recently diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness
  • Diagnosed with dementia

People who qualify for the program are paired with social care partners who help support them and their care and connect them with community services and organizations.

If we call someone in Ohio and it’s raining and the roof is leaking, we connect them to a resource to help," Caruso said.

The phone pals encourage people to get out and take a walk if they can, they help remind people about their doctors’ visits and to take their medication, they remember birthdays and other special days, and they listen to stories or concerns when there might not be anyone else to listen.

“Some of the people we speak to have lost their purpose in life, as their role changes from being a parent or worker and they have more free time,” Caruso said. “We help them reconnect to joy and find a purpose; maybe it is volunteering and giving back, or maybe it is writing their life stories to leave for their grandchildren. That is the power of human connection — it can heal loneliness.”

The program has made a difference when it comes to older adult loneliness and health: People who participated in Member Connect had 8% lower hospital admissions and 43% fewer trips to the ER. Among people who were in the program for at least 3 months between October 2021 and February 2022:

  • 87% reported that they had more meaningful connections
  • 79% said they increased their participation in activities that “bring them joy or a sense of purpose”
  • 79% said they had changed something about how they take care of themselves since joining the program, citing self-care, exercise, and healthier eating habits most often

Burson said it’s also become a highpoint of her work life. “To say it’s a match made in heaven is an understatement,” she said. “I look forward to talking to Joy every Thursday afternoon and finding out how she's doing. The Member Connect program truly is a blessing for not only the members but the associates, too.” 

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