The current COVID-19 crisis has many of us concerned about our physical health. What we often think about less are the effects the virus is having on our mental health. With mental health awareness month upon us, we have an opportunity to shine a spotlight on this issue. In any given year, approximately one in five Americans experiences a mental health condition. But this year is different. According to a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half of Americans say the pandemic has had an effect on their mental health.
This is troubling news, but it is cause for special concern when it comes to the nation’s senior population. Even before the first stay-at-home orders were issued, nearly one-third of American seniors reported being lonely, and the stress of social isolation has been shown to exacerbate mental health issues.
Seniors have long been at particular risk of experiencing loneliness due to factors including limited mobility and access to community spaces. Unfortunately, the physical distancing requirements associated with the fight against COVID-19 are intensifying these feelings. Most are limiting face-to-face interactions and many can no longer safely see or hug their loved ones. Senior loneliness is increasing greatly and it’s a worrying trend.
I lead the Togetherness program at Anthem’s care delivery subsidiary. The goal: combat social isolation among seniors and connect them to physical, social and psychological support resources in their communities. As part of our program, our clinicians screen for loneliness during medical appointments and refer patients to the program. Enrolled patients then receive consistent outreach from social care partners, social workers and volunteer phone pals, who call their member pal one to two times per week. With more than 2,500 members enrolled, we have amplified our commitment to this program in light of the pandemic.
Since stay-at-home orders were first enacted, referrals to the Togetherness program increased 210 percent, a sign that physical distancing is taking a toll. Sadly, patients who made great strides to overcome their loneliness are now at risk of sliding back into states of social isolation. “I feel like I did when you first called me,” said one member who, after years of social isolation, was visiting her local senior center several times a week after friendly encouragement from her phone pal.
Determined to support our consumers as they confront the effects of social distancing, we’ve increased the number of phone pals in our ranks. And call volume is up 20 percent as phone pals check in more often. One of the goals of these calls is simply to provide some healthy distraction from the constant drum-beat of news about the virus. “It’s so good to talk to you and not have to think about everything going on in the world,” one phone pal recently heard.
In addition, phone pals are making new recommendations and trying different ways to keep seniors healthy and engaged, encouraging them to take walks in their neighborhoods or participate in online exercise classes through Silver Sneakers and other programs. Because most senior centers are closed, we are mailing out adult coloring books, puzzles and even checkers sets so they can play together while on the phone. Some have said they want to use tools like FaceTime and Zoom to stay in touch with their families, so phone pals are teaching them to use these tools. These are fun ways that any of us can engage loved ones from afar.
It’s unclear how long social distancing requirements will continue. What is clear is our responsibility to minimize the virus’s effects on loneliness and mental health.
We’re proud of the work we’re doing to combat senior loneliness and provide appropriate mental health treatments, but we know that reducing loneliness is something we all have to work at collectively. Anthem is dedicated to supporting seniors in the ways they need it most—that means reaching out to seniors in every community, providing them with high quality care and reminding them that even when they feel alone, a friend is just a phone call away.