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Care Callers: A Mission to Eliminate Loneliness

There are things that appear multifaceted and complicated, but it just takes a little time, consideration and, above all else, care to realize that sometimes things aren’t as complicated as they might seem.

Sometimes all it takes is a phone call.

Maulik Joshi, Dr.P.H., president and CEO of Meritus Health, as you can imagine, is very busy. The demands on his time reach from sunup to sundown and sometimes stretch to the hours in between. However, there’s a point during his day, once a week, when everything stops and he picks up the phone.

He punches some numbers and after several rings, she picks up.

“Hi Martita, it’s Maulik,” he says into the receiver.

The pair didn’t know one another before their first call, but now they share weekly phone dates and their bond continues to grow.

It’s part of an initiative Joshi spearheaded at Meritus called Care Callers. Volunteers pick up the phone once or twice a week to call someone who is feeling lonely.

“It’s the connection that is missing when someone is feeling lonely. We know that as the largest health care provider in Western Maryland, it’s our job to not only care for the physical wellbeing of our community but also their mental health,” Joshi said. “The feeling of loneliness can easily spiral,” he said.

The initiative grew out of the COVID-19 pandemic when loneliness exploded for many people as an emotional response to isolation. Research has found that loneliness is also a risk factor for physical problems such as cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease.

“Loneliness is something that can impact a wide variety of ages and socioeconomic groups,” said Lynnae Messner, director of Outpatient Care Management at Meritus Health.

Messner, who helped to design and launch the program, explained that Meritus received a grant to eradicate loneliness.

“Within just one year of collecting data, we identified more than 1,000 patients who indicated they lack companionship,” Messner said. “Social determinants of health show that our community ranked loneliness as the most common social issue impacting health, more so than even hunger or transportation,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness and social isolation have been shown to impact life expectancy as much as smoking, obesity and physical inactivity; it also increases the risk of dementia by 50%, heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32%.

As the program formed, Meritus providers began finding ways to identify patients who fit the proper criteria. Once the phone calls began, volunteers found there were often underlying issues that needed to be addressed.

“While we aren’t asking direct questions about other social determinants of health, what we are doing is listening,” Messner said.

Volunteers file a report that will indicate if the person needs assistance getting food, help with shopping, prescription pick-up, errands or another urgent issue.

Since its implementation a year ago, hundreds of phone calls have rung back and forth from the growing number of volunteers at Meritus, all originating from the one in Joshi’s office.

“The depths and dimensions of loneliness are vast, but if we can break through with something as simple as a phone call, then that date is going to be on my calendar each and every week,” Joshi said.