An Australian-first collaboration involving leading researchers at Silverchain, UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) and The University of Queensland has been launched to address the lack of treatment available to directly target social cognitive impairments in older people.
The pioneering trial will test if a newly developed program to enhance the social cognitive skills of older adults with cognitive concerns could slow the rate of decline and dementia. The program aims to assist older people to stay socially connected, feel more confident in social situations, and contribute to activities that have the potential to improve their quality of life.
The trial is a partnership between Silverchain, CHeBA and The University of Queensland. The trial is funded by a Dementia Australia Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, awarded to Dr Suraj Samtani at CHeBA. The program will be implemented at Silverchain, Australia’s leading provider of complete in-home care.
Silverchain Director of Research Discovery, Professor Tanya Davison, said Silverchain was committed to helping older Australians develop critical social cognitive skills so they could remain engaged in their communities and stay at home.
“This project signifies our shared commitment to improving the quality of life and social connections of older Australians. Silverchain is committed to ensuring people can age in the place of their choice, which is overwhelmingly at home for most Australians,” Professor Davison said.
“The program developed by the research team can be accessed online, and it could be available to older people across Australia.
“This project addresses a key barrier for those living in regional or remote areas or unable to travel to traditional services. We provide services to more than 115,000 clients each year and want to remove barriers to accessing care and improving health and wellbeing.”
Older Australians who have subjective cognitive decline or are living with early stages of dementia often experience changes in social cognitive skills that place them at substantially elevated risk of loneliness and depression. As a person’s condition worsens, social networks tend to shrink, leading to greater isolation and depression which can put them at greater risk of further cognitive decline and dementia.
Dr Samtani said improving social cognitive skills may directly address an underlying issue related to social withdrawal and loneliness in older adults with cognitive concerns.
“This partnership with Silverchain will enable us to reach older adults with cognitive concerns living in urban and remote areas,” Dr Samtani said.
“Ultimately our intention is to train Silverchain’s care teams to provide the intervention to thousands of older Australians living at home as part of routine care – to improve mental health and social connection across this demographic with the goal of improving cognitive health.”
Professor Julie Henry at UQ’s School of Psychology emphasised the importance of social cognitive skills for mental health and wellbeing.
“Because social cognitive skills are critical for successful interpersonal communication, early intervention has the potential to meaningfully improve the social engagement, broader community participation, mental health, social relationships, and quality of life of many older Australians,” Professor Henry said.
Research such as this trial is urgently needed to help provide valuable insights into how enhancing or maintaining cognitive skills could improve the lives of older people living with dementia.
Reducing costs of dementia was also a major issue that the research could address. Dementia affects almost 50 million people worldwide, with an estimated global annual cost of $818 million. If the program is found to be effective, it is intended that it would be made freely available to all Australians.