Social Engagement over Video Technology

Never has there been a more important time to help older adults stay connected. A grant awarded to two University of Illinois researchers aims to advance that goal.

Kinesiology and Community Health professor Wendy Rogers and Speech and Hearing Science associate professor Raksha Mudar are the principal investigators of a National Institute on Aging (National Institutes of Health) Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant.

The researchers are collaborating with co-founder Dillon Myers on a study entitled, “Enhancing Quality of Life for Older Adults with and without MCI through Social Engagement over Video Technology.”  MCI refers to Mild Cognitive Impairment, which affects millions of older Americans.

The technology in question is OneClick video communication software along the lines of Zoom and Skype, but easier to use, Rogers said.

“So, by definition, OneClick, you don’t have to download any software,” Rogers said. “If I want to engage somebody to participate in a meeting with me—I can send them a link. And they just click on that link, and they’re automatically into the system. And one of the things we did in our first phase was to optimize it for older adults, making sure that the icons and the language and the information that was presented was easy to understand by older adults with and without cognitive impairment.”

Myers and Rogers connected in a serendipitous manner.

“I was interviewed on (National Public Radio) about a project we were doing,” Rogers said. “It was early stages on tele-health. And one of the comments I made was we may be able to connect people who are living alone or are at risk for social isolation to have conversations and to be engaged socially with other individuals. And Dillon Myers heard the interview on NPR and called me.”

It took about a year—“luckily he was very persistent,” Rogers said—but the two decided to work together. The original idea, which was funded by a Phase I SBIR grant, was to connect older people with and without mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Mudar got involved because of her expertise with mild cognitive impairment, and she was the lead investigator on an additional seed grant from Discovery Partners Institute that explored the use of OneClick for older adults of low socioeconomic status.

The Phase I SBIR included a small pilot study to make sure older adults with and without MCI could use OneClick on their own in their homes.

However, Phase II will be a much larger assessment, Rogers said.

“We’ll be doing a clinical trial to determine whether it actually improves social engagement and reduces feelings of loneliness for older adults, assessed for 120 participants, including people with and without MCI. Another component of the Phase II is partnering with agencies. We have three partners—Clark-Lindsey Village, CRIS Healthy-Aging Center, both in the Champaign and Vermilion County areas, and then CJE SeniorLife up in the Chicago area.”

Rogers said the work with community partners will focus on how agencies that support older adults can integrate OneClick to provide support services, and how they might find it helpful for serving their clients.

“It’s great that we have these community partners located in urban and micro-urban areas,” Mudar said. For example, within the greater Chicago area, the CJE allows us to capture the population, which is really diverse in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity. These three partners allow us to reach out to a really wide audience or a purpose-built group.”

The grant award totals approximately $1.8 million, with approximately $850,000 earmarked for the University of Illinois. The funding runs from May 1 of 2020 through March 31 of 2022.

According to research from the National Institutes of Health, social isolation and loneliness have been linked to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

OneClick’s goal is to connect people with shared interests in an accessible way, thereby stimulating social connectedness, which has been found beneficial to health and quality-of-life outcomes for older adults.

Connectedness is more important than ever now as most of the globe is forced to shelter in place in the wake of COVID-19. OneClick is enabling people to sign up right now and use OneClick for free, during the pandemic, Rogers said, adding that the timeliness of this study could not be more apparent.

“Raksha and I have been interested in social engagement for older adults for quite a long time already,” she said. “And we recognize the importance of that for older adults and even more so, given today’s situation. And this technology is designed with their needs and capabilities in mind. We only wish we were even further along in some of this research so that more older adults could be using it right now.

Mudar said one of the participants in the first study summed up OneClick perfectly.

The participant said “it’s like having a friend at the touch of a button.”

About is a web-based video chat platform based in Philadelphia. The platform, designed by a cross-generational team, makes it easy for people of any age to join and participate in video-based meetings and events. No downloads, and no more logins. Just a single click from a computer/tablet/smartphone, and you’re in!

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