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Image of Professor Yu Shi - Director of the University of Chester's Director of the University’s Smart Composite Group

DELONELINESS, a collaboration between King’s College London (KCL) and the University of Chester, aims to design a smart monitoring and communication system with multifunctional electronics built into textiles used as wearables and home furniture to measure loneliness in older people.

Refining the methods of identifying loneliness in people who are isolated will help to allow timely and effective intervention.

In the UK and across the world, lifespan is increasing and in 15 years 20% of the UK population is expected to be aged over 70. Loneliness is a growing concern in a rapidly ageing society and these feelings have been associated with a range of negative outcomes including an increase in physical and mental illness, all-cause mortality and the risk of self-harm.

While issues of loneliness may be overlooked by health and social care professionals, the COVID-19 pandemic could have accelerated these issues due to lockdown. Reduced access to local support groups, community events and family highlight the need to detect and support those who are lonely at home and to enable early intervention.

The project is being led by Dr Wei Liu from King’s College London and Professor Yu Shi, from the University of Chester. It has been granted £1.5 million jointly by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) to carry out pioneering research in transforming care and health at home targeting loneliness in an ageing population.

Professor Shi, Director of the University’s Smart Composite Group and his team at the University of Chester will develop the smart textile materials, into which different bio-sensors and antenna will be embedded and then incorporated into textilessuch as clothes and the fabric of furniture (eg a sofa or a mattress). This approach is viewed as being more easily accepted by older people rather than high-tech equipment such as a smart watch or phone or camera system, which may feel intrusive and give the feeling of being monitored. Individual sensors will be used to study different human body signals, with the data processed and analysed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) experts at KCL in the project team to identify and classify loneliness.

DELONELINESS is an interdisciplinary project bringing academic experts from Social Gerontology, Psychology, Design, Smart Composite Material and Artificial Intelligence and industrial partners, as well as policy makers.  

It will help understand the conditions of being lonely and  develop a smart system to measure and monitor loneliness. The project also involves Professor Anthea Tinker CBE, Director of the King’s Institute of Social Gerontology; Professor Sebastien Ourselin FREng, Head of School of Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Sciences at KCL; and Dr Faith Matcham in the School of Psychology from University of Sussex. The smart textile innovator and supplier, KYMIRA Ltd and wearable developer for healthcare, Thrive Wearables, with the housing, health and social care professionals for ageing people, Housing LIN, will be the industrial partners to help the project succeed and develop. 

Professor Shi said: “I am very proud to be part of this consortium focus on the development of the smart textile composite technology which will make improvements to the life of elderly people, with the view to helping them maintain their independence for longer. I am very much looking forward to working so closely with this consortium, which has been invaluable in providing so much expertise and support.”

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