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Can a radical new plan to end Britain's loneliness epidemic using technology work?

Natasha Bernal
Monmouthshire has beautiful green fields and picturesque towns, but it is also home to many lonely elderly people trialling technology to feel better - COPYRIGHT JAY WILLIAMS

"I've had all kinds of people in my car, from millionaires to people on pension credits," Patrick Harkness laughs. The financial consultant is one of 350 volunteers working on an ambitious new project in Monmouthshire, which could soon become Britain's blueprint to end an epidemic of loneliness.

Harkness started volunteering two years ago, when he scaled back his work and wanted to find out more about Monmouth and the people who live in his town.

"I was away from home a lot and I didn’t have a lot of contact with my community. When I scaled that back I had time and I wanted to get in touch with where I live," he explains.

"I was driving 60,000 miles a year. Now I drive people to things like lunch clubs or physio sessions." 

He is part of a community of volunteers trialing artificial intelligence technology designed to match lonely people with others with similar interests and encourage them to do activities together.

This radical project aims to help people who feel isolated because they can no longer drive or rely on relatives, to run errands or to participate in activities they enjoy with friends and acquaintances. 

Their work could make a big difference in the battle to reduce the 1.5 million people in the UK aged 50 and over who the Office of National Statistics claims suffer from “chronic loneliness”.

Recent studies have shown that lonely people tend to recover more slowly from serious injuries and are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Shocking figures released last month showed that two in five hospital patients never have any visitors, and that the lack of contact has a detrimental effect on recovery because they are less likely to move from their beds. 

This isn't just a strain on public health services. Loneliness among the UK's over-50s costs the the economy £1.8bn per year.

And though it is easier to imagine scores of older people suffering from loneliness, this blight affects all age groups. In Wales, this problem is particularly acute in younger people.  Around 20pc of 16-24 year olds say they feel lonely, according to the National Survey for Wales 2016-17. 

The ambitious plan to solve loneliness

Perhaps this is why Monmouthshire, with its sprawling countryside and ageing population of around 93,600, was chosen as a test bed to develop a solution. A government-funded project launched in the region this year aims to map loneliness hotspots and identify the transport needs and activities people require.

If this proves successful, the government could roll it out across the country as a blueprint for how services, which have been reduced due to austerity cuts, can be revived.

The way it works is relatively straightforward: British technology company Box Clever Digital has partnered with local volunteer groups to find out residents' likes and dislikes through a website, app and over the phone. They will then be matched to activities or groups in their local area, and given help to find transport to attend regularly. 

The business is conducting a 12-month trial with the Behavioural Insights team, a former government think-tank known as the "Nudge Unit" under David Cameron which tests "cost-effective and quick insights" to enact policy changes. 

Dan Scobie, chief technology officer of Box Clever Digital, says his service can match people who regularly commute to places other people want to go, vet drivers and volunteers, gather reviews, organise cultural, group activities in a specific area and encourage local people to start other groups that people might be interested in.

This might sound like a logistical nightmare - but it's a system that volunteer charities and social services currently manage through hours of paperwork and coordination - and could be made far easier by artificial intelligence capable of understanding people's preferences. 

"We have proposed  a fairly rounded project looking for AI to link up those suffering from isolation and loneliness with activities they can do in their community, and providing a joined-up view of the transport options that are available to them," Scobie explains. 

Scobie is careful to point out that a lot of these solutions are not just aimed at older, isolated people -- and that many  are not necessarily facing financial difficulties, but simply find it difficult to connect with others. 

"We want to make sure the solutions that we are designing and developing aren’t just targeting older people," he says. "The retired population is currently the richest part of society - and there is a perception that they can’t afford things -  a lot of the time that’s not necessarily true. " 

The key to finding lonely people is to never call them lonely

Charities found that people will not engage in activities aimed at those suffering from loneliness, because they don't want to be pitied, or may simply not consider themselves as lonely people.

"Eight years ago we got lottery money to run a befriending project for older people," says Miranda Thomason of the Monmouth-based Bridges Centre charity. "That was not appealing. They didn't want friends, they needed help doing to the shop. People will engage if they think it's about being independent."

Some of the people who volunteer were isolated and lonely themselves, she explains, and feel more comfortable participating by helping others. 

The people that her network of volunteers -- Harkness among them -- deal with are often affected by undiagnosed mental health issues and are isolated for other reasons beyond just ageing. Some suffer from depression or may need additional care. In this scenario, volunteers are often the first to flag a problem as well as providing services.

"We trialed software with car schemes, which is coordinated by volunteers that support them. Some of them may forget what day it is and having made an arrangement, some can’t hear on the phone, there is a lot of coordination over the phone and chasing up," Thomason explains.

"But the tech has allowed us to keep the information a bit more consistent and efficient and increase the amount of people that we can support now. That’s just a pilot phase."

The tech team behind this pilot have tapped into charities' vast network of carers, GP surgeries and supermarkets - all of which contribute to connecting people to local groups and activities. 

"Coordinators are in a patch to develop people, and meet local people who have networks, go to church, go to the gym, go to wildlife groups and hook people in.  It’s all relationship based, not relying on promotional material but meeting people. We talk to anyone anywhere, even at bus stops," Tomason says.

"They tend to get involved because they appreciate the support or want to help themselves."

Without volunteers, technology will be useless

The NHS has pledged to recruit an army of non-medical staff to assist GPs dealing with the "scourges of modern life" from loneliness to mental health illness under Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

But until those troops arrive, the full weight of helping people suffering from loneliness falls squarely on the shoulders of organisations like the Bridges Centre. 

For Thomason the main point of the charity is to offer "people to be able to depend on" -- but unfortunately those who work there are dependent on Lottery fund grants or government funding on a yearly basis to keep their jobs and have no buffer like statutory services. 

"We just do our jobs and try to do our best. It’s a big challenge and we don’t have much guidance. If these models could be replicated elsewhere we would share. We would like money to sustain what we are doing," she admits.

"I’m trying to get my staff not to burn out and to take care of themselves. There has to be this chain of support. Volunteers are not there to replace statutory services. Those volunteers cannot do this without really good support. It’s a low cost but a cost. "

Gilbody says he is "all about the tech solutions" but that the basic social services need to be put first. "Where are the day centres, what about the libraries that have been closed down, what about the meals on wheels that councils can’t afford to operate. You’re not going to get Matt Hancock tooting about that, things like rural bus services.

"But that's what we need to carry on the fight."