E-textile Connections
: catalysts for social connectedness and challenging loneliness in later life

  • Sara Nevay

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Loneliness is a growing endemic social condition that can be deeply disruptive to health and wellbeing. In the face of life transitions, such as retirement and the loss of loved ones, older adults can be particularly vulnerable to loneliness. This puts them at greater risk of developing conditions including Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease and depression. Whilst several interventions or strategies such as social prescribing are employed to increase opportunities for social interaction and minimise loneliness, many older adults continue to describe themselves as “severely” or “chronically” lonely. As inherently social creatures, the sensory experience of feeling socially connected to others is key in preventing loneliness and maintaining our physiological and emotional wellbeing. Whilst there is evidence to show that using the Internet can help to combat older adults’ feelings of loneliness, typical screen-based digital interfaces may not instigate meaningful or physical interactions that are fundamental in engendering feelings of connectedness. Designing for connectedness requires sensitivity: a softer touch.

    This research advances electronic textiles (e-textiles) as catalysts for social connectedness in later life. In this thesis traditional soft textiles are combined with digital components (including power, light, sound and small computers) as tangible and sensory vehicles for social connectedness. Four qualitative design research studies are presented where e-textiles prototypes were imagined and developed as catalysts for social connectedness with older adults who have experience of loneliness. Study 1, ‘Scoping’, focused on understanding the lived experience of the participants and their perceptions of the opposing experiences of loneliness and connectedness, raising issues around general and social health and wellbeing. Study 2, ‘Inspiration Workshops’ invited participants to ideate and prototype e-textiles as useful and usable tactile-digital artefacts to explore the subjective experience of connectedness and imagine opportunities and applications for e-textiles in later life. Studies 3 and 4 focused on evaluating the prototypes generated as a result of Study 2 - The Dundee Conversation Quilt and Soft Sound Spheres - in use contexts including care homes proving that e-textiles can support social interaction towards the development of connectedness. Through this progressive series of studies, the research identified possible future applications including e-textiles as conversational, storytelling or mnemonic aids, and digital companions in themselves, providing opportunity for and enhancing quality of social interaction towards connectedness.

    The research deepens the body of knowledge within the field of e-textiles specifically for social connectedness in later life and contributes to the wider discourse of research around loneliness. In conducting the research, four core contributions have been made, namely: i) working with older adults to identify new perspectives on social connectedness, emphasising the concept of ‘security’; ii) the Dundee Conversation Quilt and Soft Sound Sphere prototypes themselves as artefacts to address and support social connectedness; iii) advanced knowledge of the relationship between tactile/material and social interactions; and iv) reflections on the use of e-textiles more broadly with older adults as a means to investigate social connectedness. The findings presented are relevant to disciplines out with textiles and design, exploring wider issues related to ageing, social health and wellbeing, and identity. As such, the research detailed within this thesis has relevance to researchers in related fields including health and care.

    Through this research, a number of areas for future research have also been identified that includes the exploration of e-textiles for connectedness: in different contexts and with different user groups; as critical social touch points to accompany existing social activities and rituals; as ‘non-wearables’ aids or tools within social interactions; and as asynchronous and expressive tactile-gestural technologies to support social interactions.

    As such, this thesis has recognised and investigated a gap in the literature, where e-textiles for social connectedness specifically has been underexplored. Furthermore, it offers possible future directions for research within the field, in the hope that this will support both the advancement of e-textiles, and the social experiences of older adults.
    Date of Award2021
    Original languageEnglish
    SponsorsEngineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
    SupervisorChris Lim (Supervisor), Gary Gowans (Supervisor) & Maria Fusco (Supervisor)

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