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Aging with Alexa: Using Amazon's Voice-Command AI Alexa to Age in Place
Nov 22, 2017 by Toni Reinhart
"Whenever I can't figure out my computer, I just call my grandson to come over, and he shows me how to do it. And it only takes a minute!" Sound familiar? Older generations are less likely to use and feel comfortable with emerging technologies than their fast-fingered children and grandchildren, many of whom grew up with iPads and smartphones from young ages. In response, senior-care and age-in-place companies have developed technologies designed specifically for seniors, such as the grandPad tablet and the Jitterbug Smart cellphone. (For more information, check out one of our earlier posts.) These devices are designed with high visual contrast and simplified interfaces, but they can still pose a problem to seniors with mental or physical impairments.
Here is where an emerging technology can fill the gap: voice-controlled personal assistant technology, such as Amazon's Alexa.
Alexa is a highly capable artificial intelligence device, similar to Apple's Siri. It can perform wide range of functions, but Alexa's main feature -- its most attractive aspect -- is that it's completely controlled by voice commands. There are no buttons (other than On/Off) and no screen. While it can be downloaded onto a computer or smartphone, Alexa was originally designed for Amazon's own technology, the Echo. The Echo is a simple black cylinder about the same size as a coffee thermos with a built-in microphone that listens to you talk. The Echo Dot is smaller yet.
With a small size, friendly design, and dozens of commands, there are many benefits for seniors who use Alexa. Check out the list below!
Commands Seniors Can Use With Alexa
Curious about what Alexa can do? It has a broad range of commands. Here's a short summary:
- Play music (which can be great for helping seniors with dementia). "Alexa, play some music." "Play Bruce Springsteen."
- Set alarms, timers, and reminders. "Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes." "Alexa, remind me to take my pills every day at 9am." "Alexa, what reminders do I have tomorrow?"
- Call friends and family.
- Call other Echo users in the same household, using "Drop In" commands. "Alexa, drop in on the living room." (The Echo in the living room will activate.)
- Buy things on Amazon. "Alexa, buy me paper towels."
- Request an Uber ride. "Alexa, ask Uber for a ride."
- Check calendar events. "Alexa, what's on my calendar for tomorrow?"
- Check the news. "Alexa, what's in the news?"
- Check the weather. "Alexa, will it rain today?" "What's the forecast like for this weekend?"
- Check traffic (you'll ned to preprogram Alexa for this one). "Alexa, what is traffic like to the grocery store?"
- Do math. "Alexa, what's 5 plus 7?"
- Look up answers to questions that can be easily answered by Wikipedia, Google Maps, or IMDb, such as restaurant hours, business phone numbers, and movie ratings.
There are even more commands, but we don't want to bore you -- check them out yourself at CNET.
Here are a few benefits that are especially useful to seniors aging in place.
Aging-in-Place Benefit 1: A Hands-free Design
The best part about all of this is that Alexa is hands-free. No tiny buttons, no tiny screen, and no tiny font. Many of the features that seniors find confusing in sophisticated smartphones or tablets are absent from this device. It's operated strictly by voice control. The most a senior needs in order to operate it is, perhaps, a print-out cheat sheet of voice commands.
Aging-in-Place Benefit 2: Peace of Mind
When seniors live alone, out of the immediate reach of their children or grandchildren, the ability to ask for help from a personal assistant can bring increased independence and peace-of-mind. Loneliness and isolation contribute to serious health problems among the elderly, who are also at higher risk from them.
One senior interviewed by MarketWatch.com, Willie Kate Friar, uses Alexa every day. "I've found Alexa is like a companion," she says. She asks Alexa what time it is when she wakes up, plays music during physical therapy sessions, and treats Alexa like a companion. Alexa, like Siri, can respond to a wide variety of non-task-related questions, such as, "When's your birthday, Alexa?" and "Alexa, tell me a joke." (Find more fun questions here.)
Aging-in-Place Benefit 3: Smart Home Integration
Perhaps the biggest benefit is the ability to integrate Alexa with other smart-home devices, which enables residents to control their environment by voice. If a senior has smart-home devices, Alexa can discover them on command and pair with them. These are some of the available commands for a smart home:
- Turn lights on and off.
- Dim the lights.
- Adjust the temperature up and down.
- Open and close the garage door.
- Lock the doors.
- Control smart appliances, such as a smart oven.
- Finding a lost phone.
- Turning the TV on and off.
- Connecting to certain programming, such as Netflix.
It is easy to see how voice-controlled technology can help seniors age in place. No more fumbling for the light switch in the dark. Seniors with Parkinson's will appreciate the ability to operate switches and remotes without having to use buttons. Alexa can help dementia patients to remember to take medications and complete other tasks, as long as the disease hasn't progressed too far.
One Drawback: No 911 or Emergency Calls
Alexa has a few major drawbacks: the biggest one is that Alexa cannot dial 9-1-1 or call emergency services. Amazon is working on fixing this, but a current workaround is the "Ask My Buddy" feature, which allows the user to call a friend who has been pre-programmed onto a Buddy list. The Amazon website says:
If you have fallen, or need help, Ask My Buddy lets you immediately alert someone in your Personal Alert Network that you need them to check on you. You may alert just 1 contact or all of your friends or family with just one command. Simply say, 'Alexa, Ask My Buddy to alert YourContact' or 'Alexa, Ask My Buddy to alert everyone', and Ask My Buddy will immediately send an alert, notifying them to check on you right away. Alerts will be sent by text message / SMS, an email, and even a voice telephone call. Ask My Buddy is not a substitute for 911, but rather an additional tool offering the security of knowing help is just a shout away.
Instructions for setting up Ask My Buddy are also available on the Amazon webpage.
Artificial Intelligence: The Next Step for Seniors at Home
When you are a senior, a millennial, or in-between, Alexa can help manage small tasks and provide a sense of companionship in the home. It is truly designed for all ages. But residents with lower mobility, or less familiarity with modern screen devices, may find Alexa particularly helpful. Voice-controlled personal assistants continue to develop, getting more sophisticated every year, and will hopefully make aging-in-place easier and easier to achieve. At a $99 price tag and getting cheaper every year, the Amazon Echo with Alexa inside might make a great Christmas gift for your elderly loved ones.
Comfort Keepers’ goal is to allow seniors and disabled individuals to live as independently and possible, knowing that they are receiving the best care possible. If we can help you or your family members age-in-place gracefully, please reach out to us. Comfort Keepers Herndon is a full-service, in-home care provider for the elderly -- helping to keep your loved ones at home longer for better quality of life.
We’re here to help 24/7! Give us a call at (703) 424-9519, or stop by at 459 Herndon Pkwy #5, Herndon, VA 20170.