On the surface, a virtual assistant like Alexa for seniors seems like a great alternative to the traditional input devices—keyboards and touch screens.
However, while many seniors embrace technology, some seniors are resistant to using new technology. Of those seniors who embrace new technology, not all are able use devices at a high functional level.
Overcoming current challenges
Until voice recognition and comprehension is more evolved, there will continue to be verbal interaction challenges for virtual assistant users of any age.
Therefore, Alexa for seniors is subject to two issues.
Those of us who are not seniors can be prone to imposing our levels of cognitive function and technological competence on an older generation.
Of course, it’s always possible—and in many cases it’s recommended—for a senior’s family member to manage various accounts that link to Alexa devices. This way, the senior doesn’t need to be responsible for the more technical, back-end tasks.
While adoption of virtual assistants by seniors is still in the early stages, the technology is progressing rapidly.
For example, virtual assistant vendors have added devices with a display component. Echo Show is Amazon’s entry into this category.
A Smart Display, powered by Google Assistant, is now available from Lenovo. Similar devices will soon be available from JBL and LG.
Third Party Marketplaces
Alexa has a marketplace of third party skills that can be installed on Echo devices.
Google Assistant has a marketplace of third party actions that can be installed on Google Assistant platforms including Google Home, android devices, iOS devices and more.
A number of skills and actions come into play for seniors.
Alexa for Seniors Applications
Beyond easily downloadable third party apps, there are vendors that have created entire suites of functionality digital assistant technology.
Given the base technologies plus the ever expanding third party marketplaces, what are some of the current practical applications and add-ons for Alexa and other virtual assistants for seniors?
Loneliness is an issue for many seniors who are living by themselves.
While not a replacement for interpersonal communication, a voice assistant like Alexa is something that a senior can interact with—even asking basic questions such as, “what day is it?” or “what time is it?”
Seniors can, of course, request that their favorite music be played via Alexa.
Lifepod is an entire company built around a “voice-first caregiving service.”
Lifepod has developed an Alexa-based hardware device that goes well beyond the functionality of a standard Echo. LifePod can be set up and controlled by a remote caregiver via an online portal. The device(s) deliver personalized check-ins, reminders, and virtual companionship.
The controlling software for Lifepod is routine-oriented. Routines can be set up for wake up, morning, afternoon, evening, bedtime and random. Lifepod reports back to caregivers, family members and even doctors.
For those in a senior living facility, Alexa can be used to set reminders to attend meals, events and other group gatherings. These types of reminders also serve to improve social engagement.
Single event reminders such as a doctor’s appointment can be created in an application such as Any.do. The reminders can then be linked to Alexa. A family member could manage an Any.do account on behalf of a senior.
While the screen sizes on Echo Show and Smart Displays don’t make them a replacement for a television, they can variously be used to show video content from Amazon Prime video, YouTube, CNN, The Today Show and more.
Outbound voice calls
With some up-front setup, outbound calls to mobile phones and landlines can be placed using a virtual assistant.
When a senior calls a family member or caregiver, it’s important that the senior’s telephone number displays on the recipient’s phone.
Voice calls can be made from an Amazon Echo. For contacts that are saved in Amazon, a senior can simply speak, “call (Mary’s) mobile.”
A product called Echo Connect allows for making voice calls from an Echo over an existing landline or VoIP line.
With a link to a Google account and therefore the account’s contacts, Google Home can be used to make outbound calls. A mobile phone number or a Google Voice number can be set as the Caller ID.
Outbound video calls
Both Echo Show and Smart Displays allow for outbound video calls. Both rely on the technology vendor’s proprietary functionality.
Currently, an Echo Show can only make video calls to other Echo Shows or to those who have the Alexa app installed on their smartphone.
Smart Displays can only make video calls to others who are using Google Duo on a Smart Display, mobile phone or tablet.
Inbound video calls
Family members with matching technology can make video calls to a senior family member.
Echo Show has the ability to allow select contacts to “drop in” unannounced. Some, however, may find this intrusive.
Outbound notifications to a list of contacts
For life alerts and other distress signals, virtual assistants are not quite ready to replace mature technologies such as emergency pull cords and call buttons.
As a potential harbinger of what’s to come on this front, a company called My SOS Family has created both an Alexa skill and a Google Assistant action that can send out help notifications to a list of contacts.
Alerts can be via SMS, by phone call or by email.
Furthering use of Alexa among seniors
While there are many possibilities for Alexa and other virtual assistants for seniors, the game is still in the early innings.
For a family member who is providing care to a senior, the viability of a virtual assistant could be proven out with a lower cost device such as the Echo Dot or the Google Home Mini.
The caregiver will often need to provide guidance on how to use virtual assistant technology. The caregiver can also support back-end components such as contact lists, appointments and connections for voice and video calling.