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Is Alexa a Welcome Guest in Senior Homes?

Virtual assistants have finally found their place in independent senior homes. In hindsight, it does makes sense especially that technology is best used for repetitive tasks and Siri nor Alexa never gets tired of answering the same, “When will I take my next meds?” question.


There are various reasons why virtual assistants are here to stay in senior homes. 42 per cent of adults 65 and up responded that they own a smartphone according to a Pew research. This is a significant jump from 18 per cent that the figure was in 2013.  With seniors being able to easily call their loved ones without being too concerned about bells and whistles of the latest smartphone, there is a lower tendency for them to feel isolated or lonely. Even if they are residing in one of the senior apartments in Indianola, IA, they can know how’s the trip of their favourite granddaughter travelling in New Delhi, India. Virtual assistants not only help them call friends and family, it can also enable video chats and interactions through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.  Virtual assistants are also helping make wonders Google and Amazon brought more accessible since it reduces the learning curve associated with using each platform. They most likely won’t need to know what “browser” or “app” means when finding a gift for a grandson, all they need to say is “Alexa, search for the best rated boys’ jeans near independent senior apartments in New Hampshire.” Isn’t that convenient?  With Google, they are able to access almost any information available to them at a click of a button. Maybe their kids are late and they’re from Sugar Grove, PA, their parents residing in one of the retirement communities in Jamestown, NY can google if the traffic is holding them up. Google can also be a constant source of answers to repetitive questions seniors have about their medications and conditions, without the fear of annoying anyone. Last but most importantly, virtual assistants are helping senior be more independent. For instance, it makes the delivery of music therapy easy to those with Alzheimer’s. In simplifying repetitive tasks like setting alarms, getting the weather forecast, or keeping updated with the news, seniors are requiring less help in getting through their days. Seniors with dementia will find virtual assistants handy in keeping themselves healthy.


What are the options?

Amazon Echo, Google Home, Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple HomePod are the biggest contenders and are readily available online or in your favourite electronics store. Meanwhile, Lenovo Health and Orbita Health offers virtual assistant for industry applications. Their technology is not only for reminding senior to take their medications on time but also for providing post-surgery instructions and explaining repercussions of new drugs.


Amazon—not wanting to be fazed—is also investing heavily in voice-controlled technology for industry use that it partnered with Merck and Luminary Labs to launch the Alexa Diabetes Challenge that challenges start-ups to create a voice application specifically used to help manage type 2 diabetes. The grand prize? $125,000 in exchange of a breakthrough idea to make virtual assistants more useful.


Has this been tested?

There was a pilot program AARP Foundation headed to test out the effectiveness of voice-controlled technology in improving seniors’ wellness. Amazon Echo devices were distributed in senior communities in Baltimore and District of Columbia and seniors were provided in-person workshops to get them started with these devices. The verdict? Senior loved it! Some respondents got their first taste of the wonders of the Internet through the program and found it less intimidating. With virtual assistants’ ability to figure out the context of conversations, other even made their virtual assistants their companions.


If this program was not even enough, LifePod’s virtual caregiver enabled with Alexa’s voice capabilities is now available to humanize the artificial caregiver. If its sensors detect that its patient is injured, it will ask if everything’s all fine and prompt medical assistance otherwise.


What about privacy?

With its growing popularity, virtual assistants are also raising eyebrows because valuable information can be gathered in the process of interacting with Alexa or Siri.  With medical records being deemed confidential, virtual assistants may find it harder to get into more independent senior homes. Current HIPAA regulations—the governing body protecting individuals’ personal health information—does not even touch the topic of technology distributing patients’ personal data so it will be interesting to see if the benefits of virtual assistants will ultimately outweigh the risks and costs of improving seniors’ lives and helping them be more independent.