Voice Technology Innovations in Elder Care

New at-home personal devices, or voice assistants, are not generally thought of as technology used by older adults. In fact, older adults are a demographic commonly assumed to be “non-tech savy.” Advertising often depicts young adults and teenagers enjoying the ease of communication and internet searching done using voice assistants. While these devices have generated big dollars for brands like Amazon and Google, recent students have shown that they have also been beneficial to the lives of older adults.

A recent article in Kiplinger’s Retirement Report by Susan B. Garland, titled “Voice Assistants Can Help Older Adults,” discusses the trends in connections created by new technology. These connections help increase socialization for older adults, and help foster more peace of mind for their family and friends, many of which classify themselves as caregivers to their elder loved ones.

One older adult interviewed for the piece reported that interactions with her Amazon Alexa product have been very helpful overall. Since she is visually impaired, the Alexa is able to read books to her and offer her information found on the internet due to its easy-to-use voice command and speaker system. It even streams the radio station she loves from her hometown. Functions such as the “smart home” plug-ins help her adjust her room lights and thermostat. Games that offer fun trivia questions offer opportunities to enjoy the device with her many grandchildren when they come to visit.

This older adult was one of many included in a six-month pilot study conducted by the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing. Residents in roughly 90 retirement community units attended workshops to train on the use of the Amazon Alexa and technicians helped them to customize the voice assistants to their interests and needs. The primary conclusion noted that residents (most of which were in their eighties) reported that Amazon Alexa improved their lives by making things easier to navigate.

Front Port Center executive director said “More than 70% noted that the device helped them stay connected to friends, family, and the community. And about 75% said they used their smart home devices daily.” He went on to state that some participants in the study were “concerned with forgetfulness, and the ease of setting something like a timer with voice was powerful.” Simple skills like setting a timer for tasks was effective in helping participants in the study maintain their control and independence.

 Medical providers have considered the ways in which voice assistants can help with healthy living and aging-in-place. One study done by a home health agency placed devices in the homes of several patients. Participants in the study could utilize their device for medication reminders, appointment scheduling, and reminders to do other health-related tasks, like chair exercises.

A company called Orbita is collaborating with the Mayo Clinic to offer first aid advice to those who use voice assistants, by saying for example, “Alexa, ask Mayo First Aid how to treat a cut.” Future features are in development as well, such as voice assistant triggers to contact a nurse or call a patient if they report a high level of pain on the one-to-ten intensity scale.

Another recent study focused on outcomes for patients living with diabetes. The study concluded that the participants were more likely to adhere to exercise or eating regimens when using voice assistants in their home. The devices can assist with goal setting, health assessments, and communication of concerns or changes to health care providers.

LifePod, a service due to be released at the end of 2018, focuses its goals on serving the user as well as their caregivers. Family members, friends, or geriatric care managers who are located remotely from their loved ones or clients can use LifePod to remind users to drink water, take medication, or attend scheduled events or appointments. Remote caregivers log into a portal or utilize a mobile app to set daily, customizable messages. The LifePod relays these messages via a wall unit installed in the user’s home.

Users can also be prompted to respond to these messages so that the system can take necessary action. For example, a caregiver can arrange for a message to state the user has a medical appointment or a bridge game scheduled in 1 hour. The LifePod could also follow up the message with a question such as “do you need a ride to this appointment?” If the user responds with a “yes,” the device can call a driving service that has been preprogrammed by the caregiver.

Another feature (or “skill”) offered by the Amazon Alexa was inspired by the late mother of CEO, Heidi Culbertson. Her mother’s progressive macular degeneration had left her blind, however she refused to leave her home to reside in an assisted living. Once active and social, she was no longer able to send emails to her adult children and was left feeling disconnected. The Amazon Alexa skill, called “Ask Marvee” was created in 2017. As with the LifePod, family members can manage skill through a computer or mobile application.

A family member can send a “morning beacon” and the senior can respond by asking Marvee to send a text or email in response that states “I’m okay.” Garland’s article further notes “An older person can also ask Marvee to have a loved one make a personal visit or a call, which the use can take by phone or through the [Amazon] Echo. Users can also ask for ‘family news,’ which relays messages sent by loved ones.” Amazon CEO Culbertson noted that with the addition of Ask Marvee, “The mission was to reduce social isolation and to help older adults and families interact in a new way.”

Voice assistant devices include Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, and Google Home. The Amazon device is the current market leader. It ranges in price from $40 to $100 and requires a wireless internet connection. To read Garland’s article, visit https://www.kiplinger.com/article/retirement/T013-C000-S004-voice-assistants-can-help-older-adults.html. At Weatherby & Associates, we strive to learn about new innovations in law and in elder care so that we can better advise our clients. To learn more about our unique practice and our goals, call our office at (860) 769-6938.

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