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How Voice-First Technology Can Drastically Change Aging


“Morning mom, just letting you know I’ll be over with the kids later to drop off some groceries. Love you!”

Imagine how happy your parents would be to hear that first thing in the morning. With smart speakers like Google Home and Amazon Echo, they already can.

Turns out that voice technology is doing a whole lot more than taking your online order or finding the nearest café. It’s also being used as a virtual caregiver for the elderly, which is an especially welcome aid for those with vision or mobility issues.

elderlyImage credit: KHN

Granted, you probably know at least one parent or grandparent who refuses to fraternize with anything more advanced than a calculator. “It’s too complicated,” they moan. “Oh, I’m too old to use these things!” They insist. But it turns out many seniors find themselves pleasantly surprised once they get the hang of it.

In fact, researchers proved this in a 2017 pilot study where they introduced Alexa to 50 residents (most over 80 years old) at a retirement community near San Diego. The trial was led by the executive director of the Front Porch Center for Innovation, Davis Park, who firmly believes voice technology can help the elderly age in the comfort of their own home without feeling isolated.

Using Alexa as a helpful companion

Let’s get into the study. It was split into two parts: basic Alexa functions, and smart home integration. The first round kicked off with a short training period filled with oohs and ahhs before the residents were left to explore Alexa on their own. They went about their daily lives while using Alexa to read out audiobooks, inform them of their daily schedule, remind them to take their medications, get the latest news, and reach out to their loved ones.

After six months of surveys and focus groups, the final feedback revealed that 75% of residents interacted with Alexa on a daily basis, and just as many said the “kind virtual assistant” helped them feel more connected to their family and friends. The best part? 100% said they felt Alexa made their life easier overall. One 95-year-old participant added,

“Yes, we learned to write, how to type, how to use a computer; but voice is the first and will be there forever. That’s what Alexa offers us—it’s a natural thing.”

The virtual caregiver

For the second half of the study, Alexa was integrated with smart home technology to help residents regain control over their surroundings. It didn’t take long for them to regularly ask Alexa to turn up the heating, turn off the lights, or call someone for help.

Carol, an 83-year-old resident in a wheelchair, was particularly happy about no longer having to alert a caregiver or poke her equally aged husband to do things for her around the house. Using her voice to control her home gave her a renewed feeling of independence. Needless to say, the study showed that Alexa was a hit among the residents.

Dr. Eric Topol, author of “The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care,” neatly sums up why this technology is changing how older generations age in America:

“People want to be autonomous, irrespective of age.”
- Dr. Eric Topol

Voice-first apps for the elderly

Since it’s clear that not all old folks hate technology, there have been promising advancements in the area of voice-first technology geared towards the older population.

One shining example is Ask Marvee. Quick backstory: the creator of the app is Heidi Culbertson, a seasoned voice technology expert. Heidi’s mother, Marvee, used to lead quite the active lifestyle, but the declining effects of old age eventually got to her and she became home-bound.  

When the Amazon Echo emerged in 2014, Heidi got one for her mother with the intention of customizing it to suit her now blind and physically delicate parent. As soon as Amazon opened the platform up to third-party developers, Heidi rolled up her sleeves and got to work on an Alexa Skill that would help people like her once-active mother who still yearned for independence and family interaction. And so, Ask Marvee was born. A voice-enabled platform that connects users hampered by vision, mobility, or other challenges with their family and caregivers.

With this app, users can send a “Morning Beacon”, which is essentially a mass message to let their loved ones know how they’re doing. They can also notify contacts by text, email, or both if they want them to visit or a call. A truly great feature is the ability to ask Marvee for a family news update so they can feel in touch with the latest happenings.

After releasing Ask Marvee to the public, Heidi continued to work with her audience to tweak the app. Since then, she has learned that Alexa’s voice had to be slowed down a tad, and that a remote mic was needed for the softer-speaking seniors. Even now, the learning process continues. 

Here comes the best part: Heidi Culberston herself will be giving a talk about Ask Marvee at VOICE. Don’t you want to know what she did during the development process or how this fascinating tech can be used 5 years from now? We sure do. Register right here and we’ll see you there! Or you know, you can at least follow us on Twitter to stay in the loop.