The Longevity

Smart Speakers Provide Health Tracking, Support Aging in Place

An article in the Washington Post this morning highlighted a number of new technology offerings that promise to help seniors age safely- and well- at home. Among the more traditional emergency alert and medication management solutions, a number of programs designed to make use of increasingly popular smart speaker technology stood out.

For many, the technology offers not just the tools they need to continue to live at home, but newfound confidence and connectedness with faraway family and friends.

[Dr. Eric] Topol, [director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute] calls it “monitored independence,” and it is changing how older generations age in America. “People want to be autonomous, irrespective of age,” he said.

Smart home technologies go beyond traditional emergency alert systems by not only monitoring senior’s safety, but by giving them the ability to direct daily essential activities through a voice interface. For wheelchair-bound 83-year old Carol Smith, a connected home managed by Amazon Echo provides increased peace of mind while simultaneously supporting her ability to age independently in her own home.

The Smiths were introduced to the Amazon Echo last February through a pilot program for seniors. Carol is now able to control lights and the thermostat. She can ask Alexa to remind her to take medications, or to call her brother or even to call for help.

“It gives her a great deal of independence,” Ray said. “If for some reason I have to be away, she’s able to function on her own. It’s keeping her safe, but closely related to that, it’s allowing her to be independently safe.”

While some companies, like “virtual caregiver” provider Lifepod, have devoted themselves to designing proprietary devices intended specifically for seniors, other companies have gained traction through custom-made apps and portals designed to interact with existing connected home devices.

Voice-assistive technologies like the Amazon Echo, Google Home and HomePod are likely to play a bigger role in helping seniors age in place, especially when paired with apps geared specifically for senior living, predicts Majd Alwan, executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST). AskMarvee, for instance, integrates with Amazon Echo via an online portal to allow seniors to immediately connect with family members for a quick check-in or if something more serious is going on. (The Basic app is free; premium versions cost $15 or $20 per month.)

LifePod, to be introduced later this year, takes voice-assisted technology a step further, said Laurie Orlov, founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch. It will allow users to engage with the device, much like Alexa, but will also periodically check in with them independent of a voice prompt, at preprogrammed intervals:  Good morning, Nancy. Did you remember to take your medication?

These solutions show particular promise for the aging-in-place crowd, experts argue, because of their ability to provide versatile services at the same time, minimizing the number of different systems a senior must simultaneously operate. For example, rather than having a separate emergency alert system, medication management app, and caregiver communication platform, today’s seniors can carry out all of these functions simultaneously using smart speaker and connected home technology. In addition, because smart speaker interfaces are typically fun and easy to learn, seniors may be more likely to adopt- and stick with- the technology.

If the goal is independent and connected living, we need solutions that are multifaceted and that connect people with their family, their doctors, their neighbors,” said Jody Holtzman, senior managing partner of Longevity Venture Advisors. “If the technology is framed in the context of fun and convenience, like Alexa, then people will start to buy these things.”

Carol Smith can’t imagine life without Alexa. When I read, “I just say, ‘Alexa, what does this word mean?’ Or I ask Alexa to play the song. Oh, and I’m a basketball fan, but if I can’t stay up late to watch the end of the game, I’ll ask Alexa what the score is the next morning. There are so many things you can ask her. She’s fun. And she’s always pleasant.”

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