Amazon’s Alexa comes to Aigburth-Vale

St. Ambrose is participating in a project through the AARP foundation to address isolation among older adults in our senior housing community, Aigburth-Vale mansion, in Towson, MD.  Residents who volunteer to participate in the program are given the Amazon Echo, a voice controlled speaker, to use at home, and the AARP Foundation will track volunteers’ usage patterns.

51xen2uyoyl-_sl1000_According to Amzon’s website, “Amazon Echo is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly. All you have to do is ask.”

After a successful initial prototype trial at Aigburth and 3 other senior communities this summer, the project will be expanded in early 2017 to reach seniors all over the country including a larger group of residents at Aigburth-Vale. The goal is to find and advance an innovative solution to reduce the risk of social isolation among older adults.

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Al from AARP speaks to Aigburth residents about the risks of isolation and the Echo project.

Al Browne, who is leading the program at the AARP foundation, made a presentation last week for interested residents to learn more about the project and how to participate. Al explained that participants’ engagement patterns will be tracked in an attempt to show three things: people over the age of 50 will want the echo and will use it, ‘skills’ (apps for the Echo) can be created to improve the health of older adults, and investors will be interested in helping to make the echo more affordable for seniors.

Al told the group that for the 12 million older adults living alone in the United States they “gradually disconnect from friends and family.” According to AARP’s website, social isolation is “the result of multiple causes, including poor physical and mental health, poorly designed communities, and major life events such as loss and retirement.” Research also shows that “the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” The AARP foundation is looking for an easy to use technology that could have a positive impact on quality of life of seniors living alone.

The echo was an obvious choice for a number of reasons. The voice assistive technology is simple to use and ideal for an older adult whose sight or motor skills may be deteriorating. The echo provides news and information, and can play music and audio books, all of which help to keep users more connected to the world. But Al comments, sometimes it’s less about the information received, and more just that the technology “feels more human.” You can also ask Alexa to tell you a joke or even give you advice. Users have reported feeling empowered by being able to share the technology with their families and friends.

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Edwena, an Aigburth resident and Echo user.

Edwena, an Aigburth resident volunteered at the meeting, “I took it on vacation and everyone loved it! It brought everyone together, from the little one’s on up and afterwards they said, ‘make sure to bring it next time’”

Al has heard this from participants from other communities too. A man from Miami took Alexa on a cruise and commented that he “felt like a rockstar.”

Al is working with experts in gerontology from across the country  in an effort to enhance the product to better address the needs of older adults. In addition to the device’s basic functions, Alexa has the ability to learn “skills” which are like apps that can be installed for the echo. Al’s goal is to identify and develop skills that would promote positive health outcomes for seniors.

Residents at Aigburth had the opportunity to make suggestions for how to make the product most valuable for them. The most common suggestion: “Could Alexa call a family member or an emergency number in the event of a fall?” Though not one of Alexa’s current ‘skills,’ Al has been advocating for this capability. Everyone at Aigburth agreed, emergency assistance would be a major selling point for older adults and their families.

“Can I dictate a story about my childhood to Alexa?” one resident wondered. Al was enthusiastic about the idea that Alexa could help seniors to journal or record oral histories.

And, “What if Alexa could provide reminders about when to take what medications and when to have meals,” a resident’s caretaker questioned.

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Joyce, a resident’s caretaker at Aigburth offer suggestions for how to move the Echo forward.

Input from Aigburth’s users and from senior users throughout the country will help to guide leaders in pushing for improvements to the voice assistive technology that can be catered specifically for the needs of seniors.

Leslie, an Aigburth resident and early participant in the Echo project commented said she uses her echo in this way: “In the morning when I get up, I probably ask for the weather so I know what to wear. I make my shopping list, and if I take a nap, I ask it to wake me up.” Though Leslie commented that she just used Alexa for menial things, it’s easy to see how Alexa is able to offer a little extra help for daily activities.

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Leslie (left) and Nancy (right) are both Echo users

Many residents were excited about the prospect of the program continuing, and the current echo users at Aigburth have been encouraging their friends and neighbors to get on board with the expanded project.  Nancy is probably Alexa’s biggest advocate at Aigburth-Vale. Though Nancy is very active and engaged in her community, she acknowledges that there is a great need among her peers for the kind of social diversion that Alexa offers.

Requirements to participate in the program include having a smart phone and access to WiFi. Both of these things proved to be an obstacle for participants to sign up this summer, but St. Ambrose staff made it a priority to enhance the building’s WiFi and now, each room at the mansion has a strong wireless internet connection. There is a growing list of Aigburth residents who are looking forward to participating in the program. Residents who participate will receive a free Amazon Echo from the AARP foundation that they will get to keep even after the project ends. Volunteers will complete a survey before the program starts, and then they are just asked one simple request: use it!

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Author: Carla Hinson

Housing, Baltimore, and also Brazil.

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