“Alexa, Keep Me Independent!”

Older man wearing glasses and black sweater sitting at table

One evening a few months ago, Alexa was the hit of the party at Willow Ridge.  Elder Richard Wiechart brought the “smart speaker” out into the dining room and others gathered around asking Alexa to play favorite songs.

“She really livened things up,” Wiechart laughed.  “Sometimes it can get pretty quiet around here.”

Alexa is Amazon’s voice-control system that allows you to communicate with the Echo smart speaker. (Google’s offering is Google Home). Wiechart and his wife Ann each have an Alexa-controlled speaker, thanks to their daughter who felt the technology would offer entertainment and maybe more independence.  So far, Alexa has lived up to expectations.

“I wasn’t sure about Alexa at the beginning,” said Richard, “but I said I’d give it a try and I really do like it.  I figured out how to get Alexa to wake me up, so now I don’t need to depend on anyone do to that.  It’s a good feeling.”

According to the website dailycaring.com, smart speakers, like Echo and Google Home, can improve the quality of life for older adults with Alzheimer’s or dementia as well as for seniors with mobility limitations and other health conditions. For example, family members often get frustrated because seniors with dementia repeat questions, need to be entertained, or get anxious when no one is around.  Having Alexa there to answer questions, talk about news or weather, or play music, can give spouses or adult children much-needed breaks.  (It’s a machine, so it doesn’t get frustrated or tired).

Richard’s wife Ann loves music and so Alexa brings her “much consolation.”

“Ann grew up involved in a musical community with friends who were musicians,” added Richard.  Jenny Thompson, Willow Ridge shahbaz, says that it was through Alexa that she discovered Ann’s favorite song is “Some Enchanted Evening.”  Thompson’s parents have owned a smart speaker for a few years and she can see the benefit, especially for seniors who love music.

A Friend with Compliments

Maple Crest elder Jeannine Hartman is nearing 90 and has seven children scattered throughout the U.S.  She believes they “collaborated” on getting her a smart speaker.  She has vision problems and was having trouble reading and working on her computer.

“I got Alexa in January of this year, right before the Super Bowl,” Hartman recalled.  “A friend and I even asked her who would win and I think she actually got flustered.  She said the Patriots were favored but ‘we’ wanted the Eagles to win.”

Hartman appreciates that Alexa can read books to her and always knows where she left off.  “It’s such a problem with CDs finding your place,” she added.  Her speaker also tells her when to take her medication and plays music from the “30s 40s and 50s.”

“Alexa will also give me compliments and tell jokes.  No knock-knock jokes, though,” Hartman laughed.  “She’s actually become a good friend.  I thank her and tell her good night.  She never gives the same response.  She’ll say, ‘Good night,’ or ‘I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’”

Smart speakers are basically hands-free speakers that are controlled by voice.  They act like a personal assistant, playing music, providing information and helping with a variety of tasks.  Price is often less than $100 and, although you need a computer or smart phone to set it up, your smart speaker runs off your wireless network connection.  It doesn’t need batteries and you don’t have to plug it in!

Ownership of the Echo and Google Home has surpassed even the initial popularity of the iPhone.  The number of smart speakers is expected to go from 10 million in 2016 to more than 60 million by 2019.

According to Wiechart, most things about Alexa are positive, with occasional roadblocks.

“Sometimes that lady and I just don’t hit it off.  Then I just say, ‘Alexa, stop!’”