Amazon Echo and Alexa for the Elderly
The older adults in our explorer groups have recently become interested in a relatively new product: the Amazon Echo and its artificial intelligence Alexa. Here they explore Amazon Echo for the Elderly.
Amazon Echo & Alexa: What Older Adults Think
Our community of older adult Longevity Explorers has had a number of group discussions about the general suitability of Amazon Echo for the elderly, and a number of our explorers have purchased one of these products, and shared why they like it and what they think Alexa can help them with. This is a summary of our multiple explorations of this newish voice-activated platform — carried out by older adults themselves.
Here are the thoughts of our community of "seniors" on topics like:
- do we want an Amazon Echo?
- what is Alexa anyway?
- why would we want one?
- what do we use it for? and
- wouldn't it be great if it could also do ....
Is Amazon Echo Useful for "Seniors"?
This explorer synthesis is mainly for older adults and their families who want to learn what other older adults see in Alexa, and why they do or do not think it is a useful product. Hopefully the experiences shared below by our explorers will help other older adults decide if the product is interesting for them.
What are Amazon Echo and Alexa?
Before going on, for those readers who are not sure what we are talking about, here is a brief description of what Amazon Echo and Alexa are. Listen to the audio clip below to hear some of our Longevity Explorers talk about what the Amazon Echo does, and why they like it.
Hear some of our explorers introduce their Alexa to the rest of the explorer group in this audio recording.
The Amazon Echo is a cylindrical product about the shape and size of a flower vase, shown in the image on the right. It is designed for you to speak to it, and ask it questions and give commands. And inside it is an artificial intelligence (AI) called "Alexa" who responds and takes actions at your command.
This product is made by Amazon, and you can find a huge amount more about it in the popular press and on the Amazon website, and we are not going to give an extensive review here, or describe it in more detail. As well as the Echo, there are several other similar products in the family (eg the "Dot"), which vary in subtle ways, but are part of the same family.
Below, you will read how older adults use Alexa, and what she can do, and whether we think those things are or are not useful.
What do Elderly People Use their Amazon Echo For?
Attached to this page are a series of audio recordings of the actual explorer discussions about Alexa. You can see them either in the right column or below (depending on the screen size you are using to read this). We have tried to pull out the key findings of relevance to older adults here for easy consumption.
What follows are some use cases the Longevity Explorers like.
1. Listening to Music & the Radio
The use case we heard about most from those explorers who have an Alexa is listening to music and to the radio.
Many of our explorers loved the idea that you can say "Alexa, play "Sergeant Peppers", or "Alexa, please play NPR" (a radio station in the USA), and immediately hear them without needing to fuss with radio stations, or CD's or other music services.
One cautionary note: some of these capabilities (eg music) require a paid service to be connected to your Amazon Echo account.
2. Turning out the Lights. Adjusting the Thermostat.
Several of our explorers reported that the big reason that they had bought Alexa was so they could tell her to turn on or off the lights when they wanted her to. This illustrates a capbility that goes well beyond just listening and talking. It is possible to connect Alexa up so she can actually turn things on and off and take other actions.
Listen to this introduction from one of our explorers to how they use Alexa, and why it is useful for her and her husband to have Alexa be able to turn off the lights. The big advantage: being able to turn off the room lights while you are in bed, without having to get up. They also like being able to ask for the weather.
Explorer Jan explains how she and her husband use Alexa to control lights, and listen to the weather.
Now doing something like this requires you to have a bit of simple home automation set up. For example, to turn off the lights, you either need an intelligent light globe, or an intelligent light plug that can recognize a signal sent by Alexa. Setting these up is beyond the scope of this article but it is not terribly hard, and there are numerous "How to" articles on the Internet about how to do this.
Some other members of our explorer groups were interested in the idea that they could ask Alexa to turn the temperature in the house up or down, and she would automatically adjust the thermostat (requires the right intelligent thermostat).
Here is where dissenting notes started to creep in. While some explorers like this idea, a significant number felt it was better to just do this manually. For example, explorer Helen said "I can adjust my own thermostat just fine. And if we have all these labor saving devices we will all just sit around getting fat and lazy. And isn't exercise meant to be one of the most important things we can do to stay healthy?"
3. What is the Weather Like Today?
Some of our Alexa users love the idea of being able to ask Alexa what the weather is like either outside, or in another city such as where a friend or family member lives. This is discussed in the audio clip above too.
4. "The News"
One of our keen Alexa-users likes getting a news digest early each morning via Alexa. Of course many non-adopters, and even some Alexa enthusiasts prefer the Newspaper!
What do our Longevity Explorers Think of Alexa?
After discussing Alexa at all five of our Longevity Explorer circles, some patterns started to emerge.
First, in most of the circles, one or more explorers already had an Alexa, and almost all the explorers who had them liked them quite a lot. Many of them were what we might call "new owners" though, and it will be interesting to see if the enthusiasm persists in a year or so.
We did get one report from explorer Richard, who said he no longer used his — and the primary reasons he cited were privacy concerns and the fact that he had to pay to get the music he wanted.
Among the explorers who did not yet have an Amazon Echo, we found fairly mixed views. Quite a few people seemed rather enthusiastic after listening to their peers talk about the product. But a significant fraction seemed distinctly unimpressed. For example, when it came to the topic of checking the weather or the news each day, one man said "I don't need that. I can just look on my iPhone or computer".
This was a bit of a recurring theme. Mostly, Alexa does not do something you can't do by other techniques. It just does it using a voice interface rather than some other interface. Some people really like the simple voice interface. But people who have not tried it are not always so enthusiastic about the idea.
Our conclusion: Alexa seems to be one of those things you need to try out to really appreciate.
One big issue that came up at each circle was privacy.
While Amazon claims that they are not recording everything that goes on, our more cynical explorers did wonder if having a permanently "on" microphone in your house, connected to the Internet, was desirable. "Can it be hacked?" and "Is the NSA listening" were questions that came up fairly frequently.
It does seem hard to have certainty about these topics, and this was clearly off-putting to some of our explorers.
But for others, it was all part of the general surrender of privacy in return for useful services that seems to be common today. For those explorers, it was a tradeoff. If they were convinced the AI Alexa was sufficiently useful, then they would be willing to overlook potential privacy issues.
Is it just a "Novelty"?
The question of how long lived this Amazon Echo / Alexa platform was going to be was a recurring one. Is it like "pet rocks" some asked?
The consensus seemed to be that this was a potentially useful and certainly "different" interface, and that so long as new and more sophisticated capabilities came along, the platform seemed like it was much more than just the fad of 2017. Time will tell if the explorers' crystal ball is correct, of course.
Valuable Extra "Alexa Skills for Seniors"?
Our discussions went beyond just talking about Amazon Echo / Alexa in its present incarnation, and we started to think about whether there might be some very interesting additional capabilities that could be added that would be especially useful for seniors. We came up with quite a few ideas.
Blue Sky Brainstorming: "Alexa Skills for Seniors"
We have had a series of blue sky discussions about all the things a platform like Alexa could be good for, if only it could add a few features that seem not too far fetched. We hope these discussions will be helpful for developers of products and services for seniors who want some good ideas for skills they could develop on top of the Amazon Echo / Alexa platform.
We have not tried to summarize these in this article, as this article is designed for an older adult readership rather than for developers.
For developers who happen on this article, we encourage you to listen to the actual discussions attached to this page and the links below (some require a premium membership). If you want to develop new skills for Alexa to benefit an older adult demographic, and would like our help or advice, please contact us.
To learn more about the ideas our community has for new Alexa skills and other smarthome or robotic innovations we would like to see, please read "Articial Intelligence and Robots: What Older Adults Want".
If you are a developer, you may also be interested in a whole series of discussions our explorers have had in our "Smart Home, Robots, Internet of Things" theme.
Related Explorations & Insights
Learn More or Buy the Amazon Echo?
Here is the link to the Amazon Echo on Amazon's website.*
See More Explorer Insights
*Note: If you use the links above to buy yourself one of the products we explore on this page, we (sometimes) get a small percentage of the sale from Amazon / the Manufacturer. We use this to support our research. It does not affect the price you pay.
Beyond this, we have no financial interest in the products discussed here, and this article is not sponsored or supported in any way by any product vendor. See How we Fund our Work.
Discuss, Comment, Ask Questions
Comments, Questions, Discussion
from Chester (unverified) at Nov 8 2019 - 11:18am
It would help if a alexa could keep track of where I put things.ie alexa save my blue hat in front closet.where is my blue hat.
from Tomonthebeach (member) at Sep 8 2019 - 6:53am
I am only 72, but my folks lived into their late 90s, so I have a realistic appreciation for aging challenges. It is good to keep in mind that as we age we lose degrees of freedom to others upon whom we depend. Alexa and Echo are just another example. Granted concerns about privacy are valid. However, unless you are retired Mossad or KGB, it is unlikely that NSA will use these devices to spy on you. Nevertheless, it has been demonstrated that these devices are hackable, and badguys could feasibly monitor you with an eye to home invasion. However, if you live in a secure setting such as assisted living, that is really not a serious concern.
The old saying that "There's an app for that." applies to gizmos like Alexa or Echo. All they are is constantly-on microphones that use similar apps to communicate with special light switches to turn on/off power to lights and things. You can use a smartphone to achieve the same end, thereby avoiding concerns about an open microphone in the house. Lastly, HomeDepot and Lowes have cheap gizmos that plug into a wall outlet and allow a lamp or whatever is plugged into it to switch off remotely with a keyfob. Unfortunately, they are not programmable, so you can wind up with one fob switch for each plug. I use one for the bedroom light for when I get up in the middle of the night.
from webmaster (member) at Sep 9 2019 - 7:37pm
Just to build on this comment: I bet you are right that there are apps that control light sockets etc, but we have not tried one. Do you have one to recommend?
And re the fob switch-controlled gizmos for turning on and of lights: several of our explorers have said they use those too. And this version comes with multiple control buttons on one fob, to thereby control multiple power outlets with one fob (link is to a listing with more details on Tech-enhanced Life): wireless remote outlet switch.
from Tomonthebeach (member) at Sep 10 2019 - 10:20am
The one we use is "Prime Wireless Remote Control" ($20) in the lamp department at Lowes. Prime makes a fobbed 3 pack for $20 also, but you have to special order it. I see that Amazon has the one you shared and they sell half a dozen others. The rub? Each outlet has a different button which for people with failing vision and arthritis could be problematic. I see that Amazon sells the "Wi-Fi Smart Power Plug-Wireless Remote Socket" using the smartphone Jinvoo app. Buyers complain that you need a powerful router for it to work reliably, and that could add several hundred dollars to actually used the $34 apiece units. Finally, all home stores sell some version of a light switch that can communicate with a smartphone. Only problem is having to switch out a wall switch with the wi-fi enabled switch.
from alexasmith (member) at Jul 11 2019 - 12:14am
I was finding the benefits of Amazon echo for my father, who’s 67. Then I found this post and get a good idea. Thanks, it's very useful for my father.
from Ccvt VillagedesTanneries (unverified) at Apr 29 2019 - 12:39pm
Is there a way to get Alexa and Sirii to interact? (If say, I can't reach phone to access Siri) Could I tell Alexa to tel Siri to send a text asking for help?
from TELadmin (unverified) at Apr 29 2019 - 10:32am
There are several "skills" that allow you to summon help. AskMy Buddy, as mentioned in an earlier comment is one of them. In addition, you can set up Alexa to call a specific person when you ask something like "Call John". You can see a demo of that at a companion article on this site on Alexa and the Amazon Echo Show. https://www.techenhancedlife.com/explorers/amazon-echo-show-older-adults-explore
In terms of voice to text, I think Apple's Siri will also allow that.
from Ccvt VillagedesTanneries (unverified) at Apr 29 2019 - 9:54am
I am trying to find a way to use Alexa for home safety concerns: when someone who lives alone, needs to call for help after a fall. In Montreal, I'm told that 300 persons a day call 911 for help in exactly those circumstances. They fall but are unable to get back up and cannot reach phone. Often, they are not injured by the fall itself but might spend the night on the cold hard floor simply due to a lack of help available. How might Alexa be endowed with skills for calling/emailing neighbours or friends?
I heard that Android users can send voice activated texts, which is a great start (I am an Apple user).
I also heard about something called Echo Connect which seems to require a land line in order to work.
Thanks for your help.
from Janeyliz (unverified) at Feb 28 2019 - 12:09pm
I have the Echo and 2 dots. One in my room and the other in my husbands. We just ask Alexa to "drop in" to Joe's room and you can talk to each other very clearly. I love it.
from TELadmin (unverified) at Jan 24 2019 - 8:16am
Sent in by email:
How about using Alexa as an intercom system? For example, if I am disabled and needed help, perhaps I could ask my Alexa to ask the garage Alexa to tell my husband I need help.
Alexa......tell garage I need help
Alexa..... send alert to all... "I fell"
Alexa...find tv remote
from rbkramer (member) at Nov 20 2017 - 9:15am
It's already available. Check out Marvee: http://askmarvee.com/
Marvee is a voice-initiated care companion and concierge application integrated with the Alexa Voice service and any Alexa-enabled device, like the Amazon Echo, Dot or Tap. Marvee is an Alexa Skill listed in the Alexa App, Skills catalog.
from Harout Topsacalian (unverified) at Oct 9 2017 - 10:48am
Hi, I have an elderly mom (94!) who is relatively healthy, has no dementia, but does have macular degeneration. She lives alone and I implored her to get Life Alert, but she refuses. She had friends who called LifeAlert by mistake and hates the idea of having "an army of firemen" come to her door by mistake. I would like to have a "Skill" developed where mom says, "Alexa, please call Harry" (or any other pre-programmed names linked to their respective numbers) . I could receive the call and help her. Having said that, another nice capability would be to have Alexa understand other languages, even if it's simple commands. Building up a vocabulary would be nice if it had a wiki-type platform where native speakers could "teach" Alexa words in Spanish, French, etc.
from Eileen-Writes (member) at Sep 21 2017 - 6:38am
Has anyone had experience, either good or bad, using Alexa to help find online games like Bingo. I am developing a plot for 4 women living in an assisted living community and trying to raise money to help a friend who is in danger of having to move out because she can't afford the cost of the care. Of course their altruistic intent could get them into some difficulty which would be part of the plot.
from Dudley J (unverified) at Sep 5 2017 - 8:19am
I am involved in the retirement living sector in the UK. I share your view that Echo holds out potential benefits for seniors, especially those living alone but wanting to maintain an independent living life style.
I am interested in your ideas on this subject.
from Ciamorrison (member) at Jul 5 2017 - 1:59pm
One of the best benefits of Alexa is the Skill "Ask My Buddy". You set up Alexa with the names of people to contact in case of an emergency. Say, you fell and you have no monthly alert button. All you have to do is say "Alexa, I have an emergency please call my contact list". Automatically, she will dial each number on the contact list and notify them. I also use Alexa as my verbal dictionary, she is great for my grocery list. I use her as an alarm and a timer. She tells some cute jokes; your grandkids love this one!
from Ed Prentice (member) at Jun 5 2017 - 4:01pm
The challenge currently, not just for elders, is that Alexa (and others) offers a platform, so it can be customized in any number of ways. For most this is like getting a computer 25 years ago. It was a great platform, but you didn't know how to incorporate it into your life. No problem today!
I have not fully explored Alexa, but enjoy what I what I do use it for. I never thought of replacing a radio, but it gets stations I can't get on my radio, and all I have to do is ask. I noticed someone didn't like paying for music. I use it for access any Pandora channel--which presumes you have setup some Pandora.
So more important than Alexa are the services. Right now that is left to the buyer, so I think an examination of what Alexa can do should be the first step. Alexa is also licensed to other manufacturers so there will likely be some features that emerge that make it more useful. Most people focus on the Echo. I actually have the cheaper Alexa Tap which has one key difference, you must press a button to talk to Alexa, eleminating one of the unsettling features of Alexa.