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  • By Lisa Jevens

Voice-activated Assistants Work for Seniors


Alexa, what time is it?

Maybe it’s time to get a voice-activated assistant like the Amazon Echo or Google Home.

These hands-free, voice-activated, internet-connected speakers are as appealing to the Greatest Generation as they are to the iPhone generation. Many seniors are discovering the joy of having an easy-to-use device perform tasks or answer questions while relaxing in their armchairs. Those with memory, eyesight or dexterity issues can simply ask for the weather report, find out what’s on TV, set an alarm, play music or call a grandchild without having to type, press buttons or learn any software. With additional accessories, they can turn off lights or access their smart home technology simply by saying so.

Saturday Night Live satirized the appeal of “Alexa” (the Echo’s given name) last May in a popular skit promoting a fictitious “Echo Silver” made especially for seniors. Its biggest selling points were that it didn’t get mad when asked crazy questions, and could even turn up the thermostat.

Fun with gadgets

Bill O’Meara, 84, of Plymouth Place in La Grange Park got his Amazon Echo this summer and is having fun exploring its capabilities.

“I’m kind of a geek and I have various kinds of gadgets around the house,” the former bank CEO says. “It was extremely easy to set up. It gives you suggestions of things it can do, such as setting timers, giving weather reports anywhere in the world, looking up something on Wikipedia, building a to-do list, or finding out when the Cubs are playing.”

O’Meara likes to listen to his favorite radio station, WDCB, from the College of DuPage. “The volume and clarity are excellent,” he says. His wife, Marlene, agrees.

Other folks have found having a voice-activated device a godsend. Mary Clarbour, 90, of The Moorings in Arlington Heights, abruptly lost much of her vision in April. She became unable to use her cell phone or computer. Her son Dave set up an Amazon Echo and trained the family.

Clarbour’s daughter, Lee, also got an Echo. Lee says it’s a great way for the family to communicate because they can talk to each other through the device or via the Alexa app. She can also monitor her mother’s calendar, and Mary can ask it what is on her schedule each day. She can set reminders for her TV shows, because Alexa knows the schedule even if Mary can’t read it. “It is like learning a new language, but once you learn it, it’s great. I think it has helped my independence. I can do things that I couldn’t do before,” Mary says.

She also likes the fact that Alexa tells jokes. “Sometimes they are funny, sometimes they aren’t,” she says. “But I would really miss it if I didn’t have it.”

Amazon Echo vs. Google Home

If you are thinking of buying a hands-free voice-activated device, the two main choices are the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. They are the same in many respects. They both cost about $100 (the Echo retails higher, but is often discounted.) The Google Home is a bit smaller, more stylish and non-techy looking. They both operate via Wi-Fi and have no fee to use them. They both can be used as Bluetooth speakers, and sync to music channels such as Pandora and TuenIn Radio. They both can link to “smart home” devices such as thermostats. (Be sure to check compatibility before buying.)

To date, the most distinct difference is that Google Home can recognize six different voices and perform tasks specific to each person’s Google account. For example, John can ask what is in his calendar for the day, then Sue can do the same for hers. The Echo does not have this multi-voice, multi-account feature.

The Google Home can also make actual telephone calls to people listed in a user’s Google contacts, or to a local business. It can’t dial 911, which might be an issue in an older person’s home. The Amazon Echo can only call another person if they have a supported Amazon Echo device or the Alexa app running on their phone.The Google Home gets higher marks for its sound quality.

But since the Amazon Echo has been around longer, it claims to have thousands more “skills” than its competitor. Skills are third-party apps or programs that the device can enable and connect to, such as a trivia game, your Fitbit, or smart home devices. This is how a voice-activated device can turn on lights, crank up the thermostat, or roll down your motorized mini-blinds.

The Amazon Echo will read your audiobooks from, which Amazon owns. It seamlessly connects to your Amazon account so you can order and track packages by voice.This summer, Amazon came out with a sister device called the Echo Show. It works the same as an Echo but also has a screen, which makes it great for recipes, weather reports, video chatting, or ordering an Uber. It retails for $229.99.

Keep in mind that the systems in these devices are updated constantly, so expect more capabilities to show up constantly.

Apple is also expected to enter the game in December 2017, with the debut of the HomePod. It will retail for $349.

A big hit

Natalie Brennan, Lifestyle Lead at Beacon Hill in Lombard, started using the Echo for community activities in August.

She uses it for background music during cooking club, the coloring corner, and parties. She’s already tested it out for the upcoming Oktoberfest by asking it to play traditional German folk tunes.

he also uses it for Jeopardy, trivia, and Name That Tune games.

Alexa became an immediate hit, and residents love asking it questions, Brennan says. “It’s a good reminiscing tool for them. They ask it, ‘Who was the president in 1937?’ to see if it is right. We also use it to report current events.”

Brennan is just beginning to explore the Echo’s capabilities in senior living. She envisions planning activities around it in the future. “It brightens everyone’s spirits,” she says. “They laugh and smile and everyone gets a kick out of it. They can’t believe they are talking to a little machine.”

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime Time senior living section on September 15, 2017.

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