By Jack Cumming

Amazon chose the recent LeadingAge Annual Conference in Atlanta to announce its Alexa Smart Properties initiative, expanding sales of Smart Home devices to senior housing providers.

That announcement also noted that Eskaton Retirement Communities provided over 1,000 Echo Show devices to its residents. In its 2020-2021 Annual Report, Eskaton states: “Through a generous donation from Amazon through our K4 Community partnership, Eskaton distributed more than 1,000 Alexa devices to residents.”

Now Amazon has released a new Alexa device, its Omni television line, and as an early adopter, I bought one and have been getting acquainted with my new friend.

Actually, though, Alexa is not a new friend since I started with an early Echo device in 2015. Now my “friend” dwells within a surprisingly inexpensive television. Our 55-inch Alexa TV cost just $409 on Black Friday, and it’s as large as my wife and I believe we need in our small senior living apartment.

Our early experience is very positive. If these televisions become pervasive in senior living, they have the potential to elevate the resident experience, provide family and friends of residents with continuing relationships, and bring technology to the resistant and reluctant.

Resident-Friendly Technology

Experience has already demonstrated that voice-activated technology is the most amenable path into the internet-enabled world for those who may feel that progress has passed them by. I think of my friend, Grace, who was already over 100 when I got that first Echo in 2015.

Before Alexa, she was firm that no technology would ever darken her door. Despite that aversion, she made an exception for Alexa when she discovered that she could bring up any Bible verse merely for the asking. She was a retired missionary, and that simple task got her started.

Even if that had been all that Alexa ever did, her life would have been better. But her Alexa encounter didn’t stop there. With time she learned other “asks” that made her life better. Her favorite was to ask Alexa to make her room warmer or cooler depending on what the need of the moment was.

With that mastery, this open-hearted woman, born in the early years of the 20th century, came into the 21st century. Alexa’s conversational ease enriches the lives of many. It’s a commonality that they share with their smartphone-equipped great-grandchildren. “Alexa, read me the latest bestseller.” People stay up-to-date and relevant though old.

Familiar Technologies

Television is a technology with which everyone of all ages, and almost all states of mind, is comfortable. The older people become, the more central TV often is in their lives. It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when this technology was as novel as Alexa is today. That’s the nature of technology. It can seem uncomfortable, intrusive, and unnecessary until we discover the benefit for ourselves.

Giving new capabilities to a familiar device like the television can be as life-changing as when navigation systems first arrived in cars. One has to wonder at the blessing that navigation has been for spouses who once had to fumble with large, unfolded maps. Remember the distress when the critical turn was passed before the need for the turn was discovered.

The arrival of Alexa in televisions, as crude as Amazon’s initial effort is, has the potential to be equally life-changing. The television manufacturers have been competing on screen size and resolution but not on brand-distinguishing features. That has led to cut-throat price competition that has concentrated production in a handful of low-cost manufacturers. The potential for new enhancing features offered by the Alexa TV breaks that mold.

New Life for Residents

Imagine how the life of your residents would be changed if, instead of the 1,000 plus 5.5-inch-screen Alexa Shows deployed by Eskaton, a provider gave every resident a low-cost 43-inch Alexa TV with volume discount pricing.

The current model isn’t ready for that yet, and I’ll explain why in just a moment, but an investment of less than $400,000 in a 1,000 unit undertaking would be trivial relative to the benefit conveyed. It could not only enhance resident experiences and community involvement, but it could provide a marketing plus, especially for families who could readily connect with Mom and Dad wherever and whenever they wished. It wouldn’t take much of an occupancy boost to recover that small investment.

That said, it’s not yet time to bust the budget to give your residents this extravagance. It’s Amazon’s opportunity, and we’ll just have to wait to see if the Amazon team has the insight and cohesion to bring this advance into its potential. Here are some of the enhancements that our early experience suggests are needed.

  1. The Alexa TV has no built-in camera. Amazon recommends a Logitech camera as an add-on, though there’s only one USB port.  The camera is essential to allow the Drop-In and other two-way capabilities that are intrinsic to Alexa Echo Show devices. Moreover, the Logitech camera is a weak choice since it has no zoom capability. Logitech’s camera resolution even at 4k would be too low in any case if, as would be desirable, it was to have auto-zoom as the Owl Camera has. Adding a high-resolution camera with digital zoom, pan, and tilt (PTZ) features is a much-needed upgrade. The latest conventional rotating Echo Show 10 already has this capability.
  2. The unit has no CableCARD slot so it can’t decode cable company signals without an external cable company box. Those expensive descrambler boxes, designed to protect theft of cable company services, are a hindrance for older users. In addition, since the boxes primarily protect cable company interests they lack the full flexibility of internet-protocol streaming video. The alternative is to switch from cable company delivered channels to other options like Slingbox or YouTube TV. Still, adding CableCARD or other cable company decoder capability could be a big plus.
  3. The Alexa TV also lacks DVR capabilities and, perhaps, it’s too outside-the-box to expect a television to include a built-in DVR to allow pausing and other capabilities of watching recorded programming. Still, adding a branded high-end TV equipped with a built-in solid-state DVR could break out from the Samsung and LG mainstream of bigger and bigger.
  4. Other capabilities could also be more positive. The Alexa TV lacks the processor power and memory capacity that could allow it to spark; response to requests is sluggish and worse. Allowing automatic matching and management of HDMI inputs as CAAVO does could also be a plus. For now, the renaming options for the inputs are too limited to work for many older users.
  5. Alexa does allow incorporating Touchtown, K4 Connect, etc. but work is needed so that those “skills” integrate smoothly with the Alexa voice approach.
  6. On a personal note, reflecting our small senior living apartment, my wife and I would have liked a center swivel pedestal option so that we could readily swivel between our dining table and our living area. We bought a $35 stand to accomplish that common senior living need.
  7. Lastly, it’s evident that the connection between spoken commands and performance needs work. It’s hard to know whether it’s the quality of the microphones or the finetuning of the voice recognition software. For instance, a reminder involving the letter “B” came out as “feet,” which gave us a laugh. More seriously, though, asking the TV to turn off, shuts it off for a flash, after which it jumps back on, leaving no alternative but to leave it on until it turns itself off.

Maybe Not Yet, Amazon

To bring this all together, Amazon has brought to market another trailblazing advance, this time for the stagnant television industry with its size obsession. Nevertheless, as is often the case, it’s probably wise to wait for the second or third generation before becoming enthusiastic. In the meantime, all senior living providers would be wise to make the small investment to get at least a single unit (or two or three) so that technology staff – central office or resident-serving – can become familiar with what it can do now and where it is likely to be going.

In its announcement of its developing initiative to improve senior living Amazon promised, “Designed specifically for the needs of senior living communities and healthcare facilities, Alexa Smart Properties simplifies deploying and managing Alexa-enabled devices at scale, helping properties offer customized Alexa experiences for residents and patients, and increase care team productivity and operational efficiency.” It will take Amazon’s renowned reputation for ingenuity and pace for Amazon to keep the initiative for this program.

If Amazon can step up its game, this new commitment to senior living and to delivering healthcare more efficiently for all ages and all people holds the promise to improve life for residents, families, and people of all ages. In the past, Amazon has shown itself capable of pivoting quickly to upend multiple industries. In this case, it may bring rapid progress to both the lagging television and healthcare industries. Since older people consume more healthcare services than any other age group aside from the intensity of neonatal care, Amazon is wise to be targeting senior living. In that initiative, the arrival of the Alexa TV may be revolutionary.