Part 1 of a two-part series about the impact Amazon Echo — and it’s competitors — can have in Senior Housing.

By Jack Cumming

One of the great technological surprises of the past two years has been the rapidity with which the Amazon Echo, and its competitors’ lookalikes, have caught on with the elderly. My favorite instance is my friend, Grace Bolton, who was nearing age 100 and moving into Assisted Living when the Echo came to public awareness. Grace is a retired missionary and has always been resistant to technology, believing that personal human witness is more important than any benefit that a material substitute might have.

Resident Delight

Grace is also vision impaired, as are many of great age, and a few friends thought the Echo’s built-in Alexa might restore her love of scripture. She was forlorn that she could no longer read her Bible as had long been her daily custom. Grace didn’t agree with her friends, but she allowed one of them to bring an Echo to show her. You can imagine her delight when she first learned that she could say, “Alexa, read the Bible,” and Alexa dutifully complied.

Yes, there were problems, but Grace was hooked and won over to loyalty toward her Echo despite some of the problems. As is often the case, the Bible skills (skills is the Echo term for apps) are rudimentary, to say the least. Yes, Alexa will read the Bible but getting her to read, say, John 3:16 takes much more trial and error than can be expected of a centenarian. And, in Grace’s case, she had trouble remembering and enunciating the critical “wake” word so her Echo was reprogrammed to “wake” on the word “Echo” which she could remember and pronounce. Grace, now over 100-years-old, uses Echo not only to read the Bible but to adjust the temperature in her room and to play her favorite music.

A Garden of Devices

In the nearly three years since it’s release, new Echo devices have proliferated, and continue to evolve (the Echo Spot was released by Amazon barely in time for Christmas). More interesting, not only have Echo variations blossomed, but the number of devices (lights, thermostats, etc.) that can be voice commanded by Alexa is also growing, although many devices can only be voice-operated and, perplexingly, lack a legacy finger-activated override.  

Despite its success, setting up and programming the Echo remains complex and daunting. Every Echo device is paired with a Smartphone and an Amazon account. Using multiple Echo devices as an in-home intercom in families with a single Amazon account remains out of reach. Why the complex Smartphone set up is necessary is a dark secret. Since the device connects directly to the Wi-Fi internet, it should not be difficult to talk it through set up, which likely will soon be simplified, if not by Amazon, then by one of its competitors.

Less Paper?

Most promising for senior living is the Echo Show, which includes a screen, permitting touch-enabled selections and video hookups. The Echo Spot likewise includes video screen capabilities. The magic bullet for senior services is to computerize the mountains of paper forms and documentation that now characterize many provider operations. A call from a resident, say, to the front desk to ask for a repair, requires the desk clerk to fill out a form (or in some cases to enter information on a computer screen) to activate the work order.  

The Amazon Echo and its derivatives offer the promise that such interactions might be automated from request through performance quality follow up. So far, though, few vendors are developing voice recognition capabilities. At the New Orleans LeadingAge meeting in early November, Senior Portal was prominent for its Echo support, and Amazon representatives were present in its booth. For the capabilities of voice recognition to be deployed, provider staff will have to be convinced that it makes their jobs easier, residents and other users will have to be convinced that it is both accurate and reliable, and provider senior executives will have to be convinced that they should press for adoption of the technology. That’s a lot of convincing for an industry that traditionally has favored the “human touch.” Still, voice recognition as a platform seems likely to be the next step forward, just as Smartphones and tablets are rapidly superseding computers as the portal to customers and prospects.