By Jack Cumming

If you’re not aware of Tech Enhanced Life, it is a collegium of thinkers bringing technical ideas to life to offset some of the challenges of aging. Its leader, Richard Caro, loves technology. He was born and raised in Australia, received a B.Sc. (Hons.) degree from Melbourne University (1977), and a D.Phil. in experimental physics from Oxford University (1982) — where he was a Rhodes Scholar. In 1982 he was awarded an IBM postdoctoral fellowship to work at Stanford University and moved to the USA where he has lived since.

Recently, Tech Enhanced Life posted an inquiry: “Do you have experience with a useful product or a ‘problem that needs solving’ — relating to dementia or mild cognitive impairment?”

The Amazon Echo Show immediately jumped to mind. If you don’t know the Echo Show, it’s a simple, video-equipped, voice-activated device that provides instant connectivity on command. Here’s my Echo-Show-centric response to the Tech Enhanced Life inquiry.

Echo Show for Dementia

Among those I know who are struggling with dementia (and increasingly people are willing to acknowledge their affliction and how it is affecting them), the Echo devices, particularly the Echo Show have been the most useful. I should quickly add that I have not tried the Google devices, nor do I know anyone who has. I did try the Facebook Portal but it required the use of Facebook Messenger, which I have found to be an imposter-friendly service, so not appropriate for older people.

The Echo Show, in contrast, has been widely deployed and is in constant use by those I know who have it. It’s particularly useful for those who are challenged by dementia or who merely don’t like to tangle with technological complexities. One centenarian friend is very Bible-centric. She likes listening to the Bible passages and her favorite preachers. With the Echo Show, all she has to do is ask. She has trouble saying, “Alexa,” so her device has been renamed “Amazon.”

Another acquaintance, also a woman, who has always been a reader enjoys listening to the latest bestsellers. Even though she doesn’t remember them afterward and she is challenged to be able to discuss her reading, it helps her to feel that she is still engaged, and she still matters. The full Audible® collection is available on the Echo Show for an added subscription.

Overcoming Separation

A couple, who have been separated because he is located in memory care while she remains in independent living, uses the Echo Show’s “Drop-In” feature to preserve their relationship. They have been COVID-19 separated. He is well along into decline and is unable to answer a phone but when she “drops in” he recognizes her, and their daily connection has helped relieve the grief of separation and isolation they both experience.

It’s unfortunate that some organizations don’t allow this kind of connectivity for privacy fears. Some staff members don’t like to take the chance that family or others may inadvertently be able to observe them while they are working. Still, for those who are blessed to be able to reconnect with loved ones, the Echo Show is life-changing and life-enhancing. It can restore meaning to those for whom life has lost purpose.

The beauty of the Echo Show is its ease of use after setup and the increasing effectiveness of its video connections, which provided the couple their most poignant moments. The afflicted man has lost the ability of much verbal expression but his body language continues to declare his love and devotion. That is very big. Just thinking of it moves me to tears. The wife cried when she told me about it.

Why So Hard to Set up?

The challenges of the Echo Show are many and are surprising. It’s astonishing that Amazon doesn’t put more effort into making it easier to set up instead of trying to make it hip. For instance, set up requires a Smartphone that people in dementia care don’t generally have, much less know how to use one for anything as complex as Amazon’s setup. There’s no reason why a video screen on an Echo Show can’t be used to do the full setup process, including creating an automatic Amazon account with a simple password to get started. Later, if the account is to be actualized with a Credit Card and ordering capability, the password and security settings can be escalated. But people dealing with dementia or mild cognitive impairment need simple.

Next, there’s no reason why Zoom shouldn’t be as easy to initiate and use on the Amazon Echo Show as it is on any Tablet. But Zoom has linked its Alexa “skill” in the most confusing way to calendars, which are themselves confusing to synchronize. So the effect is that Zoom is not practically accessible on the Echo Show, though it may be for Zoom’s theory-minded technicians. Since many families use Zoom for family gatherings, this precludes those with dementia from being part of these larger family gatherings if they could join through the Drop-In capability.

Our hope is that some senior person at Zoom asks the technical staff to get practical use of Zoom on Echo Show up and running pronto. My impression is that they (the Zoom technicians) have made the simple difficult. That’s not consistent with our experience otherwise of Zoom and the Zoom corporate culture.

Finally, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Echo Show had an HDMI out port, so that connection could be made to a large screen television, allowing the interactive experience to pop and come to life big time?  The availability of a web camera with effective microphone pickup for mounting on the TV would make family connections with those otherwise isolated by dementia a wonderful support force for these overlooked, forgotten, and unfortunate people.

Please, Amazon

None of these challenges seem difficult for Amazon to overcome. The newest member of the Echo Show collection has a reasonable 10-inch screen (in general, bigger is better for older people); it rotates on a “hub” to follow a speaker around a room, and it can be tilted to get the right angle for video. It demonstrates that Amazon is still innovating. Let’s hope that Amazon soon addresses the challenges the Echo presents to older people before some competitor seizes the opportunity and makes the most of it. You can find Tech Enhanced Life by clicking here.

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