Nothing is quite like it used to be. This change can be a good thing when it comes to senior care technology, which is advancing in ways we could hardly imagine a few years ago. One of the latest innovative directions is with voice activation and virtual assistants. These tools are being researched and tested in pilot programs in senior living communities, hospitals, and other organizations, to see how such technologies can help modernize and improve senior care.
The Growth of Voice Activated Technology
A few years ago, talking cars and computer terminals were confined to fictional movies and television shows. Today, many people carry around a smartphone in their purse or pocket that can listen for vocal commands and respond accordingly.
When Apple’s Siri technology first debuted, it was able to listen to verbal commands spoken by a person and respond by completing the action on the smartphone device, such as calling a phone contact or making a calendar entry. The technology could also respond verbally to simple commands or questions. Like Apple, Google developed a similar system for its Android mobile devices.
Since then, Siri and other voice-activated technologies have gotten smarter. They can complete more complex tasks and respond with more nuance. This kind of technology is still being developed, with the latest frontier being virtual assistant technology.
The Rise of Virtual Assistants
Virtual assistants are more complex computer programs than the first voice-activated tools. These assistants can do a lot more than call your loved one or make a note on your digital calendar.
Amazon’s Echo with Alexa Virtual Assistant and other similar technology products can help with all of the simple tasks of voice-activated tools – plus play music, give custom weather forecasts or news updates, set alarms, work as an intercom, order grocery deliveries, turn on lights, adjust the thermostat, lock doors, and even operate some connected smart appliances like dishwashers or microwaves.
While these technologies were first marketed toward younger, tech-savvy adults with busy lives, it became apparent that another key group who could benefit were seniors, particularly those with limited mobility or memory care needs.
The Modernization of Senior Care
The latest virtual assistant technology is now being piloted in some senior living communities, demonstrating how far technology can go and how much it can help improve the comfort and convenience of senior living.
Earlier this year, a St. Louis-area assisted living community deployed the Amazon Echo with great success. The program used devices equipped with custom programming to allow residents to check their activity schedule for the day, find out the daily lunch and dinner menus, and listen to music.
In both communities, Senior Housing News reports that residents used the technology multiple times per day, every day. “We were very surprised by how quickly they learned it, how they embraced it, and how often they used it,” explained a community representative. “We want to keep pursuing this, and building more customization for our communities.” The company plans to expand the program to more of its 51 communities across 12 states.
Another senior housing provider in California also has plans to expand the use of Amazon’s virtual assistant technology after its successful pilot program. A full 100% of residents who participated in the program report that Amazon Alexa made their lives easier, while three out of four said they used their smart device at least once per day. Residents used the device to check the weather and temperature, set alarms and timers, check the news, play music, and even control smart thermostats and light systems. Front Porch is reportedly expanding the technology to all 10 of its California communities.
At Kensington Place, we have been using the Eversound system daily in both communities. Life Enrichment Manager Madeline Williams has been certified in Eversound and is working across the Life Enrichment/Activities department to get each member of the team certified as well. The Apple TV has also been an incredible tool within the community, as we are able to screen mirror a multitude of apps (Wordscapes and Crosswords are two favorites) onto the TV and play together. The Apple TV has also been instrumental in our Exploring Spirituality program, as we are able to live stream the content on the papers in front of our residents onto the big screen so that it is accessible for everyone.
The Cost of Senior Care Technology
One of the most exciting aspects of using virtual assistants in senior care is the affordability. Amazon’s Echo devices are available in a range of price points, from under $100 to just over $200. It’s a welcome change for seniors and their loved ones who typically invest in more expensive healthcare devices and solutions.
For seniors aging at home, it’s also remarkably affordable to add technology that works with virtual assistants to offer greater usability and help around the house. Partially this is due to the nature of the technology, which was designed to be added to existing homes without extensive remodeling. A senior can add an inexpensive smart Wi-Fi device that plugs into a wall socket to power on or off lights or small appliances with their connected virtual assistant. Another affordable solution is the smart light bulb, which includes a built-in wireless signal receiver that connects to a home’s virtual assistant system.
For senior care communities, the cost of investing in new voice-activated and virtual assistant technology is minimal and worthwhile. Cost-sharing could also further bring down costs. “The cost of hardware and services will, at least in part, be subsidized by healthcare ecosystem partners who are likely to gain substantial efficiencies, and encourage patient adoption,” noted Werner Goertz, research director at Gartner, a technology research firm.
The Future of Senior Care Technology
The future of senior care technology is bright. The current crop of tech devices and systems continues to improve, while new devices specifically customized for senior care and health care could be on the market by 2020.
These new technologies could become available for millions of seniors aging in place, helping them lead safer, more comfortable, and more connected lives as they enjoy the comforts of their own home. Moreover, voice-activated technology and virtual assistant systems are likely to become standard in senior living communities around the country, as numerous pilot projects have shown that seniors enjoy using them and caregivers benefit from increased efficiencies and expanded service capabilities.
When it is time to consider a higher level of care at an assisted living community or memory care community, it’s essential to ensure that senior residents receive the physical, cognitive, social and emotional care they need. With these new technologies, senior living communities have an excellent opportunity to improve the quality of life for their residents further, both now and in the future.