Alexa – Smart Speakers – the benefits to the elderly

I’ve been personally experimenting with the use of an Amazon Echo Dot for an elderly person.  Frankly it’s proved to be the best thing since sliced bread. 

So what is an Echo Dot? It’s a device called a ‘Smart Speaker’. If that’s gobbledegook it means a speaker which is connected to the Internet and to which interacts with you, the user, using voice commands.  If you don’t know the voice assistant, which talks back to you, its called, Alexa. Let’s start by dispelling the myths:

  • Smart speakers do not monitor everything you say.  They react to specific instructions
  • They are not expensive – pop down to Argos, another store or order online and an Echo Dot is yours for £25.00.  Many people have multiple devices. 

And just for clarity:

  • Echo: larger, high quality, louder sound 
  • Echo Dot smaller (for those of you old enough to remember, an ashtray sized). 

The Echo Dot has great sound and works fine with a hard of hearing 95 year old.  They plug into the mains so no batteries are required.  

So why am I singing the praises of this machine (and by the way there are other makes available – the Amazon Echo and its little brother the Echo Dot are the most common variety). The short answer is that it simplifies the life of an elderly person, acts as a companion and takes away many of the technical barriers associated with modern technology.  Using simple English voice commands, it can perform a multitude of tasks including: 

  • Making a telephone call
  • Calling for help without having to find or press a button
  • Playing a huge number of radio stations including all the common BBC and commercial stations 
  • Reading stories
  • Read you the news and weather
  • Tell you about / read anything that can be found on the Internet so for instance poems, books you have in a Kindle account and others, provide recipes, spell, play soothing sounds (or not so soothing), help you meditate, provide reminders and look up anything in Wikipedia
  • Set timers
  • Allow your nearest and dearest to ‘drop in’ on you audibly so you can speak to each other from either other Alexa devices or an Alexa app on a mobile phone 
  • If you have more than one it acts as an intercom
  • Interact (with additional devices) to control lighting, heating and televisions

I would note that the sound quality is good and seems to work even if your hearing is a bit on the dodgy side and you use hearing aids (my mother in law uses it without the aids).  

One key point: once you have the device everything set out above is free – including the telephone calls.  

So are there any catches? Not really.  You need:

  • Broadband (the Internet) at home (or where you have an Echo Dot, for which you will have to pay).  Costs are very variable but start at about £20 per month
  • To be able to set up an account and set up the device, usually via a mobile phone or computer. If you are computer literate its easy, but there are a few tricks to know, if you are not that good with computers you’ll need help, but once set up you just need to understand how to provide instructions and ask questions.  If you use the Internet you’ll know.  I provided my 95-year-old with a simple three instructions guide in a picture frame and she was off and running.  

Once you are used to the device the trick is to be able to phrase questions carefully – just as you do when using an Internet search engine, because all the devise does is translate the voice command to a computer command.

So if an elderly person is struggling with the telephone, radio, other communication devices, the Internet reading or to operate switches, then moving to an easy to use voice command driven practical smart device like an Echo Dot opens up whole new horizons and greatly assists independence. It’s the Internet made user friendly for all of us but makes it particularly user friendly for the elderly. Oh – you just say “Alexa off” if you want peace and quiet. It does obey – unlike many humans.