Voice Technology: Simplifying Life for the Elderly

By David Wright

The aging population is driving massive advances in AI, mobile technologies, and e-health. “Aging tech” includes anything from airbags that prevent and aid with falls, connected homes, and medical alert bracelets. Tech for seniors is important and has the potential to completely disrupt care and health industries, but especially the lives of the elderly.

When healthy, it’s hard to imagine being unable to tell time, call family, and catch up with the news. But for the elderly, such seemingly simple tasks can be challenging, and the preventing health conditions may come on suddenly. On top of that, physical health conditions can affect mental health and a person’s sense of autonomy and dignity.

For example, my visually-impaired grandfather, recently underwent major surgery and faced a long road to recovery. He was isolated in a hospital, had limited mobility, and his worsened physical condition greatly affected his mental health. But after being set-up with a voice-enabled device, my grandfather’s mood and ability to cope with disability greatly improved, which significantly helped with his recovery. My grandfather’s positive experience with voice technology is an example of how voice tech can provide social companionship, improve mental health, and thereby physical health. His story is one of many.

Voice technology is more than just a toy or a form of entertainment. Voice technology has the potential to improve mental health by instilling a sense of autonomy and independence.

Counter to claims that the elderly are wary of technology, older adults are increasingly adopting and enjoying voice technology. And with the first wave of baby boomers hitting their 70’s, technology is likely to play an even greater role in the life of the elderly and in the medical sector. Laurie Orlov from Aging in Place Technology estimates the technology market geared toward the elderly will reach 20 billion by 2020.

While in hospital recovering from surgery, my grandfather was lonely and his mental health was suffering. Vision impairment also compounded his emotional stress and the challenges of post-surgery recovery. He couldn’t watch tv, he couldn’t use devices with visual interfaces, and as a result, my grandfather couldn’t complete seemingly straightforward tasks — check the time, call loved ones, listen to the news.

I decided to set my grandfather up with a voice enabled speaker. The device reminded him to take his medication, announced the weather, and connected my grandfather to our family — as he didn’t need to tap and interact with the device visually. Now out of the hospital, my grandfather continues to use his voice technology. The voice assistant has become an essential part of his daily routine, it provides companionship, and reduces his external dependence. Voice technology sped-up his recovery altogether!

Benefits and Use

By having ‘something’ to converse with, voice can alleviate loneliness and enhance mental alertness, and therefore has the potential to drastically improve mental health. Increasingly, companies are building products compatible with voice devices, expanding voice’s capabilities and reach. Technology that alleviates hardships for the elderly is immensely powerful: voice can set medical reminders, make phone calls, and provide news updates — importantly reinstating a sense of independence and personal dignity.

The benefits of voice technology are now being recognized. A retirement community integrated voice technology and based on a pilot project: 100% of participants found voice made their life easier and 71% felt more connected to friends and family.

Voice technology is also intuitive and user-friendly. Anecdotally, my grandfather was surprised with how quickly he was able to comfortably use and navigate the device, and it only took me about 10 minutes to set it up and teach him the basics. Voice technology is just as easy as talking to another person, no typing or screen interaction is required. Some tech companies are even beginning to incorporate accessibility into their designs and are building with the elderly in mind.

How voice platforms can improve even more

Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana, and other voice platform technologies are proving to be useful assistants for the aging population. However, many older adults are reluctant to use new technologies, especially if installation and troubleshooting seem difficult. Currently, there are some barriers to full accessibility and use-ease. For example, the password is set-up through a visual interface and needs to be reset every two weeks, which the blind wouldn’t be able to do without assistance. Even still, it was only the initial password setup that was somewhat complicated. From there on, my grandfather was fully capable of operating his device on his own.

To further encourage voice technology among the elderly and the medical community, voice tech companies should consider accessibility when designing the set-up process. With the current design, a family member or caregiver still needs to help with set-up.

We will see more voice technology in healthcare

Since early 2016, TribalScale has been exploring, testing, and developing voice applications. We recognize the importance and permanence of voice technology — Comscore predicts that 50% of all searches will be done through voice by 2020. Voice is disrupting search, but we will also likely see change in other industries.

At TribalScale, we forecast further fusion between tech and healthcare, which will directly and positively impact the elderly. There is great opportunity for the healthcare industry to leverage voice technology and help those who are ill, disabled, or confined to a hospital or home. Voice assistants ease everyday tasks; they can help keep track of appointments, adjust heating and cooling, and reinstate a sense of autonomy. Everyday, mundane interactions — telling the time, changing the channel, setting an alarm — add up over time and have the potential to enhance a user’s independence and mental stimulation, improving mood, and even physical health.

Our teams design and develop with the end-user in sight, and our in-house design team integrates accessibility and senior well-being into their design thinking and practices. Developers should further consider accessibility to harness voice technology’s full potential. At TribalScale we recognize the importance of this innovation for the ageing generation and are excited to further explore the possibilities of technology and healthcare.

Note: The observations on mental and physical health improvement, with the use of a voice-enabled speaker, are based on the personal experiences of David Wright and his grandfather.

author

About the author

Dave Wright is TribalScale’s Chief Operating Officer. He is a master of all trades and works closely with a number of teams — Sales, Finance, Operations, IT, Legal, and HR. Dave is excited by the ever-changing aspects of technology, and is helping companies realize technology’s potential bringing them into the digital era.

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