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The Octogenarians Who Love Amazon’s Alexa

A community of San Diego retirees is using the personal-assistant gadget to listen to audiobooks, keep current with family news, and control home appliances.
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When Lois Seed wakes up in the morning, one of the first things she says is “Alexa, what is the weather?” Seed, who is 89 and has low vision because of macular degeneration, finds it convenient to get weather information by speaking to the Alexa voice-activated assistant on her Amazon Echo. She also asks her Echo to tell her the time and to play classical music from her former hometown radio station.

“Life is more enjoyable [with Alexa],” she says, proving that the recent Saturday Night Live spoof about Alexa and seniors couldn’t be further from the truth.

Seed and about 50 other residents at the Carlsbad by the Sea retirement community near San Diego have been testing the personal-assistant technology inside their homes since late February. Front Porch, the nonprofit organization that runs the community, devised the pilot program after residents expressed interest in Alexa and asked to try it.

Some older adults have been using Alexa on their own to alleviate loneliness and set medication reminders, but Front Porch appears to be the first retirement community to study the technology’s impact in depth. And it wants its residents’ experiences to help inform how future versions of Alexa might better serve the elderly. The group could represent a sizeable new market for Amazon. More than one million Americans reside in assisted-living facilities today, and that number is expected to double by 2030.

Front Porch began by distributing Alexa devices to a small focus group of residents and now hosts biweekly, in-person training workshops, conducts user interviews and in-home visits, and writes research reports. It runs the project through the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, a technology outreach program that is also testing home robots and virtual reality as ways to meet the needs of older adults. The goal is to explore ways to integrate Alexa-enabled devices quickly into its other retirement communities, which have more than 2,000 residents across California.

The majority of the people in the Alexa focus group are in their late 80s. Some use walkers to get around, and some have visual and/or hearing impairments. Most use their Echoes in simple ways: to set alarms, stream music, listen to audiobooks, and check the news, sports scores, time, and weather. Jim Bates, a 79-year-old who has hand tremors, finds it far faster and easier to search the Web via Alexa than to type queries on his laptop or iPhone.

Front Porch is also teaching residents how to use Alexa to communicate with family and friends. They can make calls via voice commands using Amazon’s Alexa-to-Alexa calling service, which is compatible with other Echo devices and Amazon’s Alexa smartphone app. If they want to send and receive text messages, they can use an Alexa “skill,” or app, called Marvee that translates voice snippets into text and delivers them to pre-specified contacts. For example, a resident trying to reach her grandson can say, “Alexa, ask Marvee to have Eric call me,” and the app will send Eric a text or e-mail that says, “Call Grandma when you get a chance.” Family members can also submit their own messages to Marvee, which can be retrieved just by saying, “Alexa, ask Marvee for family news.”

In a few weeks, Front Porch will connect the Carlsbad residents’ Echoes to smart plugs and thermostats so they can adjust their lights and room temperature via Alexa. If all goes well after that two-month test, Front Porch will explore possible deployments of Alexa devices to its other communities.

There have been frustrations, some surrounding the need to learn how to phrase requests in a way Alexa will understand. So far, the biggest hurdle relates to Alexa’s voice. The software speaks with deep bass tones that can sound garbled to people who have hearing impairments. To help those users, Front Porch asked Amazon to release an equalizer feature that would let people adjust Alexa’s treble, midrange, and bass range levels. Amazon is reviewing the request, says Davis Park, the Front Porch executive leading the Alexa research project.

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