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Good to Know: Can electronic assistants like Alexa let you live at home longer?

Many home appliances, including lights, fans and even

Many home appliances, including lights, fans and even a coffee pot, can be controlled using an Amazon Alexa. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

Every morning, my kids ask Alexa about the weather for the day. It amazes me that this rather charming part of our get-ready-for-the-day routine is so new. We just put the Amazon Echo in our kitchen several months ago. Already it feels as natural and normal as putting on a pot of coffee and getting the morning paper from the front step.

NextAvenue.org has reported extensively about how new personal assistant technologies can help people who are getting older and beginning to worry about being able to take care of themselves. Popular digital voice-activated assistants — like Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri — bring hope to a lot of people for the potential to let us age in our own homes. They offer help with everything from turning on light switches to ordering groceries for delivery to playing our favorite songs.

But how well do these assistants truly work for older adults? Not all that well — yet. They sometimes have difficulty in recognizing softer, more muffled voices, and you often can't get the answer or help that you want. Then you get the dreaded response, "Sorry, I am not familiar with that."

They can be frustrating conversational companions. If you haven't seen the 2017 "SNL" spoof on "Amazon Echo Silver," please Google it now and prepare to laugh despite some ageist overtones.

Moreover, these assistants are not necessarily tailored for an older adult consumer who has specific needs — mobility and health, for example — beyond just playing the weather forecast or the morning news.

Additionally, voice-activated tech is not all that easy to connect to the other devices in your home without professional help. That's not an ageist comment: Challenges connecting home devices plague younger, tech-savvy consumers, too.

Fortunately, the market is responding. Some newer services — LifePod and Ask My Buddy, for example — are being developed to use Amazon Echo and Google Home voice-recognition technology and make the experience more tailored for older adults.

Ask My Buddy can send alerts to family members or individuals. LifePod will prompt people to follow their daily routines — remind them to stay hydrated, exercise or take medication, for example.

Companies are also developing new technology to provide easier integration across devices, systems and applications.

One such tech company, K4Connect, has geared its connected home solutions software to older adults as a single system that can be managed as one form of application. For example, you could use a smartphone or tablet to activate door locks and blood pressure monitors. CEO Scott Moody notes that the company is investing heavily in voice as part of its integrated platform.

Moody predicts voice will become a "more ubiquitous part of our everyday lives, and in many applications, our primary interface model for various other technologies." And voice activation will go beyond the home and into most other aspects of our lives in the future.

"Voice technologies, when combined with other technologies in a cohesive and considered manner, can truly make a difference in the lives of those we serve. That is why an integrated platform is so critical to seeing voice reach its real potential in senior living communities," says Moody. "In the end, I think voice will be big, but it is not an end unto itself. It is when integrated with other technologies in a thoughtful way, tailored specifically for those we serve, that we will really see its true benefit.

"It will not just be this idea of a connected home, but a connected life."

Next Avenue's Richard Eisenberg, Emily Gurnon and Shayla Stern write rotating columns on money, health and lifestyle. Readers can contact them at reisenberg@nextavenue.org, egurnon@nextavenue.org and sstern@nextavenue.org.

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