Seniors Increase Use of Assistive Speech Tech

Article Featured Image

The COVID-19 pandemic forced both consumers and businesses alike to lean more heavily on assistive technologies to help them conduct business and handle personal needs like paying bills, shopping, and communicating remotely.

There were well-documented increases in online banking, e-commerce, videoconferencing, and other digital interactions that enabled people to continue much of their lives while staying at home and avoiding physical contact with others.

This was very evident with seniors, whom statistics show were most at risk of getting sick and dying from the virus. They had to be particularly careful about congregating together or with family members.

There were plenty of assistive technologies that helped seniors with this challenge. As with the population as a whole, many older Americans embraced technologies that they had either never used or had used only sparingly before.

According to Tom Egan, president and CEO at the Foundation for Senior Living (FSL), seniors want to stay in their homes as long as possible, and with today’s assistive technologies they can do so for several more years than the previous generation. Even if the senior goes to an assisted living facility or nursing home, some of these devices are still useful, particularly given the shortage of care workers trained specifically for the elderly. The Eldercare Workforce Alliance estimates that 3.5 million additional healthcare professionals and direct-care workers for the elderly will be needed by 2030.

What follows is a look at some of the speech technologies that helped seniors age in place during the pandemic and are expected to continue to do so into the future.

Personal Digital Assistants Adapted for Seniors

Though they might not come first to mind when thinking of “assistive” solutions, personal digital assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa are the most popular of these technologies, according to Egan. Part of their appeal is that they are relatively inexpensive, with devices costing less than $100.

“They’re fairly prevalent. A lot of people have them. But there are so many built-in features to those devices that people aren’t even aware of. You can set up medication reminders, turn on and off lights, adjust the lights, and many other things.”

In November, Amazon rolled out several new features designed to help caregivers and family members check in on their elderly loved ones.

Amazon Care Hub’s features enable users to program a set of activity alerts, delivered from an Alexa-enabled device to the caregiver’s Alexa app, for when seniors first use their Alexa devices each day and a warning if no activity is detected by a certain time. Family members can also request a more in-depth log of their elder’s activities, though there are privacy restrictions.

When checking the activity feed, the family member would be able to see that their loved one was using Alexa for entertainment, but not the song or podcast to which they were listening or what they said to Alexa. A family member or caregiver can quickly initiate a phone call or two-way chat through the app if they have cause for concern.

Through an integration with the Ask My Buddy Personal Network on both Alexa and Google Home, users can call any linked account for an alert. The number of linked accounts is unlimited, Egan says, so a user isn’t left seeking help if one or more linked accounts don’t respond to a call or text message right away.

“It’s a really cool feature that’s underutilized,” Egan says.

Users can also program the devices with morning or night routines. Each would start at a specified time each day, reminding the senior of preprogrammed routines, like which medications to take, turning certain devices on or off, or anything else to be done at specific times of day.

“Once you get the routine instructions built in, it’s a really helpful technology that a lot of people have access to,” Egan says.

The technology is fairly simple, according to Egan, so many seniors can set it up themselves.

Remote Monitoring Devices

Today’s smart watches and similar wearables can monitor an increasing number of vital signs, which become more important to track as a person ages.

Brittany Ferri, an occupational therapist, is seeing an increasing number of her senior patients using wearables and other home-based devices to monitor blood pressure, oxygen levels, activity, sleep, and more.

A growing number of medical providers are using automated systems to remind seniors of appointments and to ask questions to gauge cognitive abilities and other health issues, she observes.

Medical professionals increased their use of Gridspace’s technology to create voice-based surveys during the height of the pandemic, says Evan Macmillian, the company’s cofounder and CEO. “It was pretty onerous for seniors to go to physical clinics, so we’ve been doing a lot of work on check-ins and surveys and other sorts of questionnaires that would otherwise require an in-person visit or a complex paper form.”

While wellness checks aren’t new, automating them with the current technology permits more comprehensive and better patient information, Macmillan adds. “Unlike previous generations of [interactive voice response] technology, you can ask a lot more, and you can get a lot more feedback from patients.”

Macmillan points out that the automated technology enables healthcare providers to send out countless voice-based questionnaires.

A person’s cognitive health is essential to living independently, and so healthcare providers and family members concerned about their aging relatives’ cognitive abilities are increasingly turning to artificial intelligence to monitor cognitive abilities. International Data Corporation predicts that worldwide spending on cognitive and AI systems will reach $77.6 billion in 2022.

Another app that is gaining use among seniors is MyndYou from M.You Cognitive Technologies. The company’s MyEleanor virtual assistant calls Medicare Advantage members to assess their health status using personalized clinical questionnaires. During the call, MyndYou’s analytics engine works in the background, powered by neuroscience and artificial intelligence, listening to both verbal and nonverbal cues to detect subtle changes in health. Ferri says she knows several therapists whose patients have used the app with excellent results.

Though not designed to diagnose cognitive issues, a new app designed to stimulate the brain is UsAgainstAlzheimer’s BrainGuide. Launched in March, BrainGuide includes a confidential memory questionnaire, available over the phone or online in English or Spanish, followed by tailored education and resources based on the answers provided. The memory questionnaire can be self-administered or taken by a caregiver.

“People can do so much more to protect and improve brain health, and BrainGuide can be the right platform at the right time for adults of all ages,” said George Vradenburg, chairman and cofounder of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, in a statement. “Whether you are proactively working to improve your brain health, concerned about your memory, seeking more information after receiving a diagnosis, or are caring for a loved one living with Alzheimer’s, BrainGuide offers relevant insight and guidance.”

Medication Reminders

For seniors to stay healthy and living at home, medication reminders are extremely important, Egan says.

Simpl Technology’s Reminder Rosie daily organizer is helping with that. Though it lacks some of the functionality of personal assistants like Alexa, the device enables reminders to be recorded in someone else’s voice.

“A colleague of mine was struggling with her mom’s medication reminders, and having the message in her daughter’s voice versus a computerized voice was less stressful for her,” Egan recalls.

Fall Detection Systems

Falls are the leading cause of death for older adults, with one dying from a fall every 19 minutes, according to the National Council on Aging.

Medical alert systems like Life Alert and Medical Guardian have long helped with this, but the technology behind these systems has expanded greatly to include a variety of wearable and non-wearable motion detectors.

One of the latest technologies in this area is FallCall Detect from FallCall Solutions. It combines the power of smart fall detection with a comprehensive personal emergency response system (PERS) that was unveiled at the beginning of the year.

The difference between this and many other fall detection systems is that FallCall Detect is designed to recognize the difference between a hard fall likely to cause an injury and a lighter impact fall, according to the company. Other automated fall detection systems can trigger emergency alerts for any type of fall. If a low-impact fall is detected, FallCall Detect will contact only a user’s pre-designated support community, not emergency services.

“Several older adults I’ve treated for falls owned a medical alert device but didn’t use it. They said it was too bulky, stigmatizing, or inconvenient, and they’ve experienced embarrassing false alarms,” said FallCall Solutions cofounder Shea Gregg in a statement at the time of the product release. “By offering simple, safe, and smart technology combined with PERS capabilities on an Apple Watch [seniors] already wear, we believe we will have much greater adoption, daily usage, and earlier treatment of fall injuries.”

Egan also cites the Walabot Home, a wall plate with an interior 4-D “imaging radio” that acts as radar to monitor an area. An algorithm enables the device to see a fall, triggering a call or text to predetermined contacts. It can also monitor room presence and wandering to give caregivers important early clues to dementia or other psychological conditions. However, the device only covers a single room, so at around $250 per unit, it’s an expensive option for a larger home. The company promotes the device not just to seniors in their homes but also to assisted living and nursing home facilities.

Automated Medication Dispensers

As with other technologies, the number of options and capabilities of these systems continues to increase. There are ones that dispense pills at predetermined times to ones that dispense medications and provide information.

MedMinder, PharmAdva’s MedaCube, and Hero Health’s Hero are pill dispensers that can be programmed to deliver custom voice greetings from friends or family.

At the high end of the market is the Pillo Health/Stanley Black & Decker Pria voice-activated robotic pill dispenser. Through a mobile app, the senior or caregiver can schedule Pria to dispense up to 28 doses of medication and remind seniors when it’s time to take them. Pria can interact with its owner by voice or through a touch screen. The device also includes a built-in camera and facial recognition software so that it can identify that the person taking the meds is the one who’s supposed to. Users can also use the camera to have two-way video chats with caregivers or family.

Pria’s voice assistant can also answer some basic questions, though it doesn’t have the comprehensive database of PDAs.

Robotic Caregivers for Seniors

As the elderly population increases in number and people live longer, the number of caregivers is not expected to keep pace. Japan predicts a shortage of 1 million caregivers by the year 2025, while in the United States, people age 65 and older are expected to increase to roughly 26 percent of the total population by 2050.

The Robotics Industry Association (RIA) sees elder care robots as among the solutions that will be increasingly embraced to help fill caregiver shortages. Additionally, the International Federation of Robotics was expecting 2021 sales of medical robots to more than double 2018 totals.

RIA points to the following as ways that medical robotics can help the elderly:

  • performing small tasks, like fetching food and water;
  • helping with social and emotional needs by providing entertainment through games, event and appointment reminders, and social engagement;
  • providing mobility and transportation support; and
  • aiding with dementia care.

“Given the large number of people who either have dementia or care for somebody with dementia, the need for robotic support for these caregivers is critical,” the RIA said in a recent report. “One specific application of robotics to dementia care is in the treatment of a phenomenon called ‘sundowners syndrome,’ a poorly understood issue in which dementia patients quickly become more agitated and anxious as late afternoon transitions to evening.”

Taking the idea of robotics a step further is MoneyBrain’s AI technology, which is already being used in South Korea for audio-based assistants that include “video synthesis” technology.

The company calls these assistants “artificial humans,” distinguishing them from audio-only or text-only virtual assistants.

“People can interact with our technology without understanding a lot about it,” says Felix Kim, the company’s business development manager. “You don’t need to type or push buttons over and over; you just talk to one of our artificial humans.”

In an audio-only conversation, the technology is similar to digital assistants, Kim admits. But with the video component, MoneyBrain gives the person the feeling of conversing with another human being rather than with a machine because the artificial human speaks and moves like a real human.

The company is looking to expand to the United States and other countries in the near future, Kim said.

More Assistive Technology and Capabilities for Seniors Are Coming

The variation and capabilities of these and other devices are expected to continue to expand in the future. Ferri also expects the future to bring more use of augmented reality and virtual reality to help seniors age in place.

“I’ve seen them both used within nursing homes and assisted living facilities, but also with older adults who have the means to afford something like that. [AR/VR is] really good for boosting mood, lowering social isolation and…it can even help combat some difficult behaviors like agitation or irritability to keep them feeling less isolated, more motivated to continue self-care and to engage in productive activity,” she says. 

Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at spenterprises@wowway.

SpeechTek Covers
for qualified subscribers
Subscribe Now Current Issue Past Issues