Sure, voice-activated virtual assistants can light your living room at night and schedule the dishwasher to run after guests leave, but for seniors, Cortana, Alexa, and Google Home are much more than novelty gadgets of convenience. Older Americans can boost their quality of life in a number of ways by dabbling in tech you might think was designed with millennials in mind. Here's a look at some senior-friendly functions offered by the top virtual assistants. (Apple HomePod is excluded because its central purpose is playing music. Facebook Portal is omitted because its primary function is live video chat, and its virtual assistant functions are powered by Amazon's Alexa technology.)
maintaining independence, reducing isolation, and more
A home health agency's test of how well seniors would get along with in-home virtual assistants proved there is some real potential, Kiplinger reports, with large majorities claiming the devices can help maintain independence, reduce isolation, perform common tasks, stay connected with family and friends, and communicate with caregivers. Before getting to how, here's a look at three you might use:
Based on Microsoft's Cortana assistant technology, Invoke will be familiar to anyone who uses a Windows computer. Once you download the app, you'll be able to link the assistant to your Windows account across all devices.
Commonly referred to simply as Alexa for the name of the voice that users speak to within the device, Echo is Amazon's virtual assistant. Among the first and best known in the industry, Echo comes in several forms, including the original smart speaker, the smaller Dot, and newer video-enhanced versions such as Smart Display and Echo Show.
Google Home also comes in several variations, including the original Home Speaker, a Mini that is similar to the Echo Dot, Google Home Max, and Google Home Hub, the latter of which is enhanced with video. All have the advantage of running on the familiar Google platform.
Say the phrase "Alexa, ask the Mayo Clinic how to treat a cut" and Echo users will get a professional tutorial on how to do just that. In fact, the Mayo Clinic has introduced virtual assistant software that helps Echo users deal with a variety of first-aid related mishaps, including the immediate treatment of burns and bug bites.
For many seniors, medication is a part of daily life — one that can be easy to forget, even though that can have catastrophic consequences. Medication reminders such as Alexa's Medicine Tracker and MyNurseBot can relieve some of the worry. Just tell your device about your medicine schedule and it can remind you when it's time. You can also tell a virtual assistant you've taken a specific medicine or ask it when you last took your pills.
All popular virtual assistants can help seniors remember important appointments such as visits to the doctor or the pending arrival of a home health aide. It's easy to schedule reminders by simply speaking them, but Windows users can also add computer-based schedules to their Invoke through Windows-based Cortana.
help with early onset dementia
For seniors suffering from early onset dementia, nothing can replace the touch of a person or face-to-face communication, but virtual assistants can come in handy by substituting the critical thing they're losing but can't function without: memory. With a simple voice command, people struggling with memory issues can ask what's on TV tonight or even what day it is.
maintaining contact with caregivers
Whether it's an adult child or a medical professional, seniors can use a virtual assistant to stay in contact with remote caregivers. With a simple voice command, an older user could reach out with anything from a question about medication dosages to help with an exercise.
Assistants such as Google Home can use simple voice commands to open up a world of entertainment for seniors who might simply be bored. They can play music, change the TV channel, turn on a video, read the news, or tell jokes. For some seniors, one of the biggest challenges to remaining independent is loneliness; virtual assistants can help pass the time, but also keep them in touch with what's going on in the world.
playing game shows
Seniors can use virtual assistants to get in on the action by participating in some of their favorite daytime game shows. "Jeopardy" is a big hit with Alexa, as is "The Price is Right," which lets seniors play the popular show by guessing prices on items Amazon sells online.
listening to audiobooks
Seniors who love of reading can be frustrated by failing eyesight. All virtual assistants can read audiobooks aloud while the user does nothing but listen and enjoy, but for Alexa, this is a special strong suit. Echo is connected to Amazon's massive Kindle library of ebooks, many of which are free.
Whether you have a standard audio-based assistant or a swanky new video-enhanced model, seniors can make calls without picking up a phone. All major systems let you place calls simply by talking, either by stating a name in your contacts or just by reciting the digits. This is especially important for emergency services — the ability to call 911 after a fall or other catastrophe could mean the difference between life and death for a senior who can't make it to the phone.
Beyond just news, virtual assistants can open the minds of seniors and keep their memory sharp through analytical broadcasts, podcasts, lectures, tutorials, and analysis of current events. Tell your virtual assistant your interests, sit back, and enjoy seemingly endless information on everything from animals and cars to global events and the stock market.
Whether it's shopping lists, a rundown of to-dos or a compilation of birthdays and anniversaries, virtual assistants let users easily make and maintain lists. Just tell Alexa, for example, to create a list, add a task to an existing list, or cross off a completed task. This is especially important for seniors who may have difficulty remembering, writing, or reading.
hands-free help with shopping and ordering
staying connected with religion and spirituality
Many seniors might feel like they're missing out if they're not able to get to their house of worship or to meet up with the people or groups who fulfill their spiritual needs. Devices such as Alexa can help with that. Zen healing sounds, Bible verses, sermons, Hanukkah candle reminders, Christmas songs, and prayer callings are just a few ways virtual assistants can keep seniors connected to spiritual outlets.
Home automation lets users use Cortana, Alexa, or Google Home to do things such as dim the lights at night or change the thermostat without lifting a finger. It requires a bit of effort and sophistication — and perhaps some help from caregivers or family members — to set up so-called "smart homes," but afterward seniors can set predetermined schedules, such as having living room lights turn on at 7 a.m. and off at 9 p.m., or simply by using voice commands.
One of the best advances in home automation, particularly for seniors, is home security. Devices such as Echo, Google Home, and Cortana Invoke can be connected to motion detectors, security sensors, door locks, video doorbells, flood detectors, and security cameras, which can give older Americans a little bit more peace of mind.