Voice Tech Has ‘A Long Way to Go’ to Meet the Hype in Skilled Nursing

Voice technology has promise in senior care, but skilled nursing providers and residents need to keep their expectations tempered, one expert says.

When it comes to Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, Elizabeth Mynatt, the executive director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for People and Technology, has a note of caution.

“I think the Alexa is unproven,” Mynatt told Skilled Nursing News. “But there’s a lot of excitement about it, because it kind of takes away a lot of the complexity of text and computers, and you’re just talking to something. So there’s a lot of folks building what they call skills — essentially apps for things like the Alexa — but we have a long way to go.”

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For instance, the New Jewish Home in the New York City area has seen success using Amazon’s Echo devices, rolling out a pilot version of a virtual assistant program for skilled nursing residents at one of its campuses; farther westward, researchers at the University of Illinois are digging into the use of the Echo to explore how seniors use the technology to improve their overall experience with voice assistants.

And Ascension Living, the senior services arm of St. Louis-based health system Ascension, is testing out the Amazon Echo Show and Echo Dot devices in pilot programs aimed at evaluating the feasibility of voice-activated devices in senior housing, SNN’s sister site Senior Housing News reports. The programs were particularly meant to examine the devices in high-acuity settings like assisted living and skilled nursing.

Plug and play

One advantage of voice technology is that the learning curve for seniors is low, according to Erum Khan, the CEO of *Soundmind, which creates conversational artificial intelligence (AI) tools targeted at senior living; Soundmind partnered with the New Jewish Home for for its virtual assistant program.

That program sprang from examining the challenges of living in a skilled nursing or assisted living facility, Khan said. The program they developed, called Connect the Dots, is a web-based console to personalize voice assistants, integrate person and community calendars, access menus and care plans, and facilitate calls, and allows for easy rescheduling of events across the calendars of all the residents in the nursing home.

With a different client, Soundmind replaced their traditional intercom system, in which a user has to press a button to speak and press a button to listen, by setting up Alexa to function like an intercom on steroids, Khan said. By using the Amazon device, a nurse can say “Alexa, call room 405,” or a resident can say “Alexa, call maintenance,” she explained.

“The resident can have direct communication to get the thing done,” she said. “It’s empowering them to take care of some tasks that they need to get completed, and it’s letting them send direct messages to the person they need to make it happen.”

Voice technology also allows this to happen while avoiding one of the biggest issues with technology for seniors: the interface.

“Traditionally, you have a keyboard and you have a screen that you have to touch or swipe,” Khan said. “The touch gesture isn’t very intuitive for people that aren’t using smartphones as much .. and the physical dexterity required to type is difficult. And visual acuity starts to fade.”

Hurdles to overcome

Some of the dreams for Alexa include using the tech to remind seniors with memory issues about taking medication or running errands, Mynatt said. And getting a senior to learn how to ask Alexa when a therapy appointment is, or what time an activity starts, is usually simply a matter of getting individuals to try out the devices, Khan noted.

But when designing memory aides for older adults, the trick is to do it in a way that isn’t embarrassing to them, Mynatt added.  For that reason, having Alexa deliver reminders to a senior opens a brand-new set of demands on designers.

“It’s another thing to build Alexa so that she interrupts and says you need to take your medication and you still haven’t done it,” Mynatt said. “We’re still trying to find the way to make those interactions acceptable and not confusing … it’s going to take a lot of work to figure out what designs really work for older adults.”

In response, Khan stressed that several companies are seeing results with Alexa and that Soundmind’s users are aware of the ways to use Alexa, including for such things as medication reminders.

“They are aware of the many ways to use Alexa, so [it’s] not confusing to them at all because they programmed Alexa themselves,” she told SNN in an email.

There’s also a lot of interest in smartphones and smart tablets, and for the skilled nursing sector in particular, advances in robotics and prosthetics could lead to technology that nurses can use to help turn and lift patients, Mynatt said.

But ultimately, to design tech for older adults that’s accessible — and that they will use — designers need to pay close attention to those target users.

“Technology companies need to sit down and work with older adults to understand their challenges to see if and how their products can be helpful” Khan said.

Editor’s Note: This story originally misspelled Soundmind as Sound Mind; Skilled Nursing News regrets the error. This story has also been updated to more extensively describe some of the capabilities of Soundmind’s program and to include Khan’s responses to the statement that voice technology has “a long way to go.”

Written by Maggie Flynn

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