How to use Alexa to make caring for elderly easier

“Alexa, drop in on Dad.” This seemingly simple phrase is one of several Alexa commands revolutionising how we safeguard and communicate with our ageing parents and elderly relatives in the modern world.

Today, Amazon Echo and its voice assistant, Alexa, have almost become part of the furniture across homes worldwide.

In fact, some 44% of all UK adults own a smart speaker like Alexa, including 23% of the over-65s. As well as providing convenience, the benefits of Alexa and Echo devices for elder care (in particular the Echo Show) are numerous, offering an all-in-one, user-friendly solution for a variety of common issues.

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If your parent already uses Alexa, or you are thinking of getting them an Alexa device, this article will tell you everything you need to know about how to make the most of the software and devices to best support them in their old age.

What are Alexa and Echo?

Though often discussed together, Amazon Alexa and Echo are not the same.

The Amazon Echo family of devices are typically called smart speakers, though some models also feature a screen, such as the Echo Show.

Smart speakers feature both speakers for audio output and microphones to listen to voice commands.

Alexa is the artificial intelligence voice assistant that ‘lives’ inside of the Echo. The Echo is the device (the hardware), and Alexa is the assistant (the software).

Alexa listens to voice commands via the device’s microphone and controls the smart speaker, answering questions like:

  • “Alexa, what’s the weather forecast?”
  • “Alexa, play some classical music.”
  • “Alexa, tell me what my appointments are today.”

As of 2023, the Amazon Echo range is the most popular and widely used smart speaker range worldwide. Let’s explore the Echo family:

  • Echo Dot: An entry point into the Alexa world, Echo Dot is compact and unobtrusive. Its small form factor makes it the perfect bedside or desk companion, ready to play music or set alarms.
  • Standard Echo: Taking a leap from the Dot, the standard Echo offers an enhanced audio experience. Its fuller sound makes it an ideal central device for living areas or kitchens.
  • Echo Plus: The more premium Echo Plus includes a built-in smart hub, making connecting and controlling various smart devices hassle-free. With an Echo Plus, you can set up and connect smart and Internet of Things (IoT) devices ranging from smart lighting to smart thermostats. You can also control these devices with a regular Echo, but the Plus adds wider functionality and support.
  • Echo Studio: An audiophile-oriented model, the Echo Studio promises high-quality stereo audio. It’s ideal for those intending to use their Echo primarily for music playback. It’s also louder than other models.
  • Echo Show: By adding a screen to Alexa, the Echo Show combines voice control with visual feedback, making it a particularly good choice for elderly people. The visual functionality means users can make video calls, view video streams from a Ring doorbell and watch news stories. The Echo Show range features screens from 5” up to a massive 15”.
  • Echo Pop: The Echo Pop is a compact Echo model, somewhat similar to the Echo Dot but with a directional speaker.

Amazon Echo devices are all fundamentally similar and work in broadly the same way.

The Alexa voice assistant remains the same regardless of which Echo you choose. It’s also worth mentioning that you can link more than one Echo together, meaning you can have a smaller Echo Pop at the bedside and a large Echo Studio in the living room, for example.

You’ll need the Amazon Alexa app downloaded to a phone or computer to use an Echo device. The Alexa app is the control centre for the Echo and its settings.

However, after setting up the Alexa app with an Echo device, it’s possible to use the Echo without checking the Alexa app.

Why are Alexa and Echo so good for elderly people?

Echo devices are operated via voice command, offering a range of unique benefits for elderly people.

There are no fiddly buttons or complicated interfaces, and the Echo speaker should ‘just work’ once set up correctly. Even basic functions like volume control can be operated by voice.

Additionally, you don’t have to move to operate a smart speaker so long as they’re within audible range.

These features are ideal for elderly individuals who aren’t confident with technology or have limited movement.

They provide elderly individuals with access to music, radio, hands-free calls, news and current affairs updates, etc. This can help people live at home and maintain their freedom and autonomy for longer.

In fact, smart speakers are being deployed in some care facilities to help residents become less dependent on carers, including a trial in Hampshire where social services are harnessing smart speakers to curb social isolation. 94% of those who participated in the trial said the smart speaker “increased their feelings of safety and security.”

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of Alexa for seniors:

Voice activation

Modern technology can work wonders, but it’s become increasingly complex or even intimidating.

In fact, many would testify that technology is moving too fast to keep up with, even for the younger generations.

Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo are activated by voice, which is simple, intuitive and easy to learn.

They’re designed so you can speak to them naturally, e.g., you don’t need to use specific phrases – so long as you address the speaker as “Alexa.” This is called the ‘wake word.’

Reminders and alarms

Smart speakers can work proactively, initiating reminders at certain times of the day or when prompted.

Alexa can reinforce the traditional calendar to keep life on track for older individuals who are still active and maintain regular appointments with family and friends.

For those prone to forgetfulness, Alexa can administer reminders for crucial appointments and medications.

Information and entertainment

Amazon Echo and Alexa also combine to offer information and entertainment, from weather and news updates to music and radio.

In the case of the screen-equipped Echo Show, Alexa can also deliver videos from social media, video news updates and video calls.

The Echo Show also works with Amazon Prime Video and even other apps like YouTube, though this takes some customisation.

Communication and connection

Alexa is designed to be as much or as little of a presence as someone wishes.

You can use it to discuss topics or ask for information, e.g. “Recommend me a holiday in the Middle East for this summer,” which is excellent for those looking to occupy themselves throughout the day.

Echo devices are also great for connecting older individuals with family and friends via the “Drop In” feature – more on that shortly.

Safety and security

Alexa and Echo devices also enhance security by enabling hands-free calling and via integrations with other devices, such as Ring Doorbells.

Hands-free calling can be a lifeline if someone suffers a fall and can’t reach the phone, for example.

Meanwhile, the Ring video doorbell lets people see who’s at the door before they answer – or even view them through a smartphone or Echo Show screen.

Another innovative security feature is Alexa Guard, which monitors homes for unexpected noises when no one is home.

Setting up Alexa devices for drop-in calling

The Drop-In feature on Alexa devices is a vital communication bridge for the elderly, offering instant, hassle-free conversations with family and friends.

This tool serves in emergencies and ensures our loved ones are always connected.

Here’s how to set it up:

  • Initial Setup: First, ensure your Alexa device is connected to power and linked to a steady Wi-Fi network. A consistent connection helps guarantee clear audio.
  • Open the Alexa App: This application is your command centre for all devices powered by Alexa. Navigate to the ‘Devices’ section found in the main menu. Here, you can modify settings for each individual Alexa device.
  • Choose Your Alexa Device: In the ‘Devices’ category, pick the specific device you wish to set up for Drop-In. This step is crucial if you possess multiple Alexa products.
  • Enable Drop In: Head over to the ‘Communicate’ tab. Within this section, you’ll discover the ‘Drop In’ functionality. Activate it using the toggle switch. Activating this permits chosen contacts to initiate a Drop-In session on your device without manual call acceptance — a crucial feature for potential emergencies.
  • Start a Call: Whenever needed, simply command, “Alexa, drop in on [contact’s name].” The process is straightforward, eliminating any need for manual controls, making it perfect for elderly people.

How to set up other useful Alexa features for your elderly parent or relative

The beauty of Alexa lies not just in its primary functions but in its diverse range of features and flexibility.

Here’s a guide to setting up useful features for elderly parents and relatives:

My Clock

The Echo Show’s ‘My Clock’ feature offers an easy way to view the time, date, and prevailing weather conditions on a single screen.

Activation:

  • Voice Command: Say, “Alexa, open My Clock.”
  • The display will then prominently show a digital clock, accompanied by the date and current weather conditions, making it convenient for users to quickly know what time and day it is (which many often need reminding of!).

Captioning

A feature designed to augment audio with visual text, ‘Captioning’ provides on-screen text for spoken words, whether you’re on a call or watching a video on your Echo Show.

It’s ideal for environments with background noise or for those who benefit from visual cues.

Activation:

  • Manual Setting: Swipe down from the top of the Echo Show screen to access settings. From there, select ‘Settings’ > ‘Accessibility’ > Toggle on ‘Closed Captions’.
  • Customisation options like font size, colour, and background are also available to enhance readability.

Ask My Buddy

‘Ask My Buddy’ is a personal alert network available on Alexa devices.

When you need assistance but can’t reach your phone, this skill allows you to send a voice-activated alert to a designated contact.

It’s not a replacement for 999 but a useful tool to quickly notify someone you trust.

Setup:

  • Open the Alexa app on your device.
  • Navigate to ‘Skills & Games’.
  • Search for ‘Ask My Buddy’ and enable the skill.
  • Follow the on-screen instructions, including choosing contacts from your list that you want as part of your alert network.
  • Once set up, in case of an emergency or need, say: “Alexa, ask My Buddy to alert [contact name].” The chosen contact will be notified, informing them that you might need assistance.

Alexa Guard

Alexa Guard transforms your Alexa-enabled device into a security assistant.

In ‘Guard’ mode, Alexa becomes sensitive to specific sounds in your home, like breaking glass or a smoke alarm, and can send notifications if such events are detected.

Activation:

  • Voice Command: Say, “Alexa, I’m leaving”, to activate Guard mode. To deactivate and return to normal operations, inform Alexa with, “Alexa, I’m home.”
  • You’ll receive notifications on any linked device if Alexa identifies sounds indicative of potential issues.

Reminders

Never forget an appointment, task, or even mundane daily chores with Alexa’s ‘Reminders’.

Think of it as a virtual assistant that helps you manage your time and responsibilities.

Usage:

  • Voice Command: State, “Alexa, remind me to [task] at [time/day].”
  • Alexa will verbally confirm your command and send you an auditory reminder at the specified time, ensuring you stay on top of your tasks.

Connect to TV and smart devices

Your Echo Show isn’t just a standalone device – it can be the control hub for other smart devices in your home.

Alexa can manage them all with voice commands, from smart lights to thermostats to smart TVs.

Integration:

  • Start by saying, “Alexa, discover devices.”
  • Ensure your other smart devices are powered on and in pairing mode.
  • Alexa will search for them, and once identified, they’ll be added to your device list in the Alexa app. You can then assign specific names or room labels for easier voice command recognition.
  • With the setup complete, use voice commands to control these devices, e.g., “Alexa, turn off the living room light” or “Alexa, set the thermostat to 21 degrees.”

Connect to Ring Doorbell

Integrating a Ring Doorbell with Alexa devices, like the Echo Show or Echo Dot, provides both convenience and an enhanced security experience.

Integration Steps:

  • Initial Setup: Ensure your Alexa device and Ring Doorbell are set up and connected to Wi-Fi. Complete the Ring Doorbell’s setup using its app if you haven’t.
  • Open Alexa App: Launch the Alexa app on your mobile device or tablet.
  • Add Device: Inside the Alexa app, tap the menu and choose ‘Add Device’. Then select ‘Doorbell’ and choose ‘Ring’. Follow the app’s guidance.
  • Ring Account Linking: The app will request a login to your Ring account, allowing Alexa to access the Ring Doorbell.
  • Discover and Link: Once you’re logged in, the Alexa app will detect the Ring Doorbell and add it to your device list.
  • Voice Commands for Echo Show: “Alexa, show the front door” will bring up the live video feed from your Ring Doorbell. If the doorbell rings, “Alexa, answer the front door”, lets you converse and see the video. End interactions with “Alexa, stop” or “Alexa, end”.
  • Voice Commands for Echo Dot and Other Audio-only Devices: You’ll hear an alert when someone rings the doorbell. “Alexa, talk to the front door”, initiates a two-way audio conversation. Conclude the chat with “Alexa, stop” or “Alexa, end”.
  • Notifications: You can set up announcements in the Alexa app for devices like Echo Dot. When activated, Alexa will announce when someone’s at the door.

Are there any security risks with Alexa to be mindful of?

The “Always Listening” feature

Alexa is designed to respond when it hears the wake word, usually “Alexa”.

Contrary to what some argue, it doesn’t continuously record. Alexa begins recording only after detecting the wake word.

This recording goes to Amazon’s servers to determine a response. If you’re concerned about stored voice recordings, you can delete them via the Alexa app.

Using ‘Skills’ safely

Alexa’s functionality can be expanded with ‘skills’, similar to smartphone apps. While there are many beneficial skills available, some are deceptive.

When adding new skills, it’s a good idea to check reviews, learn about the developer, and see how many people use it.

Sticking to reputable developers can help avoid issues.

Preventing potential hacks

All internet-connected devices, including Alexa, can be vulnerable to security issues. However, Amazon regularly updates Alexa to address potential threats.

To keep your device secure, it’s recommended to promptly update its software, use strong, unique passwords for your Amazon accounts, and enable two-factor authentication where possible.

In Summary

Alexa and the Echo family of devices – in particular the Echo Show – are a really useful tool for safeguarding, supporting and communicating from afar with our elderly parents and relatives, helping them to maintain a certain level of independence while providing a sense of security and connection.  They are pretty intuitive to use which is also a bonus for older people that struggle with technology. That being said, your parent or elderly relative may still need some help to get used to giving voice commands, and knowing which commands they should use. It is always worth noting down the various commands for them on a piece of paper, and spending time to train them on using Alexa until they feel confident – and it is lodged in their memory.

Common questions

  • What is Alexa Together?

Alexa Together is a subscription-based service designed to offer features that support family members, especially the elderly.

It provides tools like 24/7 hands-free calling for urgent situations, activity alerts, and the ability to review voice recordings of your loved one’s Alexa interactions to ensure their well-being.

  • Is Alexa Together available in the UK?

At the time of writing (August 2023) Alexa Together is only available in the U.S. However, Amazon regularly updates and expands its services, so this could change soon.

  • Is there an Alexa for the Elderly?

While there isn’t a specific version of Alexa marketed for the elderly, Amazon has developed features geared towards assisting the elderly.

Moreover, the user-friendly nature of Alexa devices, combined with accessibility features, makes them well-suited for elderly users.

  • Do I also have to have an Echo Show to drop in on my relative?

No, you don’t need an Echo Show specifically. While the Echo Show offers video capabilities, you can use the Drop-In feature from any Alexa-enabled device or the Alexa app on your smartphone.

However, without an Echo Show, the interaction will be audio-only.

  • Is WhatsApp supported on the Echo Show?

Direct integration of WhatsApp with the Echo Show was not available. You can’t send or receive WhatsApp messages or calls directly from an Echo Show.

Terminology toolkit:

Alexa: Amazon’s cloud-based voice service, akin to a virtual assistant, powers their Echo range of devices. Besides answering questions, Alexa can set reminders, give news updates, control compatible smart home devices, and much more based on voice commands.

Echo Devices: Amazon’s family of smart speakers and displays. They are designed to be controlled using voice commands and serve as the primary hardware for the Alexa service.

Echo Show: A member of the Echo family that combines the features of a smart speaker with a visual display. It enhances the typical Alexa experience with visual feedback, improving activities like video calling, streaming, or viewing a recipe.

Echo Dot: A compact smart speaker in the Echo lineup. It provides all the capabilities of Alexa in a smaller, more affordable package, making it ideal for adding Alexa to multiple rooms.

Drop-In: An instant communication feature on Alexa devices. It allows voice or video calls without the need for the recipient to ‘answer’ the call, making it useful for swift check-ins or monitoring.

Skill: Custom add-ons or applications designed specifically for Alexa. These can be created by third-party developers or by Amazon itself. Skills extend Alexa’s functionalities, allowing her to play games, integrate with specific services, or control unique devices.

Routine: A set of automated actions that Alexa carries out in a specific sequence or at a particular time, often triggered by a voice command or a scheduled time. For example, a morning routine might include turning on the lights, reading out the news, and then playing music.

Alexa Guard: An added security feature. When set to ‘Away’ mode, Alexa listens for specific sounds, like breaking glass or smoke alarms. If detected, Alexa sends a notification, adding an extra layer of security to your home.

Alexa App: The mobile interface for all Alexa-enabled devices. It’s used to set up new devices, manage preferences, install skills, create routines, and even communicate through Drop-In or regular calls/messages.

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