Okay Google! Can you look after my mum?
Is voice technology eliminating social isolation in the elderly?
We already know the ageing population is driving massive changes in the demand for our healthcare services. But so are the advances in the tools and techniques that enable longer, happier and healthier lives. “Ageing Tech”, as it is being labelled, is a growing area of research and development and tools can range from personalised robots for companionship to virtual reality headsets.
In many cases, as people grow older there is a loss of health as well as independence. As a doctor, I would see too many elderly patients admitted to hospital for the first time and leaving hospital, significantly weaker and needing much support in the community. My own grandmother is an unfortunate example of that. Having been admitted to hospital for a respiratory infection and spending 7 days bed ridden in a tiny cubicle, I remember her coming back home unable to tackle the same stair case she used to climb every single day.
A case for voice technology?
Sometimes, old age can even make the simplest of things difficult. Unable to tell the time, unable to call your family and loved ones, or even turn on the TV can send you into a downward spiral. In these cases, can voice technology be of assistance?
I recently came across a study run by the University of Reading, at Westbourne House, a residential home in the UK. Residents here were introduced to Google Home devices, taught how to activate it, engage with it and ask questions (e.g. ask what the weather is). After a few months, residents were asked about their experiences with the new device.
Surprisingly, every single resident who used the Google Home device felt less lonely since using it. This short video created by the research team captures the experiences of those part of the study.
This statement from Cathleen in the video stands out the most to me:
“It makes me feel there is a presence in the room which is rather nice. Every now and then I ask Google to tell me a joke and it lightens the whole situation”
This is not a one of kind isolated study either.
Published in the MIT Technology review, a group of 50 residents at the Carlsbad by the Sea retirement community in San Diego, trialled the use of an Amazon Alexa, inside their homes. The majority of users in the study were in their 80’s and used the Alexa for simple tasks such as setting alarms, streaming music and even listening to audio books. The result: 100% of the users found that the Alexa, made their lives easier.
So it helps?
We know mental wellness in older adults can be can be improved through communication that supports contemplating, caring, coping, and conversing. Whether those conversations happen with a Google Home (rather that a human) doesn’t seem to matter in the case of these studies.
The main benefit of personal assistants like the Google Home and Alexa, are the reinforcement of social interaction. Without which people can experience social isolation and depression. Not being able to hear your own voice, has emotional and physical consequences.
Let’s also not forget, how personal assistants are not just fancy chat bots we can speak to. Simple scheduling with proactive voice messages can help individuals set reminders for taking medications or their daily exercises. Life Pod, a personal audio assistant for caregivers, has been designed to use proactive voice for care scheduling.
So all our socially isolated elderly should receive a Google Home?
Why you ask?
Have you ever tried setting one up?
How about your initial conversations with it? Did they even make sense?
What about when there’s an error? What do you do?
One of the biggest challenges these studies actively comment on is the time and effort it takes to set-up, teach individuals how to engage with these devices, but also troubleshoot problems.
In most cases, additional support is needed for accessibility. Whether this is in the form of a family member or care giver. To push the bar even further, devices need to become more intuitive and user friendly to a point where the support required should be minimal. I don’t even know what that would look like, because there are so many factors at play (e.g. WIFI connection, mobile connectivity, etc)
That being said, yesterday I tried explaining to my dad how to connect his Bluetooth headphones to his laptop over the phone. 30 mins in and there was success.
Voice for loneliness
225,000 older people can go over a week without speaking to another person.
I am constantly surrounded by friends, family and social media feeds that sometimes I am yearning for a break from people. But a large majority of our elderly go over a week without speaking to someone? Now that’s a heartbreaking finding.
There’s so much being done to combat loneliness in the elderly, from free phone services to befriending services set-up by charities. If voice technology can also join the fight to combat loneliness, then there’s a technology that is well worth it’s existence.