The unstoppable rise of voice assistants (in elder care)

Marta Cristofanini

Or how to make happy the over-65s. The usage of voice’s technologies is becoming very popular among the elderly, and also the employment in healthcare’s system seems to be successful

A new direction for voice assistants

Play melancholy song.

This iconic phrase is borrowed from the opening lines of Spike Lee’s film, Her. It tells the love story between a man and his vocal assistant, Samantha. The film effectively synthesizes the process of “familiarization” that is preparing us for the Voice Tech 2.0 phase. And the main usage scenario for voice assistants could be elder care. Yes, you read that right.

It’s interesting to note how this new direction is imposing interest in integration within the medical sector. Here the #voicefirst movement – especially in Anglo-American contexts – has begun to be explored.

There are those who have used the “pet bridesmaid” effect in senior residences, usually through Amazon-Echo devices and where Alexa has gained popularity among senior guests.

At an American facility (the Stonegate Assisted Living, New Jersey), some users have openly appreciated the help provided by the assistant as a speech therapist.

There are companies that also turn their attention to home care recipients. That is the case of LifePod; they are offering virtual caregivers who can initiate the conversation and adapt to the person they are talking to.

Appealing technology

It looks like voice assistants are not just “young people’s things”.

According to an interview conducted in 2019 by, 64% of respondents over 55 actively use voice technologies to research products, services, generic information.

We should not be surprised that there is no particular suspiciousness towards voice assistants, even in sensitive contexts such as elder care.

They are immediate and user friendly, as seniors or people with disabilities have learned to appreciate. It is possible to predict that in a few years we could reach the 6 million Italian users over 65 able to benefit from the services of the network since neither resources nor interest are lacking.

We must confront however the acquired familiarity with this kind of technology with privacy issues.

People say that they feel encouraged to use voice devices if there is transparency on the use of sensitive data; for 56% of respondents this is very or to a certain extent important.

Example of a senior woman interacting with voice assistants

The perks of having a personal assistant

Guaranteed this, there is an unquestionable openness towards personalisation of an assistant who can thus have a free hand in getting to know us better and better.

And this also applies in the area of care; 51.9% ensure that they have interest in interacting with voice technology for medical cases, despite the fact that 92.5% of them have never tried it yet.

What would be the most popular requests? With a preference of 32% we find rapid consultations on symptoms; 27.5% would use the location service (such as finding nearby hospitals or clinics); 23% would ask for nutritional or medical information.[1]

The road to integration with wearable devices designed to monitor health and wellbeing is not so far away. In some cases it has already happened, even if at the moment the functionalities are reduced and linked to the previous paradigm.

For example, setting up alerts to take medicines or to remember the activities of the day; or also linking emergency connections to contact loved ones in case of need. This is the case with smartwatches already on the market, like Verizon’s Care Smartwatch.

Set the dialogue, not the alarm

The time is already ripe for a bolder change, perhaps. How much can a more proactive and dialogue-orientated device – able to answer specific questions and needs – affect the general well-being of the assisted?

The reminder could give way to dialogue and confidence. It could help to calibrate on the person and his or her life, in respect of the physiological and emotional context, and in compliance with recognized medical parameters.

Voice, as a primary component of human communication, can fill the gap between what is smart, and what is not.

Literature and cinematography often offer to imagination dystopian scenarios quite extreme; think of the intergalactic assistant HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It refuses to follow orders and boycott the space misison. Or consider Samantha’s act of abandonment in the above mentioned Her.

But despite these undoubtedly fascinating (and necessary) reflections, a collaborative path is concretely emerging on the horizon, consolidating through our words.

[1] Statistics taken from “Voice, Health and Wellbeing 2020 – The Sounds of Healthcare Change”, Laurie M. Orlov.

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