My father just celebrated his 86th birthday. He lives on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Yes, he’s on his own, and he likes it that way… mostly.
He’s doing okay. But he’s… 86. And he uses a walker. And he a little unsteady on his feet. And yes, I worry about him.
Fortunately, he has some help at home. Plus, I’m able to see him every week or so to check in, have a meal with him and reminisce about my mom.
And it’s really great that he’s relatively adroit using his iPhone. FaceTime calls have also been a useful way to keep in touch. Although lately, he’s fumbling a bit with his iPhone and doesn’t always answer correctly on the first try.
So, I worry about being able to reach him just to make sure he’s doing okay.
Hello, Amazon Echo
I gave my dad an Amazon Echo for his birthday. He’s always fashioned himself a user of new and cool consumer tech. (In the 1970’s, I remember him running around wearing some crazy Seiko TV watch that didn’t work very well.)
When he unwrapped his present, he looked a bit confused… He didn’t really know what a voice-controlled smart speaker was. But when I unboxed the Echo in front of him, powered up Alexa and started our first conversation, my dad was instantly hooked.
(Gifting note: I had previously set up the Echo at my house and figured out all of the interface details using the Amazon Alexa app on my iPhone. Then, all I had to do with my father was update the Echo’s Wi-Fi setting to his home Wi-Fi network.)
More than Music
Originally, I figured getting my dad a digital voice assistant would be a great way for him to stream his favorite tunes from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. That functionality was mostly all that I was focused on. I also expected that my father would enjoy chatting with Alexa and would find her encyclopedia of knowledge charming. Perhaps her alarms and reminders would also be of use.
But after I bought the Echo and began setting it up, I quickly realized the massive opportunity it offers to help me better keep in touch with my aging father. Here’s how…
It’s so easy for him to contact my iPhone by just telling Alexa to call me by name.
(Yes, the Echo can make a phone call.)
That’s certainly a lot simpler for him than trying to find and fumble with his iPhone during a critical moment.
Or perhaps more importantly… his Echo gives me two additional ways to reach out and contact him using the Amazon Alexa app on my iPhone.
When I call his Amazon Echo with my Alexa app…
The Echo immediately starts to glow and ring loudly. Then, all he has to do is say “Alexa… Answer.”
He also doesn’t have to get up to answer my call if his iPhone isn’t in his pocket.
(He moves pretty slowly.)
But the second way for me to connect with him is the real game changer…
It’s the “Drop In” feature, which essentially turns my iPhone and his Echo into a walkie talkie system.
A tone on the Echo announces that ‘hailing frequencies are open.’ Then, when I start talking, the Echo projects my voice throughout my dad’s apartment and I can hear his response.
(He doesn’t have to tell Alexa to do anything.)
Of course, for this to work, he needs to be at home and within earshot.
Yes, it may feel intrusive and a bit big brother-like that I can drop in at any given moment. But for an aging parent who is living on his or her own, I don’t think this is such a bad thing… at all.
In fact, it’s great.
New Connections for the Long Term
I’ve already found our new technology-infused interface quite useful, although the Echo doesn’t replace the clarity of a cell-to-cell connection. So, his iPhone isn’t going out of style any time soon.
But the fact that I suddenly have these new methods to remotely reach him is amazing.
(Whether he develops a long-term relationship with Alexa is almost beside the point.)
“Hey Siri” and “OK Google”
So, I know that Alexa isn’t the only game in town. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Siri on the Apple HomePod or Google Assistant using Google Home. I’m sure my father would enjoy using these speakers just as much as Alexa.
Either way, introducing a digital voice assistant via a smart speaker into my father’s apartment has immediately had a positive effect on his life (and mine, as well).
The Conversation Continues
No, Alexa isn’t a real person. And my father still needs to navigate the challenges of living alone at 86 years old. But now, he has something to talk to 24/7 which responds to him using AI in a friendly, human voice.
And Alexa is only getting smarter. What will she be like in only a few more years?
(We’ll be talking with her.)
Futurists have been talking about this for a long time, and my father and I have only just entered the first chapter of the story.
It’s not science fiction… anymore.
If you’ve got an aging parent living alone, you should really consider introducing a new ‘friend,’ like Alexa.