Tech Startups Are Programming Voice Assistants To Aid the Elderly, Disabled

Jul 25, 2019

Derek Holt, President of K4Connect and Davis Park, Front Porch Executive Director of the Center for Innovation and Wellbeing
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

Statistics from the US Census Bureau show massive growth in the senior population around the world, with that number expected to double by 2050.  In Japan, it’s possible that nearly forty percent of the population will be over the age of 65 in 30 years.  

“We just don’t have enough people to care for the older population,” said Derek Holt, president of K4Connect, a startup focusing on technology that empowers older adults and people living with disabilities.

Using Amazon Alexa, the company implemented a system of voice commands that not only makes life more convenient for residents at places such as retirement homes but clears some chores for caregivers already juggling multiple tasks.

“We wanted to teach Alexa about senior living,” Holt said.  “To not just control their smart home or call the front desk, but ask what events are today? Request maintenance, request food, understand what the daily specials are, call their neighbor.  A whole bunch of really interesting collaborative capability once we taught the technology about the context of senior living.” 

Holt says using smart speakers in senior communities has helped residents in ways that may seem like a novelty to others.

“A funny aside you wouldn’t know unless you spend a lot of time in senior living communities, the number one reason people call the front desk is ‘is the mail here?’  By a 3x number over all of the other reasons why they call the front desk,” he said.  “So, now they ask, ‘Alexa, is the mail here?’ and Alexa will tell them yes or no based on whether the mail has been delivered.”

Some non-profits have caught on to the potential that comes with voice activated technology.   Davis Park is the executive director of the Center for Innovation and Wellbeing at Front Porch, a Southern California non-profit provider of retirement living communities and affordable housing.  They created a pilot program used as a case study to judge the effectiveness of smart speakers among the elderly.  

“One of the things that one of our residents told us when she got involved in our smart home project was, ‘when you brought in the smart light bulb, this was the first time I was able to operate a lamp without asking my husband in ten years because I can turn it on and off with my own voice,” he said. 

Talking applications have been helpful from a physical standpoint in studied communities, but also had an impact on social isolation and loneliness.  

“What surprised us was that almost three-quarters, 71 percent of the response said that they felt more connected to their families, friends, and neighbors as a result of using this device and being a part of this project,” Park said.

More tech companies are developing voice apps with age in mind than ever before, as a large part of the world population approaches age 65.

“In terms of those who are five, and those that are over 65, for the very first time in human history we are at that crossroads.  There are going to be more of us in the 65 plus category and not enough of us to take care of those folks,” Park said.

And that’s where developers creating quality of life and healthcare voice applications believe they can step in.