As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the country, our day-to-day lives continue to be drastically altered. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in fact, recommends that older adults stay home as much as possible due to the virus’ high fatality rate for people aged 60 or more years. The result: older adults living in senior living communities may be even more restricted, and those living on their own largely are isolated in their homes and advised to keep physical contact with other people to a minimum.

Abrupt changes to daily life

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently directed nursing homes to restrict communal meals, group activities and prohibit guests — even family members — from visiting. Many senior living communities are using this advice as a guideline even if they do not receive federal funds, and most states have their own mandates.

The isolation can make communication, access to timely information and a sense of independence more difficult for many older adults, especially for those who aren’t used to turning to technology for help.

The power — and potential — of voice-first technology

Speech is the fastest and most natural way for people to interact. In many instances, people would prefer to talk rather than type, swipe or click when interacting with technology. Indeed, anyone who has watched someone struggle to navigate a smartphone might completely dismiss the idea of them being able to use a smart speaker. Once things are connected, however, voice assistants are extremely simple to use.

Adoption rapidly is expanding among older adults

We often equate early technology adoption with the young, but recent studies have pointed to a rapid growth in adoption among older adults as well.

  • AARP’s “2019 Tech and the 50+ Survey” found that adoption in adults aged 50 or more years almost doubled in one year, from 7% in 2017 to 13% in 2018.
  • In January 2019, reported that 20.1% of adults aged 60 or more years own a smart speaker and of those, 46.6% are daily users.
  • The Pew Research Center reported as early as 2017 that 37% of U.S. voice assistant users were aged 50 or more years.

What does all of this mean? Instead of humans learning “computer code” — whether it be navigating an app, website or program — computers are learning our language, and older adults stand to gain great benefits from voice-first assistance.

Top three benefits older adults receive from voice-first technology

Three of the top reasons that older adults could benefit from voice-first assistants are that they provide an easy means of communication with family and necessary providers, instant access to services and information, and are empowering, helping older adults maintain independence.

1. Easy communication

Communication is perhaps the most important thing for older adults during periods of social distancing. This is not only essential for their physical health — being able to contact a health professional — but also for their mental health through keeping in touch with loved ones, accessing services and information and maintaining their independence as much as possible.

Voice assistants function well as a speaker phone when older adults chat with family and friends. These smart speakers can make voice calls. It’s a lot simpler, in fact, than some smartphone touchscreens. Also, although most smart speakers cannot call 911, they can call any other phone number. So in the event that someone needs help but cannot get to the phone, this capability can be a lifeline.

CMS recently expanded its telemedicine coverage (including relaxing patient health information confidentiality rules), and the agency continues to urge older adults to take advantage of this program to keep social distancing. Telemedicine services allow people to virtually consult with their doctors and other health professionals, reducing the need to seek medical attention in person and opening up a safe channel for many older adults to connect and still get the medical advice and care they need, without leaving their senior living community or wherever they call home.

2. Instant access to information

Voice-first assistants can provide immediate access to information that older adults find useful and relevant to their daily lives, another likely reason adoption of technologic tools continues to rise among this age group. For example, in 2018, Virgin Trains, a British transportation company, launched an Alexa skill that allowed customers to book rides. The average booking time decreased from seven minutes to two minutes. Likewise, in a recent article, Tomasz Woźniak argued that voice results in general are much faster than the average website (0.54 seconds versus 2.10 seconds).

We also speak faster than we type, so using voice generally is more efficient. Typical speech is 140 words per minute on average, whereas typing is 40 wpm and texting is 24 wpm. Couple that with the current accuracy rates — Alexa’s accuracy is on par with human accuracy (approximately 95% accurate) — and voice-first technology is poised to be the largest disruptor in recent history.

3. Empowerment

Voice-first technology can enhance the user’s experience because it is hands- and eyes-free. Older adults experiencing isolation or with vision impairments, mobility issues, illness or other physical difficulties can remain more independent with the assistance of voice-first technology. A recent industry consumer study reported that 51% of those 55 or older said a top reason for using their voice-activated speaker is “it empowers me to instantly get answers and information.”

According to the CDC National Health Interview Survey, 16% of adults aged 65 or more years have vision trouble, and 35% of the same age range have difficulties in physical functioning. What’s more, these percentages gradually have increased every year of the survey. For these individuals especially, voice-first technology can reduce or eliminate the barriers created by small touch screens, keyboard awkwardness and even television or phone placement or usability. Being able to communicate hands- and vision-free, even from a distance, without having to move can provide a remarkable quality of life benefit and empower individuals who have relied on others to regain some of their independence.

Older adults are embracing voice-first technology at a rapid pace. Such technology has the potential to disrupt traditional service models by making the experience simpler, faster and more personalized. Older adults also can benefit from this technology, because it can empower them to remain more independent, especially when isolated or required to maintain social distancing. There is no question that voice-first technology is a key to the future of connectivity for older adults as well as an essential enabler of functions of daily life.

Updated biographic information, January 2023: Jason Gottschalk is the founder of Vibrant Aging, a company devoted to helping older adults age well. Prior to Vibrant Aging, he co-founded a technology company that developed voice-first technology for seniors and was the executive director of a large life plan community in suburban Washington, DC.