Stelios Zygouris headshot
Stelios Zygouris

Lately, everyone is talking about artificial intelligence, or AI, and how it will transform our lives.

Self-driving cars, algorithms that analyze our health data to provide personalized medicine and diet, and even the predictive text algorithm that suggests how I should conclude this sentence based on my writing habits, are all part of our lives.

There is, however, an aspect of AI that is even more integral to our lives but often is overlooked when discussing the wonders of the AI age. I am talking about the humble virtual assistant, which can bear many different names depending on its commercial affiliation but always responds to our voice to make last minute orders of groceries, set the thermostat or place a call to a friend.

Virtual assistants on mobile phones and in our lives

Virtual assistants make our life easier but, even more importantly, they allow us to continue doing our favorite activities and stay connected to an increasingly digital society as we age.

For years, technology presented users with interfaces that were counterintuitive and removed from natural human communication. The advent of tablets and smartphones and the proliferation of touch-screen devices, along with advances in interface design, made technology more accessible to users that are not tech-savvy.

Still, learning to use even the most user-friendly devices sometimes can be difficult, time-consuming or just plain boring for older adults who may be unfamiliar with them. That’s where a virtual assistant shines, as it effectively becomes the user interface of any connected device or service. All the user has to do is talk.

Being able to talk to our computers does not only fulfill one of sci-fi’s most common predictions but has many practical advantages as well. Obviously, it frees our hands so we can walk on the treadmill or bake a cake as we select a movie to watch. More importantly, it frees us from our reliance on our hands and eyes. Parkinson’s disease can’t stop us from typing a text, and poor eyesight won’t stop us from reading a text (or from having the virtual assistant read the text to us).

Growing old with a virtual assistant

As we age, our body and mind can decline, and this decline can make us do less of the things we love. Things such as cooking our favorite dish or planning a movie night may be easy when we’re young and healthy and our mind is working in full capacity.

Nevertheless, if we break them down to individual tasks and actions, we can see that they involve a lot of planning, attention and coordination. When the joy of a favorite activity is overshadowed by its complexity, then we tend to abandon it to focus on more basic aspects of our daily life. If making breakfast is already difficult, then planning a movie night with our friends may be overwhelming.

That’s where a virtual assistant can really shine. If we have the virtual assistant text our friends, suggest some of their favorite movies and order the groceries needed for movie snacks then it all becomes so easy we could do all the planning and preparation while making breakfast.

The ability of a virtual assistant to take over boring and tiresome tasks and remind us of things we want to do can help in all aspects of our life. Virtual assistants can remind us when to take our medication, water the plants and take the trash out for collection. Apart from making our life easier, such reminders keep us safe and allow us to relax and not stress about forgetting important things.

Communicating with friends and family is easier, as the assistant can write an email or text message that we dictate to them, call a friend or schedule a call with a family member at a time that suits them.

Our assistant also can help us navigate the abundance of information on the internet by presenting us the news items that interest us, suggesting books we may like and answering our questions. They also can allow us to control connected devices, so setting the thermostat or switching on the patio lights could be done as easily as it’s said.

Making the virtual assistant work for you

Much can be said about the advantages of using a virtual assistant to enable us to stay active and engaged with our favorite activities, our friends and our family. The old adage “an active mind is a healthy mind” may be cliche and often overused, but it holds true. We need to stay active as we age because it affects our physical, cognitive and mental health. And having a virtual assistant take over the boring aspects of our daily life and enable us to do the things we enjoy can keep us healthy, sharp and happy.

We should remember, though, that virtual assistants, as the name implies, are just assistants. They don’t run our life or set our schedule. They exist to enable us to live the life we want by taking over boring tasks so we can focus on what we enjoy and is important to us.

As with all consumer technology, their functionality covers the needs of a broad spectrum of users and each person will use different features with different frequency. And since AI assistants are specifically designed to adapt to our needs, there is no reason for us to use them in any specific way or try to adapt to them. The challenge is finding where we need help and how they can help and support us in a way that makes sense for us and our lifestyle.

Obviously, as with all technological solutions, virtual assistants may not appeal to everybody. People may prefer to use technology in more standard ways and they may rely on family and friends for help in everyday tasks. Or perhaps they don’t want to have a conversation with their computer.

The purpose of this article is not to convince every reader to use a virtual assistant, but I do hope that the information has piqued your interest in them. And, if you find it boring or irrelevant to you, you always can ask your virtual assistant to read you another article.

What can I do?

  • Assisted living and nursing home owners or managers can analyze the needs of their facilities and residents and promote the use of virtual assistants to enable residents to remain more active and connected with their loved ones. Research possible privacy and security implications for the facility and individual residents.
  • Older adults can think about aspects of daily life where they could use some assistance and aspects of technology they would enjoy if the interface of digital devices was more user-friendly. Older adults also can ask friends and family members to help them learn to use a virtual assistant and set up related devices.
  • Relatives of older adults can talk with their loved ones about virtual assistants and how they can help them accomplish everyday tasks, enjoy favorite pastimes and connect with friends and family. Family members also can assist older adults set up connected devices and inform them about proper use and privacy.

Stelios Zygouris is a neuropsychologist specializing in cognitive aging, dementia and new technologies. His work focuses on computerized cognitive testing and the use of serious games for the detection of pre-clinical cognitive decline in older adults. He is a senior Atlantic fellow at the Global Brain Health Institute and maintains ongoing collaboration with the University of California, San Francisco, Memory and Aging Center. Stelios is a scientific adviser and core team member of Map of Care.

Map of Care is a web platform focused on the senior care sector (assisted living and memory care communities and nursing homes). It offers independent, real-time information on senior living communities and provides a direct contact opportunity between families and facility owners, with no intermediaries and no referral fees. Families have the opportunity to select the most suitable option based on their needs and preferences (location, prices, vacancies, payment options).

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living marketplace column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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