Man preparing meal using smart speaker.

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Voice-activated technology can reduce loneliness among senior living residents and help with the design of “gerontechnology” aimed at older adults, according to the results of a University of Nebraska-Lincoln demonstration project.

The pilot study of 16 adults aged 75 or more years and living alone in an independent living community used an Amazon Echo device for eight weeks. The goal of the research was to understand the influence of personal voice assistants on loneliness reduction in older adults. The study found that independent living residents using the voice-activated devices reported feeling less lonely after four weeks. 

Although information and communication technologies — such as tablets and smartphones — can increase opportunities for social interaction, they are restrictive to those with poor eyesight, have difficulty typing or are unfamiliar with the technology, according to the investigators. Personal voice assistant devices, however, are viewed as more affordable and accessible, with voice growing as the predominant means of device interaction among older adults, they said. The researchers noted that personal voice assistants feature an interactive artificial intelligence that can respond or chat with users. 

“Adaptability, usefulness, enjoyment, sociability, perceived behavioral control and companionship are the variables that most indicate human acceptance of social robots, and [personal voice assistants] are designed to exhibit all of these characteristics,” they wrote. 

Over the course of the research, residents assigned human qualities to the Echo, a tendency known as anthropomorphism. Residents, for example, greeted the Echo with friendly phrases, addressed the device in the second person, used polite language and reacted to responses from the devices.

During the study, participants were required to interact with the device at least five times each day, choosing commands from a provided list of 100 of them. Starting at week five, participants were allowed to use the device as much or as little as they wished. Participants reported an average of 18 daily interactions with the device in the first four weeks and an average of 10 daily interactions in the second half of the study. 

The pilot provided preliminary evidence that a personal voice assistant can be used regularly by older individuals and may help reduce perceptions of loneliness. The findings, the researchers said, show the opportunity for participants to exercise control over and individualize the experience and can help inform the design of future technological innovations.

Study results were published in Frontiers in Public Health.

Atria Senior Living taps Alexa

Meanwhile, citing the ability for virtual assistants to provide companionship and increase social interaction in senior living communities, Atria Senior Living announced Friday that it is installing Amazon Echo Shows at its new Coterie Cathedral Hill luxury senior living community in San Francisco.

When the independent living, assisted living and memory care community opens this spring, residents will be able to use the devices to adjust lights, blinds and thermostats; make phone and video calls; message staff and neighbors; and call up dining menus and event calendars.

Atria said it also will use the devices for safety measures, including as a supplement to its emergency call system.

The devices will be installed at selected Atria and Coterie — a joint venture with Related Companies and Atria — communities throughout this year and beyond. Atria Chief Technology Officer Chris Nall called the move a “game-changer in senior living.”