“Alexa, what’s the weather forecast for tomorrow?” “Siri, find a recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies – oh, and add raisins to my grocery list.” 

Twenty years ago these may have been questions posed to a friend or loved one sitting in the next room, but now most of us would recognize them as queries to two of the voice-activated virtual companions who are assisting people of all ages with wide-ranging aspects of life.

While the concept dates back to an experimental device invented by IBM in the 1960s, the first modern voice-activated virtual assistant, Apple’s Siri, came online as part of the iPhone 4S in 2011 and the first mass-market smart speaker – Amazon’s Echo, which operates Alexa – became available in 2014. As of January 2020, nearly 90 million Americans own a smart speaker, and nearly three-fourths of those who use voice-search technology such as Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and Cortana, report that it is now part of their daily routine. 

While the most common requests to Alexa are to set a timer (85% of users), play music (82%) or check out the news (66%), she is also called upon to assist with a wide variety of tasks such as shopping, monitoring home security, telling jokes and identifying the origins of movie quotes, to name just a few. Users of the technology also enjoy sharing ideas for unusual or humorous requests to pose to the ever-patient virtual assistant, such as posing the age-old tongue-in-cheek query, “Is your refrigerator running?” or asking her to share random facts about martial arts actor Chuck Norris. 

With all of these practical – and not-so-practical – applications, along with continual improvements to the tools, it’s no wonder that the popularity of voice search has been increasing among all age groups, including older adults; a recent study found that 34% of senior households with broadband internet are using a smart speaker or smart display. Voice-activated search and commands can also be accomplished via mobile devices, so for the ever-increasing number of seniors who own a smartphone – now up to 81% of those 60 to 69 and 62% of those 70 and older – this can offer an easy, hands-free way to summon up the latest news headlines, listen to an audiobook, find a favorite recipe and have it read aloud while cooking or baking, set medication reminders, search for a favorite movie or TV show, order groceries for delivery, set navigation to get around town or call for a ride-share, search for upcoming local activities and events such as those at the Elmhurst and Lombard park districts (and add them to the calendar), even activate a video chat or send a message to stay connected to family and friends (Siri, message Timmy – how did the spelling bee go this afternoon?) All of these activities are especially easy for residents of the Lexington Squares Senior Living Communities, where there is access to WiFi – and will soon be upgraded to high-speed internet with the option of private WiFi. 

While we may not be living in the classic television show The Jetsons just yet, voice activation has also added convenient modernization to many other everyday experiences. Remember the sound-activated clap-on, clap-off device that lit up the market in the 1980s? Now you can accomplish the same thing with your voice with smart light bulbs and outlets – no clapping necessary (though you may want to give yourself a round of applause for making your life easier!) A system called LifePod, which offers two-way voice-activated support for seniors via smart speaker, can be programmed to start the day with a well-being check, issue medication reminders, start a favorite show at a specified time, and more. Various tools and systems make it possible to adjust the temperature in your home, feed your pets, unlock your front door, create shopping lists, open and close your garage door, even vacuum or mop your floors, all with voice-activated technology. And starting a fresh pot of coffee brewing in the morning by just issuing the command, before even getting out of bed? Now that’s the stuff dreams are made of.  

Be sure to check out our next blog to learn more about apps and other technology that can help seniors stay active, safe and connected!

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