Alexa, Please Call My Parents
Alexa Care Hub promises support for caregivers separated by miles and COVID-19
Sylvie Radunz, 67, of Machesney Park, Ill., hasn't seen her daughter in person in more than a year — and probably won't see her again until the COVID-19 pandemic ends. "Both my husband and I have health issues that create mobility limitations; we live thousands of miles from our daughter and her family. This, along with the quarantine created by COVID-19, makes us feel isolated and vulnerable," she says.
Fortunately, Radunz's daughter, Erika Slussar, 35, is an accounting manager at Amazon's Seattle headquarters, and the women had the opportunity to beta-test a new service called Care Hub last year. The service, which debuted in November 2020, turns Amazon's popular virtual assistant into a lifeline connecting older adults with their remote caregivers.
(Google Home and Apple HomePod also offer virtual assistants with varying capabilities.)
Care Hub Defined
The Alexa team at Amazon had often heard from older customers for whom Alexa had become a trusted companion, says Nicolas Maynard, senior manager, Alexa for Everyone. Personal experience told them the service could do a lot more than play music, share the weather forecast and tell jokes.
"It doesn't replace seeing them in person, but it has been a tremendous relief during a time where I can't be there."
"Care Hub has long been a passion project for many of us on the Alexa team since we can all personally identify with it. We all have older relatives we care about, and in a lot of cases these are relatives who live alone who we cannot check in with as often as we would like," Maynard says. "We've all heard stories of how people are helping to take remote care of their parents or loved ones no matter if they're on the other side of the country or even the other side of the same city."
Care Hub is free to all U.S. customers if the older adult has an Alexa device like the Echo smart speaker or the Echo Show smart display (Amazon suggests the latter) and the caregiver has the Alexa phone app. Also, each person must have a separate Amazon account. (Currently, only one caregiver can be designated per person.)
Checking Up and Checking In
Care Hub allows caregivers to both check up on and check in with their loved ones without placing a call or getting in the car. Here's how those features work:
On the checking-up side, caregivers can see activity alerts and an activity feed in their Alexa app. "Care alerts give family members peace of mind by letting them know when their loved one is up and going about their day or if they haven't yet interacted with their devices by a certain time each day," says Farah Shariff, principal product manager for Alexa. "The activity feed gives caregivers reassurance without compromising their loved one's privacy."
For example, the feed would let you know your father has been using Alexa for entertainment without revealing the specific song or podcast he was hearing. (In other words, Dad won't have to worry that you'll discover he's been listening to thrash metal or Swedish synthpop on Spotify.)
On the checking-in side, caregivers can use Drop In, a sort of high-tech intercom feature, to talk with their loved ones as if they're in the same house. They can also initiate voice or video calls (depending on which type of Alexa device the older adult has).
Suman Kamath, 40, a senior program manager at Amazon, likes being able to reach her mother, Rita Mishra, 71, who lives in Durham, N.C., even if Mishra's phone isn't charged or isn't close by.
"We like to use the Drop In feature with video to check in with each other," Kamath says. "I use my Alexa app and video to drop in on my mom along with my dog, Toby. Mom will answer from her Echo Show, and she is happy to see Toby and me via video."
Since communication works both ways, older adults can reach out to their children without becoming a nuisance, too.
"With their busy work schedules, I feel comfortable leaving messages for them that are not going to interfere with their day," Radunz says. "When they reach out to us, seeing their faces, along with that of our grandchild, is such a morale booster."
"The Care Hub will also help family members stay connected in times of distress, as it can set the person providing support as the loved one's emergency contact," Shariff says. "Once set up, the loved one can say, 'Alexa, call for help,' and Alexa will call the family member and send a push notification to their mobile phone as well as send a text message alerting them that their loved one needs help."
"Just knowing that I'm a shout away from speaking with anyone for any reason is very reassuring and comforting."
Mishra finds that feature especially comforting. "Since I live alone, it's reassuring to know even if I am laid up or unable to get to the phone, I can make a call to my daughter," she says. (Plus, "Alexa, call for help" sounds more dignified than "I've fallen and I can't get up.")
Set Up and Privacy
Of course, the best technology is worthless if it's impossible to configure. Fortunately, Care Hub setup is pretty simple. Says Shariff: "Customers first create a connection between their two Alexa accounts, with the loved one sending an invitation to their family member. Once their family member has accepted the invitation, a connection is established — the person receiving support doesn't need to do anything else." (Detailed instructions are available on the Amazon website, as is a guide for setting up an Echo Show remotely.)
As for privacy, a concern often raised about Alexa and other virtual assistants, Shariff says, "The loved one's privacy and control is foundational to the experience." In addition to only providing high-level information in the activity feed, the service lets users review and delete recordings of their interactions with Alexa.
Now that Care Hub is up and running, Maynard says the Alexa team is already thinking about improvements.
"We're always looking for ways to make interacting with Alexa simpler, more natural and at times proactive," Maynard says. "Those same ideas will apply to the Care Hub as well, as we continue to listen to feedback from our customers and add more features and capabilities over time."
For older adults like Radunz, long-distance calls are no longer the next best thing to being there (as Bell System ads once declared). "Just knowing that I am a shout away from speaking with anyone for any reason is very reassuring and comforting," she says. "Not needing my phone to get assistance is a lifesaver, literally."