‘Elderly Alexa’ helps families care for their remote loved ones via voice

Last night on Saturday Night Live, a spoof advertisement for an “Alexa Silver” poked gentle fun at how an Alexa speaker could be used with the elderly to do things like listen to their long, rambling stories (and respond with “uh-huh”), as well as answer questions even when addressed as “Alaina,” “Allegra,” “Aretha,” or other names.

But using an Alexa device with senior citizens is actually a good idea — as a hack at today’s TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017 hackathon displayed.

The hack’s creator, Brett Krutiansky, a computer science student at Northeastern in Boston, says he came up with the idea for “Elderly Alexa” because both of his grandparents need additional care. His grandfather suffers from dementia and his grandmother has trouble seeing, and both have vertigo.

His mother is continually worried and stressed about her parents’ well-being — sometimes frantically calling neighbors when she can’t reach them at home. Krutiansky says he’s offering his hack as a Mother’s Day gift to help ease her mind.

The voice app he built — or “Alexa Skill,” in Amazon’s lingo — is enabled on an Echo speaker, offering an interface between families and their loved ones who need extra care.

Through “Elderly Alexa,” the elderly can ask Alexa what medicine they need to take and what they’ve already taken by saying “Alexa, medicine.” This also triggers an AWS Lambda event that emails their family members tracking their care.

Alexa will respond to users’ questions about medication by telling them the name of the medication they need to take, dosage and time of day it needs to be taken.

She will then ask if they had already taken the medication. Whether the user answers “yes” or “no,” an email is sent to the family member tracking their care.

In addition, the family member can send back the next item on their to-do list in an accompanying iOS app or call them to remind them about their medication. The idea is that, if this daily email doesn’t arrive, the family member will know something could be wrong and can network with others in a group chat room to discuss. For instance, a family could decide who’s driving over that day to check in on mom or dad.

Of course, Krutiansky notes, the Alexa Skill could be used with anyone needing additional care — not just the elderly.

The project was built using the following technologies: AWS (DynamoDB, Lambda & SES), Node JavaScript for the Alexa code, Swift for the iOS app and PubNub APIs for the chat room.

Following the hackathon, Krutiansky says he will work to make the chat system more user-friendly, will improve the push notification system and will introduce reminders for the list in the iOS app so care providers can also remember what they need to do.

In the future, he also wants to add functionality to remind grandparents about other things they need to do, as well.

“Sometimes, my grandfather [who has dementia] forgets to shower,” he says. “My mom wants to know he’s been in the shower that day.” Alexa could later remind him about this, along with his medications.

While there have been other devices that have been designed for elderly care in particular, Krutiansky believes the ubiquity and cost of Echo speakers is an advantage.

“I’ve seen that one,” he says, referring to the Intuition Robotics speaker, for example. “But it’s a couple hundred dollars versus $50,” he said pointing to the Echo Dot.

Krutiansky plans to publish it to the Alexa Skill Store so his mother can use it soon.