One of the scourges of modern society is the lack of contact people have with each other. This is much more acute in the elderly population, those confined to their own homes and those who live their lives in care homes. For lonely older people, having someone to talk to can be a lifeline. Even, perhaps, if that someone is a computer.
It has been reported recently that Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant is being used to keep elderly and disabled people company in trials that could offer a way for them to stay in touch with the outside world.
Councils insist that Alexa will only ever be used on top of existing care. But campaigners have warned that computers must not be used as a replacement for human contact.
There is so much controversy surrounding the benefits of technology. It is often blamed for exacerbating the atomisation of society. Theresa May once said that “the warmth of human contact risks receding from our lives”. However, this does not appear to have much traction, when her government has singled out the potential of Alexa to help social care in plans published this week.
For those with a degree of skepticism it can be seen by some, that councils struggling with cuts, remote robot monitoring with the £89.99 devices could offer a way to keep care bills under control.
Hampshire county council began a trial of the Alexa technology this year in a pilot of 50 people with disabilities. Early results found 72 per cent said that it had improved their quality of life. Liz Fairhurst, the councilor responsible for social care, said some participants had described it as life changing. “We are keen to look at how we might use this technology . . . to support a wider range of people to live as independently as possible.”
Oxfordshire county council has started to install Amazon Echo speakers in the homes of elderly people. For older people unfamiliar with the internet, it is hoped that a voice-activated assistant will be a simpler way to find information online and keep in touch with relatives.
Ian Hudspeth, leader of the council, said that imaginative ways were needed to deal with isolated older people. “We are experimenting with Amazon Echo’s for older people to see if that provides some ability for them to communicate,” he said. “It’s a simple idea but if it gives the person that bit of respite from loneliness, isn’t that a good thing?”
He hopes that Alexa can also keep a virtual eye on hundreds at risk of falling over or slipping into illness.
Director of adults’ social care at Oxfordshire council Kate Terroni, says the council was especially keen to see how Alexa could support older people and help to connect them with their communities and to see how the technology can reduce loneliness and isolation. So far, Alexa has performed tasks for service users such as setting reminders, providing news updates and playing audiobooks, helping to give service users a greater sense of independence. At the halfway stage of the trial, Terroni says Alexa has had a greater effect than anyone at the council expected.
James Picket, of the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Alexa isn’t the same as a chat with a loved one. Human interaction is always the gold standard, but unfortunately there simply aren’t enough professional carers to provide the care that people with dementia need and deserve.”
The imitative taken by Hampshire and Oxford County Councils to trial Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant is to be commended. There appears to be emerging evidence that the voice-controlled technology can engage people and reduce loneliness and isolation.
As with all technology ‘Alexa’ should not be viewed as a panacea that will on its own rid society of its failure to engage with one another. It cannot and should not be a substitute for human contact. Those responsible for social care budgets and care providers must not see it as a replacement for caring staff. That said, and given the aforementioned safeguards, ‘Alexa’ can have the potential to bring some enjoyment and support to people who are isolated and lonely in their lives.
Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy