By Jimmy Magahern
The first thing Francine Hardaway does every day when the alarm on her iPhone wakes her is to summon the robots scattered throughout her house.
It starts with her addressing the Echo Dot in her bedroom, a hands-free, voice-controlled device that interacts with Alexa, the artificial intelligence equipped “personal assistant” developed by Amazon that can control a number of other wireless devices as well as deliver information and services on the Internet.
“I have the Echo Dot in my bedroom, and when the alarm on my phone goes off, I immediately say, ‘Alexa, turn the lights on,’ and I have a couple of smart bulbs in my bedroom and Alexa turns those on,” Hardaway says. “Then after I get dressed and get ready to take the dogs out for a walk, I say, ‘Alexa, tell Starbucks to start my order.’ And if you place the same order at the same Starbucks every day – which I do – it will order it for you and your coffee will be waiting for you when you get there to pick it up.”
It may sound like the jacked-in lifestyle of a Silicon Valley whiz kid, but Hardaway is actually a grandmother living in an older neighborhood of Phoenix who turns 76 this month.
Nevertheless, Hardaway is easily more tech-savvy than many Millennials, running her own consulting firm for startup entrepreneurs in a house packed with all the latest gadgetry, from Google Glass and Snapchat Spectacles to Sonos smart speakers, a Ring video doorbell and at least three brands of virtual reality headsets. “I still haven’t found the best one,” she laments.
Interestingly, Hardaway says that a lot of the new technologies being developed today – especially those devices and services designed for the so-called “smart home” – seem almost custom-made to serve her age group.
“Voice-controlled devices are unbelievably useful for older people,” she says, noting that Internet-connected, voice-activated devices like Amazon’s Echo or Google Home can perform many of the elder services previously relegated to a caregiver or family member, like providing medication reminders and scheduling appointments, ordering groceries to be delivered and summoning transportation. “It’ll even read to you,” says Hardaway, who enjoys having her digital assistant play audio books purchased on Audible. “If your vision’s not what it was, you can have it read you the news in the morning.”
Better yet, a forgetful grandmother can ask repeated questions of Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana that might otherwise exasperate an impatient grandchild – a particular godsend to people suffering with dementia. “It never tires,” Hardaway says. “You can ask Alexa endlessly.”
Hardaway also points to smart phone controlled “sharing economy” services like Uber and Instacart, the Internet based grocery delivery service, that make life infinitely easier for older adults who no longer drive independently – a growing population that inevitably will also benefit most from the coming wave of self-driving or semi-autonomous cars.
“You can get everything delivered to your house nowadays just by using an app on your phone,” she says. “Instacart now works with every store from Safeway, Fry’s and Bashas’ to Target, Petco and Total Wine.
“But it’s not really marketed to older people; it’s marketed to busy young professionals,” she adds. “Same thing with Postmates, which is a delivery service that works like Uber. They’re targeting young working people who don’t have time to drive around doing their shopping. But it just so happens these services are great for older folks.”
Ironically, Hardaway says, she consciously avoids tech products and services that are intentionally designed for the older demographic.
“I don’t like the kind of tech that is usually sold to older people, because it’s usually designed with the presumption that we know nothing about tech,” she says. “I don’t like tech products that dumb things down for older people. Don’t give me special tablets with larger buttons and simpler apps. Just give me a real iPad and show me how to use it. I fully believe in teaching older people to use the available tech that’s already out there.”
That’s also the guiding philosophy behind Tucson Adult Learning Adventures, a program run out of the Tucson AARP office by five retired techies who offer free one-on-one training to older adults on all the latest mobile devices.
“We basically help them figure out the devices their grandkids talked them into carrying around,” says Warren Beneville, 73, a former avionics technician whose lifelong fascination with electronic gadgets has helped him keep pace with the new technology. “A lot of them come in because they want to learn how to text message their kids, or find out how to get started on Facebook.”
The problem is, while much of today’s tech may truly benefit older adults, learning how to use it – and overcoming the many legitimate fears they may have about Internet privacy, the cloud and other facets of tech immersion – can be a real barrier for many. According to Beneville, older folks can easily become stymied by tech, principally because the culture surrounding it offers few entry points for newbies.
“People will come in with a tablet or a smartphone that they haven’t even opened, because they really don’t get any instruction in the stores,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘They just gave it to me in a box.’”
Often their own tech-savvy adult children or grandchildren will be of little assistance. “We get people who say, ‘You know, I just can’t learn a thing from my daughter. She gets uptight with me.’ And then the grandkid comes along and says, ‘Here, give me that, Grandma!’’ – and does in a minute what you’ve been trying to learn all day, then gives the phone back, saying, ‘Here you go!’”
That’s where the one-on one, peer-directed lessons can provide patient and understanding support.
“I start by just going around the perimeter of the phone or the tablet first, showing them where their camera is, where their microphone is,” Beneville says. “Some of them have trouble just powering it on, because they hold the button too long and end up rebooting the whole thing! Some even have trouble using a touch screen because they’re used to using a flip phone with buttons that you could actually feel.”
Once they’re finally comfortable exploring new technologies, though, Hardaway promises there’s a wide array of amazing devices, software and Internet dispatchable services just waiting to make life better for older adults. According to a recent AARP report on what it terms the “Longevity Economy,” we’re not too far away from the day when sensors embedded in “smart toilets” will be able to measure our glucose levels and automatically communicate back to our refrigerators, providing what the report’s authors call “a feedback loop of nutritional adjustments and suggestions.” Such innovations will help the millions of older adults determined to age in place.
“It’s hard for me to count all the ways I interact with technology since it permeates my world,” Hardaway says. “While I’m walking the dogs, as Starbucks is brewing the coffee ordered by Alexa, my Apple Watch is tracking my heart rate while I’m also listening to a book on Audible. Then I’m FaceTiming with my daughter and grandchild in London, next I’m sitting at my computer ordering groceries for the week on Instacart, maybe having some wine delivered. So my life is layered with technology. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d be able to function right now if all these technologies didn’t exist.
“They give me back so much time in the day, which gives me more time to get work done,” she adds. “And at this age, that’s really huge.”