Teaching Older Adults in Affordable Apartment Communities to Use Amazon Echo Devices  


    Five ways technology improves lives of older people with low incomes

    Dayton, OH – St. Mary Development and Trillnovo have released a technology case study that shares findings from their work installing free Wi-Fi and Amazon Echo devices in several of St. Mary’s affordable apartment communities for older people. The program to provide residents with Echos and Wi-Fi was a result of the 2019 St. Mary Development report, Technology Ownership and Usage Among Seniors in Affordable Housing Communities, which identified learning obstacles and affordability as limiting factors to seniors adopting technology.


    “By sharing our experience and what we’ve learned, we hope other organizations that serve older adults can more easily and successfully equip their communities with technologies like Echos and other smart devices,” said St. Mary president Tim Bete. “These technologies are becoming so affordable; an Echo device is as little as $30 and has the potential to provide simple yet astounding life enhancements for older people, especially those with lower incomes.”


    The project, which was funded by donations from foundations and individual supporters, began with installing Wi-Fi in four St. Mary’s affordable senior apartment communities and giving participating residents free Amazon Echo devices. Trillnovo then led one-on-one training with each resident, teaching them how to set up their devices and use basic features. Residents who were comfortable and experienced with technology learned more advanced functionalities.


    “The largest barriers to low-income older adults using technology are cost and ease of use,” said Trace Curry, a technology consultant with Trillnovo. “Echos are so simple to use and can really enhance the lives of users, which is great for seniors who don’t have a lot of technology experience. Many residents had never had regular internet access.”


    The program identified five key factors that improved resident quality of life.

    1. Medication and medical appointment reminders were a popular feature for residents. Medication management is often complicated and confusing for residents, especially when new medications are added or removed. Reminders, especially for residents who live alone, are extremely helpful.
    2. Using Alexa to connect with loved ones was important, especially for those with limited cell phone plans and no landline phone. When residents run out of phone minutes at the end of a month, they can feel stranded until new minutes are added. Alexa provided a lifeline and minimized social isolation.
    3. Entertainment including streaming music and audiobooks were a significant motivator in residents deciding to try the new technology. Many residents were in awe that they could ask Alexa to play a genre of music and immediately hear it.
    4. The new technology fostered personal relationships and a greater sense of community within each apartment building as residents talked with each other about how they were using technology. In some cases, residents linked their Echo devices, allowing them to check in on each other more easily.
    5. The confidence of residents increased as they learned something new about which they had been hesitant. Some residents expressed interest in learning other technologies after learning Alexa. One reason for using a voice-activated device was that there was less for residents to learn. For residents, it appeared easier than a tablet or computer to use and it allowed those with limited dexterity or low vision an opportunity to access the internet with ease. 

    “One-on-one training was extremely effective in getting hesitant older residents to try an Echo device,” said Curry, who personally conducted the training. “Follow-up training was an important success factor for adoption of Echo devices, too, as residents sometimes forget things if they don't regularly use them.”


    Residents encountered some issues learning and accepting the new technology. Some residents thought the Echo device was “spying” or “listening in” on their life. This is one reason the program was voluntary. But as residents shared their success stories with other residents, previously hesitant residents often came forward and asked to participate. Bete credits Curry for the excitement.


    “Trace took the time to get to know residents and how the technology could personally benefit them,” said Bete. “The trust he built paid off with increased interest among our residents. Trace has become an important part of our team.”


    Another issue was Alexa sometimes had difficulty understanding a resident’s voice. Plus, Alexa can sometimes speak too quickly, leaving residents unsure of what was said. Often these issues were overcome through practice and increased training, but some residents would do better with a visual device than a voice-activated one.


    St. Mary’s funding for the free Wi-Fi, devices and training was provided by: Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative, HealthPath Foundation of Ohio, Huntington Digital Inclusion Fund, Kettering Family Philanthropies, The Louise Kramer Foundation, NeighborWorks Digital Divide Grant, Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing, Ohio Capital Impact Corporation, OHMAS Faith-based Community Stigma Reduction Expansion Initiative, and The Richard and Jacqueline Siefring Foundation

    St. Mary is currently testing digital signage within its affordable apartment communities and will create a white paper on that project in the future.


    For interview requests or more information, contact Cathy Campbell, VP of Strategic Partnerships for St. Mary Development at ccampbell@smdcd.org or (937) 277-8149, ext. 208.

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