Photo: Flickr/Creative Common, www.vpnsrus.com.

As winter 2017 was approaching, John Hamblin decided to head south to Arizona. The Halifax entrepreneur expected to breathe a little easier in the dry, desert heat and spend well-earned down time relaxing in the blazing sun. Instead, he found himself actively reaching out to technology companies with an idea for reducing social isolation and making life a little easier for older Canadians living independently.

Hamblin’s idea started with a trip to the local mall where he purchased a Google Home device. The head of Startup Canada-Halifax and Aging 2.0-Halifax thought he’d use the voice-based system to check the weather, chill out to music and get answers to the odd, nagging question. Hamblin quickly realized, however, that the potential for Google Home to help older individuals was significant – and virtually untapped.

Photo: Google Home.

“There is a growing realization of the extra value this [technology] provides to seniors. It allows seniors to do what they would not do otherwise,” says Hamblin.

He notes that more than 90 percent of older Canadians want to stay in their homes for as long as possible and to live self-reliantly. Vision problems and issues with dexterity can make this wish list more challenging. For many people, there is also a reluctance to go out in winter on icy roads and sidewalks.

“There is a growing realization of the extra value this [technology] provides
to seniors.”

Working with Google, Hamblin launched a pilot program in Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia, to assess the impact the tech company’s device could have on individuals living on their own, removed from family, and dealing with a disability. More than 30 participants ranging in age from 65 to 86 were recruited. Each participant also had at least one trusted contact to test communications with key family members, friends and caregivers.

The impact of the system was noteworthy, says Hamblin. “For some people, this was life-changing.”

Participants were provided with a device, compliments of Google, and given instructions on how to use it. The system has 3,000 features, but the focus of this project was on using voice commands to send and receive information, data and services. This included tuning in to news from the Internet, listening to a favourite radio station, and getting daily reminders to take medication. They system was also set up so users could dictate messages to caregivers, friends and family members, who received them as texts.

Google was so intrigued by the possibilities for its smart device to make life easier and more enjoyable for older individuals it sent a six-person video team from New York to document the initiative. The team spent a week in Cape Breton meeting with participants there to better understand how they were using Google Home and how this was changing their lives. Now in production, a 15-minute documentary and shorter snips will be unveiled later this year.

Results of the pilot project were more-than encouraging. “Some consider the Google Home device their friend,” notes Hamblin. “They say ‘Hello’ in the morning.” In a survey, 28 of the 30 participants stated that if the device was removed from their home, they would go out and purchase one. “Acceptance has been huge,” he notes.

Plans for Phase 2 of the project are now under way. This, notes Hamblin, will involve linking Google Home to other systems to do such things as turn up the thermostat and to see who is at the front door.

Systems check

Home voice-based systems provide huge advantages for older Canadians over other technologies, says John Hamblin, head of Aging 2.0-Halifax. The benefits include:

  • Ease of use. There is no need for the always-annoying downloads and upgrades.
  • Bottom line. Devices like Google Home and Google Mini are relatively inexpensive.
  • Options abound. Available content is growing every day – and it is both useful and entertaining.
  • Comfort level. Using your voice is a natural way of communicating for most people.
  • Under control. Smart systems allow you to control a wide variety of home devices including thermostats, lights, and door locks.