A Conversational Personal Assistant for Senior Users

A Conversational Personal Assistant for Senior Users

Deborah A. Dahl (Conversational Technologies, USA), Emmett Coin (ejTalk, Inc., USA), Michael Greene (newInteractions, Inc., USA) and Paulette Mandelbaum (newInteractions, Inc., USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-617-6.ch012
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Senior users could benefit from computer assistance in managing the details of everyday life and maintaining contact with friends and family; however, current computer interfaces can be difficult to use as a consequence of the physical, sensory, and cognitive changes that accompany aging. This chapter describe a multimodal application, which we have called Cassandra, that provides an extremely natural, conversational way for senior users to perform tasks like managing reminders or appointments, medication schedules, shopping lists, and phone calls. We discuss the implications of the characteristics of the target user population on the application design. In addition to describing the application, we will also discuss end user feedback.
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A long and healthy life is what we wish for ourselves and our loved ones. But we fear the consequences of aging. Beyond any specific infirmity, perhaps our greatest concern is that we will become increasingly vulnerable and dependent. In fact among seniors living independently, there is a greater fear of moving into a nursing home and losing one’s independence than of death (Prince Market Research, 2007). In the US 90% of those over 65 want to stay in their homes or move to another independent setting (Prince Market Research, 2007).

Many senior adults experience varying degrees of hearing loss, forgetfulness, problems with word retrieval, and slowing in some areas of intellectual functioning. Routine activities become increasingly difficult. The greater need for medical care adds another level of complexity that involves having to navigate the health system and manage medications. In fact, medication non-compliance, often a result of memory decline, is responsible for the deaths of more than 125,000 Americans each year (M-PILL, 2009). Perhaps less obvious is the challenge to one’s mental health with the combination of diminished physical mobility and cognitive challenges. This can contribute to a decrease in social interaction, withdrawal, and clinical depression (Ford & Ford, 2009).

Technology has the potential to make a significant impact in some of these areas. This chapter discusses a senior-friendly interface with a set of useful applications aimed at assisting users in managing the details of everyday life and maintaining social connections to friends and family.

We see the following benefits of this type of application:

  • 1.

    Decreasing social isolation for the many seniors whose mobility has become limited.

  • 2.

    Useful support in helping the elderly age at home.

  • 3.

    Delaying the need of some seniors to move into more managed settings.

  • 4.

    Greater access to seniors and a sense of the senior’s status for family members.

The ability to remain independent and age at home has benefits both for the senior who maintains a higher quality of life, to their family, and to society, by reducing some of the substantial costs associated with long-term care (assisted living care for a senior costs about $38,000 per year in the United States, not including medical expenses. Nursing home care is more than twice that amount) (MetLife Mature Market Institute, 2009).


Conversational Assistance

Everyday life is becoming increasingly complex for everyone and can become more difficult to manage as one ages. Automated assistance in such simple tasks such as remembering to buy or do things can reduce this complexity. In addition, technology can also help seniors maintain stronger social connections to help combat isolation. Technology in the form of software for computers and smartphones is available to assist in achieving these goals, but it has two major drawbacks for older users:

  • First: Current computer interfaces are complex and may be confusing, hard to learn, and intimidating for an inexperienced user.

  • Second: Current computers are not always nearby when they need to be consulted, and for many older users, mobility is a concern.

Consequently, we believe that managing the details of everyday life and maintaining social connections can usefully be done with a very simple and portable interface that draws on a range of modalities, including speech, audio and touch. We describe considerations for such an application in this section.

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