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Amazon Alexa opens up possibilities for seniors and disabled

Taylor Owens

Staff Writer


Nearly two years ago, the Lakewood Lions Club came up with an idea to use Amazon's artificial intelligence companion, Alexa, to help improve the lives of seniors and people with disabilities.

Alexa is a program that works similar to Apple's Siri, and comes installed on the Amazon Echo, a small cylindrical computer with a microphone and speaker. The Echo is then connected wirelessly to the internet, and can do a range of tasks, all controlled through voice.

“Alexa” can read aloud the news headlines, weather and search the internet for information.

Lakewood Lions Club President Bill Sutton said he was a bit skeptical about the device, but quickly convinced, when his fellow Lions Club member Pam Swiler showed him her Amazon Echo, and suggested it could help people in their area.

“I felt like the program we were using before was outdated,” Swiler said.

The Sight Seer Radio Service provides audio of news and entertainment geared toward people with visual impairment, but Swiler said each item has to be read by a person.

Alexa can read its owners' ebooks out loud, or play podcasts and radio. In addition, it can carry on simple conversations.

When Sutton decided to put the Alexa to the test, he asked it to play Mary Robbins' 1959 hit song, “Big Iron.”

“Within two seconds, it was playing his favorite song,” Swiler said. “He was shocked.”

Over the last two years, the Lakewood Lions Club has been buying Amazon Echos and installing them in people's homes.

First, they have a consultation meeting to explain to the person and their caregiver how it works. They explain that certain functionalities will need an Amazon Prime subscription, and the Echo needs a smartphone to set it up. If the person wants an Echo, the club will buy it. (They cost around $100, but frequently go on sale.) Then they will either install it in the individual's home or teach their caregiver how to install it.

“We don't charge anybody a nickel,” Sutton said.

Lion Steve Schuiling helps with the technology part of the explanation and installation.

As an assistant professor of Information Security and Intelligence at Ferris State University, he has some experience in the field.

But Schuiling said he's still learning a few things from the program.

What he originally saw as a neat piece of technology turned out to be something that could genuinely improve people's lives.

“This is a game changer for people,” he said. “That was really eye opening for me.”

The first person the Lions Club installed an Echo for was Marion Gillette, the mother of Lion Mary Gillette. Marion, who has since died, was 93 at the time, and blind from macular degeneration. Since her mother had little experience with computers, Gillette didn't have high expectations that she would like it.

“She fell in love with it, she wouldn't give it up for anything,” Gillette said.

 Her mother had a telephone for the blind, but it could only fit 10 numbers. With the Echo, there is no limit to the amount of phone numbers that can be programmed, so Gillette was able to add the numbers of their extended family and friends.

“She could talk to whoever she wanted, it really made her feel like she was connected again to the world,” Gillette said.

One thing Alexa can't do is call 911, because it doesn't know which dispatch center to connect with. But the Lions found a way to fix that, and entered in the number for the local 911 Dispatch Center when they installed the system. Gillette said they tested Alexa by going to every room of the house and calling to make sure it could hear her mother if she needed help.

“That was a blessing. We could leave the house and feel comfortable leaving her by herself.”

Since it is connected to the internet, Alexa is always updating and adding new functions. It played trivia games with Marion Gillette, said the rosary with her, told jokes and read aloud the news headlines. It even reminded her when to take her medication.

“She loved to listen to listen to music on it,” Gillette said.

“Music is a big deal, every one of our clients uses it,” Sutton said. “It's value added to their day.”

Marion Gillette showed it off to everyone who came through the door.

“It kind became a little bit of a friend,” Gillette said.

Lion Greg Wehby, 57, has been blind for about 10 years, and uses Alexa not just for music, but to listen to TV as well. He connected Alexa to his Amazon Fire Stick, which is a device shaped like a flash drive that plugs into a TV and connects to video services like Netflix and Youtube.

He had been using Siri on his iPhone, but Siri can only say a limited number of words out loud. For most questions that Siri is asked, it will display a Google search, but Alexa will read the answers.

 “It makes life very much easier,” Wehby said.

He has Alexa connected to his thermostat, and asks it to change the temperature. Wehby also can shop with Alexa, and ask it to order purchases online.

“Once you have it, you start to find other uses for it,” Wehby said.

“I think it's a wonderful program and a great outreach for the Lions Club,” Commission on Aging Director Tammy Pennington said. “I think it has implications for older adults of all medical conditions, even if they don't have a medical condition... there's a lot of loneliness out there.”

Studies have shown that people suffering from dementia do not lose their ability to understand and appreciate music. Pennington said music is an important service that Alexa can provide to older people.

When the commission finds seniors they believe could benefit from the technology, they refer them to the Lakewood Lions. They also have a technology person who can help set up the system if the person is too far outside the Lakewood area.

Sutton said many of the Echos they have provided are around the Lakewood School District where the club operates, but they can provide them to people outside of their area.

But Sutton said they can't serve the whole state of Michigan, and they are hoping to teach other community organizations how to provide the service. They have been visiting Lions, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs and churches to explain their process and encourage them to start up a program of their own.

“It can change people's lives for the better,” Sutton said.

Information on the program, including how to get an Amazon Echo through the Lions Club, is available by contacting Sutton at 616-745-1151 or at


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