Researchers create Amazon Alexa skill to help older adults stay active

Geriatrician Megan Huisingh-Scheetz, MD

Geriatrician Megan Huisingh-Scheetz, MD, is part of a team at UChicago Medicine developing an Amazon Alexa skill that can coach older adults through daily exercise routines.

EngAGE is a new pilot project helping adults 65 and older stay active with a little assistance from Amazon’s voice-controlled speaker Alexa.

The project is part of a 14-week research effort that’s underway at the University of Chicago Medicine to see whether Amazon Alexa’s technology can coach older adults through daily exercises designed to increase their mobility, balance and stay active while at home. This is something especially vital for those who’ve recently been hospitalized and to help avoid disability and falls.

“I can order physical therapy to jump-start rehabilitation, but, unfortunately, most people don’t continue the exercises on their own,” said Megan Huisingh-Scheetz, MD, a geriatrician and co-director of the Successful Aging and Frailty Evaluation (SAFE) clinic at UChicago Medicine. “I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard ‘now that physical therapy is over, how can we keep them exercising?’”

Huisingh-Scheetz partnered with Louise Hawkley, PhD, senior research scientist and expert on loneliness and social isolation at National Opinion Research Center (NORC), to build EngAGE. The UChicago Medicine - NORC team thought that would make a natural fit for older patients who might be more likely to engage with the device than a smartphone app or a computer-based platform.

“Neither of us are tech savvy but we care about helping people who are frail and functionally homebound. Technology seemed like a vehicle we could use to extend our reach.” Huisingh-Scheetz said.

Alexa’s skills are voice-driven so when someone speaks to the device, it responds by deploying a skill or answers via a web search. The EngAGE skill walks older adults through a daily exercise routine. It automatically adjusts the intensity of the exercise based on participant rating of difficulty.

EngAGE is currently being used by residents at Admiral at The Lake, Chicago’s oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to creating senior living with innovative and responsive solutions. Admiral at The Lake previously partnered with Amazon to outfit nearly 100 residents with Alexa devices.

“We see value in this technology today and are going all in. This technology works! We just want to measure how well and be more intentional about features that make life easier for older adults,” said Akintunde Littlejohn, Admiral at The Lake’s technology director.

EngAGE also pairs the older adult with a caregiver who can see their progress and send encouraging messages which are read out loud to them on the speaker to help them stick with the regimen.

“It’s hard for anybody to stick to exercise, but it becomes easier when we involve others as cheerleaders. At the same time, the Alexa messages reinforce a social connection that is meaningful in and of itself,” said Hawkley.

While EngAGE is still in the research phase, it has the potential to help older adults age in place, which will ultimately improve their quality of life.

“By the year 2050 we will have more adults 65 and older than children under the age of 18, so it’s important that we provide them resources that empower them to take care of themselves as long as possible,” said Huisingh-Scheetz.