Dutch Study Examines the Benefits of Voice Assistants for Older People

Voice assistants can be a boon for older people, according to a major new study from Dutch research consortium Project Zilver. The study combined a survey of thousands of older people in the Netherlands with a smaller focus group to examine how voice assistants might improve their lives.

Silver Surveys and Studies

Project Zilver, Dutch for silver, refers to a common way of referring to older generations. The group was founded by voice tech expert Maarten Lens-FitzGerald in a partnership with Google as a way to look at how voice technology can help older people and where it could improve its service to what he feels is an under-examined population for the industry. Voice assistants are not as widespread in the Netherlands as some other countries, partly because of Amazon’s Alexa not speaking Dutch. Most smart speakers in the Netherlands use Google Assistant, which arrived in the Netherlands in late 2018.

The project’s study conducted an online survey in December of 3,450 people, mostly between ages 61 and 80. They were asked about how they use technology and voice assistants. Almost 70% said they use technology in some way around the home. Only about 20% said they use voice to control devices around the house, although a little more than half had heard of Google Home and Google Assistant and understood what it is. Still, about half of the people in the survey said they were unsure about starting to use voice to control devices. In terms of what they would use a voice assistant for, looking up information, planning trips, and reading emails each garnered a yes from about 30% of respondents, but close to 40% selected “none of the above” from a list of more than 20 potential voice assistant activities.

For a more qualitative approach, a focus group of 14 men and women aged 52 to 81 were given a Google Home smart speaker for two weeks last spring. Though not a statistical study, the majority of people in the focus group claimed to enjoy using the device and that they felt it improved their lives. Reminders for appointments and medication, grocery shopping, and turning lights on and off were all listed by participants as ways they liked using the voice assistant. A participant cited in the study wrote:

It has changed my life. I now have a greater sense of security.

Age and Voice

Project Zilver isn’t the only group looking at using voice assistants to help people as they age. United Kingdom-based Voice for Loneliness conducted a study last year that showed how voice assistants could reduce the loneliness of older people in a case study at an elder care home.

And there are companies developing voice technology specifically designed for that population. Irish startup CR Robotics recently came out with Mylo, a cat-faced voice-controlled robot for helping care for people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Last year saw the debut of Pria, a voice-activated robotic companion that combines a smart display and voice assistant with a pill dispenser built by Pillo Health and Stanley Black & Decker. There’s also LifePod, which created a unique smart speaker with a ‘proactive’ voice assistant that can begin conversations with its owner about health routines and keep caregivers updated in real-time to help aging or socially isolated people.

As more studies are conducted, the number of voice-powered devices and apps aimed at older people is likely to rise as well. As Project Zilver’s study shows, there are commercial as well as altruistic reasons for voice assistant developers to look to an older crowd for their next inspiration. As one of the focus group participants put it, “Demonstrating is motivating. My eldest brother of 83 now has one too!”


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