Voice assistants have opened up a world of possibilities and convenience for millions of people. From hearing the latest news to playing music on demand, the Amazon Echo and Google Home voice assistants can offer a level of convenience not available from a smart phone or computer.

When it comes to many seniors however, using these assistants may not be as simple as plugging in a smart speaker and talking to it. A fair amount of set-up and tweaking may need to be done to make a voice assistant work optimally. In this article, we will talk about some of the considerations to think about when setting up and using a smart speaker, and how to optimize them for the best performance.

Whether you are a senior, a caregiver for a friend or family member, or someone looking for some new tips and tricks, I hope you find useful information here, whatever your comfort level with technology may be.

Choosing a Home Voice Assistant

Both the Amazon Echo and Google Home provide answers for millions of questions, offer thousands of skills or actions, and the ability to make phone calls. Jamie Pauls covered the Amazon Echo in the February 2018 issue of AccessWorld while I covered the Google Home in March of 2017. Many features have been added since these articles were published, but the pieces still provide a basic overview of the devices and their capabilities and differences, and should help you determine which is right for you. Of note, Amazon has released a 3rd edition of the donut-sized Echo Dot, which is louder than its predecessors, while Google now offers the Google Home Mini, a smaller version of the Google Home. Both of these devices are available for under $50.

Before You Set Up Your Voice Assistant

It's important to consider how the assistant will be used and who will be responsible for controlling its features. Device settings will be linked to an email address, so if the owner does not have an email address currently, setting one up may be helpful. Otherwise, if you link a device to an existing email address or a Google account, which is also linked to another phone, you may see alerts and messages for the voice assistant which may become cumbersome. In addition, if the voice assistant supports a command history, the account associated with the assistant will be able to see this history which is something to keep in mind if someone else is setting up your voice assistant. Also, this probably goes without saying, but smart assistants operate using a Wi-Fi connection, so ensure one is available at the location where it will be set up. Furthermore, if you are planning on using the assistant as a form of emergency protection, you may consider setting up multiple devices in different rooms of the house. They'll be able to communicate with each other and work as a group. We'll talk more about emergencies below.

Setting up Your Amazon Echo or Google Home

To set up your assistant, download the Google Home or Amazon Alexa app, both available for iOS and Android devices. While a smartphone is not generally required for everyday use of your voice assistant, it is necessary for set-up. After plugging in your new device, these apps will guide you through the basic set-up steps.

Once you have completed the initial set-up process, there are several settings and options that you may want to adjust to improve your device's performance.

Alexa and Google both offer a way for the device to make a sound when it is listening. By default, the device will light up but many readers may prefer an audio cue. Alexa has buried this setting under Device Settings and then Sounds. You can choose to enable a sound for either the Start of Request, End of Request, or both. Google places similar options under accessibility settings for the device and you can similarly enable a tone for the beginning or end of a request, or both if you desire.

Another setting to look at is the device's location. The location is used for services such as weather forecasts and finding nearby businesses. It's much easier to ask, "What's the weather?" than it is to ask, "What's the weather for Topeka, Kansas?"

Talking to your Assistant

For some, learning how to talk to an assistant so it understands commands may take some practice. If necessary, start by using small set of commands, like "What's the news?" or "Play the Beatles." The assistants can sometimes be a bit finnicky when attempting to understand the intent of a command, especially if it contains a rare word or phrase, or if the person has trouble speaking. One possibility is to set up shortcuts or routines in the Alexa or Google Home apps, which can be used to turn longer phrases into shorter, more manageable ones. If you are having trouble with a particular command, it's also possible to check to see what the assistant heard to find out if it is hearing you correctly. Alexa includes this history in its app, while Google users can ask the assistant, "What did I say?" to have it repeat the last command it heard.

Setting Up Music and Radio Stations

Listening to music using your voice assistant works best when you link it to a music service. Depending on your assistant, third-party services like Spotify, Google Play Music, or Amazon Music can be connected to your account, which will then allow anyone to request a song by title or artist. Most music services cost about $10 a month, though family plans are also available for a few dollars more, which you may consider if several family members are going to be listening to music. Both assistants will play many radio stations out of the box via services such as TuneIn radio or Radio.com. If you have a favorite radio station, you may want to verify that it is available online before buying an assistant for this purpose. In addition, some content, such as local sports teams, can be blacked out on a radio station's Internet stream, meaning it will not be available on a smart speaker without an additional cost. Both assistants can also play other forms of audio content, such as audiobooks and podcasts. Amazon is integrated with audiobook giant Audible, which may be useful if you already have an Audible account.

Phone Calls and Communication

Alexa and Google devices both offer the ability to make phone calls. First, you will want to link your device to your contacts, which will allow for calling someone by saying their name instead of a phone number. This information can be linked to a specific voice if desired for added security. In addition, you will probably want to set up outgoing Caller ID for the device, so that the person receiving the call will know who it's from instead of seeing a restricted number message.

We should emphasize here that voice assistants can't be used to call 911 or other emergency numbers. There is a workaround that may be of interest to users who are seeking a form of emergency protection. Ask my Buddy is a service that can be used to send a text message, email, or phone call to a person or people of your choice. It requires an account on the Ask My Buddy website, which can then be linked to an Amazon or Google device. Once set up, you could say "Ask my buddy to tell Bob I'm OK" or the much shorter "Tell Bob I'm OK" to alert a friend or family member you are doing well. For infrequent users, the free plan includes a few notifications per month. If you wanted to set up a daily check-in, premium plans are available for $5 a month or less which provide plenty of notifications to go around.

Both assistants also include a broadcast feature, which can be used to play a voice message on all connected devices in a house, or to send a message to a house from a remote location. Just say "Broadcast" followed by your message to use the feature.

Amazon additionally includes a feature called Drop In, which can be used to listen in on a location and start a conversation. It may be a great feature for some seniors to use with their caregivers, though you should be very clear that you are setting this up before using it. If you wish for another user to be able to Drop In on you, this can be set up from the Alexa app. It is also possible to enable or disable Drop In by voice on an Echo device. Check out Bill Holton's article in this issue for more on privacy.

Setting Reminders

Your voice assistant can become an indispensable tool for speaking reminders, such as when to take medications. Reminders can be set up to repeat daily or on a regular basis and will give an audio alert when triggered. Reminders can be set up by voice with a command such as "Remind me to take my medication at 9 am." You can also use a command such as "set a reminder" and the assistant will talk you through the rest.

Getting the News

News is another area that may require a bit of set-up before using the feature to its full potential. Amazon calls its news feature the Flash Briefing, while Google simply calls it News. Either way, you will need to use the Alexa or Google Home app to set up the news sources that will play when you ask the assistant, "What's the latest news." As a bonus, Alexa includes content from many local news outlets so it can be used for both national and regional news.


The Google Home and Amazon Echo harness a lot of potential as useful tools for seniors. Given some care and effort, a voice assistant can become a highly versatile companion. Hopefully, the tips and tricks provided in this article will help ensure that your new smart assistant becomes a tool rather than a nuisance.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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J.J. Meddaugh
Article Topic
Access Technology 101