When Nana met Alexa

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No, this post is not in any way sponsored by any tech company or Hanna Barbera cartoon. But if you’re interested, Amazon, please launch Audible in Australia soon so Nana can have all the Danielle Steele novels her heart desires.

A few weeks ago, I rang my 90-something year old Nana in Australia, and she apologized that she hadn’t called me lately. Her eyesight is failing, she explained, and she can’t dial the phone. Worse, she can’t read books, and so is very very bored. My mum, who’s a voracious Kindle reader, said, “That’s the thing with technology, it’s leaving old people behind.”

That gave me an idea. Amazon has just launched in Australia, and for 55 American bucks I had an Echo Dot delivered to my mum’s house immediately.  I can only imagine the conversations that ensued with nursing home staff, but two weeks later, my grandma is inundated by elderly visitors wanting to meet her new friend Alexa (granted, she’s had to write ALEXA in large letters in black pencil on a notepad beside her bed for when she forgets her name). Now, however, she can call anyone in the family - including me, on the other side of the planet, which she could never do before - just by asking. She is delighted when she can listen to Madame Butterfly on demand. She can’t yet listen to her Nora Roberts books, but my uncle has fixed her up with an old iPad so her other friend “Suri” can read to her. She finds the two fascinating. “I asked Alexa if she knows Siri, she said ‘only by reputation’!” 

What Nana really wants, she confessed, is Rosie from The Jetsons, so that she could ask her to turn on the lights or the kettle without having to climb out of her armchair. Feminist misgivings about The Jetsons aside, obviously I plan to get her a set of smart plugs and bulbs and see if we can stretch the nursing home’s wifi a little further - my grandma is the only resident in the building with wi-fi to her room, her network is Resident0001. Even better, now my mum is going to know how it feels to consider changing her phone number to 1800-TECH-SUPPORT as I have weekly for the past 10 years. 

But honestly, as someone who works in tech, it’s extra delightful to hear from elderly people to whom this is all some kind of white magic. I can only wonder what the robotic assistance will be like when my generation is old - unless we’re in a desolate Mars settlement or living in bio-domes emblazoned with the Trump logo. 

My grandma’s main complaint about all this seems to be that she can’t have a conversation with Alexa, and she insists on saying please and thank you even though Alexa (rudely) fails to respond. Mum however tried out conversations with her own Echo. In Australia, Alexa quite delightfully responds with “G’Day!” when greeted, and makes disparaging jokes about football teams from comfortingly distant regions (“What has 44 arms and legs but can’t climb a ladder? The Parramatta Eels!”)

There’s obviously still some way to go, particularly when our sophisticated iPad integration consists of a large red sticker, a genius innovation from my mum, to indicate where Nana must press “play” if she wants to hear a book. This results in chaos if she or one of her many visitors closes the app, and has resulted in her wandering down the hall to the nurses' station with dark crime stories emanating from said iPad and no doubt causing consternation among other residents innocently drinking tea and listening to public radio. 

But, to give my Nana the gift of phone calls, stories, music and - possibly most importantly - retirement home infamy, is worth the minor issues, even if we haven't managed to fully automate her kettle ... yet.