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Like many people, I could not visit my parents for most of 2020 and a large part of 2021. They had moved from one retirement home into another during the last week such places were open, the week before Covid-19 lockdowns began.

Pandemic restrictions kept my parents and their fellow residents, and millions of others globally, locked indoors for months without outside visitors. Much of that time was spent in their rooms alone, seeing staff for basic care, temperature checks, and food drop-offs whenever the building was coping with an outbreak. And outbreaks happened repeatedly. One two-week isolation period would roll into another when a new case developed, resetting the countdown clock. Though I could see how there were few other options, my heart still broke for my parents, quarantined and separated from each other, eating solo meals, and spending long days alone.

However, my sorrow was somewhat tempered with the help of technology. My sister and I had used some of our last pre-pandemic visit with our parents to set up Amazon Echo Shows in each of their new rooms. I had been using an Echo to help close the gap between New York, where I live, and Ontario, Canada, where they are, for a few years. Since the pandemic began, however, the Echo Show has been more than a convenient way to check in with them or say goodnight. It has allowed me to track their moods and any visible changes in their health, and to lift their spirits with music, or with TV shows that we could watch together if I pointed my Echo at my laptop screen.

Plenty of families kept in touch over Zoom and FaceTime calls as the pandemic continued. But to contact people who aren’t comfortable with computers or smartphones, have mobility issues, or some form of cognitive decline like dementia (which is the case for my parents), video calls usually required a third person to manage the software, hold the iPad, or grab the phone when it rang. Virtual visits had to be scheduled and were often limited to once or twice a week for 30 minutes.

Echo Shows, however, have a “drop-in” function that can, in a sense, teleport me into my parents’ room without needing them to fiddle with the technology or without even asking them to physically move closer to the machine. For my pandemic virtual visits, I didn’t have to bother overworked caregivers and ask them to spend 30 minutes hovering over someone who could make them sick or whom they could sicken. Nor did I have to wait for days to see them and watch the clock as we spoke.

If I appreciated the Echo Shows before Covid, I now believe the devices—or any similar technology with that same drop-in feature—belong inside every retirement and nursing home. Like telephones, they ought to be ubiquitous.

The case for equipping seniors’ homes with cameras

I understand how that kind of endorsement of AI-enabled technology owned by one of the world’s most powerful, omnipresent companies might not sit comfortably with everyone. My husband, like most people I know, finds Echo Shows, or any other always-listening device, to be “creepy.” Fortunately, you don’t have to own an Echo Show to talk to one; there’s also a phone app. Users also decide who has “drop-in” privileges. Still, cameras and smart devices are famously relatively easy to hack, and this technology is far from innocuous.

But anyone in my position would understand why I accept this arrangement: I feed personal info to a data-gobbling tech giant that wants to sell me things and in exchange, I get this fairly seamless gateway into my parents’ lives. I see it as a variation on what we all do every day with our phones and laptops. And when you’re aware of how lonely your elderly parents can become and what that loneliness does to their physical and mental health, their memory, and general quality of life, you decide to trust pledges about privacy and data anonymization.

Amazon has taken the lead with products created for an aging population

Amazon is banking on similar perhaps begrudging acceptance from customers as populations age in developed countries. This week it announced a new suite of products, a few of which were designed, to various degrees, with aging seniors in mind. The new Alexa Together eldercare subscription service, for example, allows seniors to contact emergency services through their Alexa devices at home, making it an update on  established medical alert systems. But it’s also set up so that family and other loved ones can track a person’s activities during the day, with their permission, and cue reminders for medications, remotely.

The Echo Show, meanwhile, will soon be available with a 15-inch screen (for $250) that you can mount on a wall. It will have picture-in-picture capabilities and can double as a television, creating a kind of entertainment hub crossed with a wall calendar and digital photo frame.

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