Use smart speakers for independent living

Millions of homes now include smart devices such as smart speakers, doorbells, buttons and more. 

Combining smart devices can empower people to live independent lives.

Here we present tips for setting up, using and adapting smart devices:

Image shows an amazon Alexa smart speakerThe tips are best on a FREE AbilityNet webinar, which featured our Head of Inclusion, Robin Christopherson MBE, TL Tech, a Tech4Good nominee and Katie Harrison, an Occupational Therapist who is part of the team behind the Wellwynd Hub, which has created its own smart home to learn more about smart tech for people who need it.

Smart speakers are the best-known foundation blocks of a smarter home. As AbilityNet’s Head of Digital Inclusion, Robin, said:

“They’re like your favourite virtual assistant in a can, or a ball or another shape. They come in lots of different shapes and sizes. They are those things that you can talk to, you know, talk to the air. And they'll answer.”

Combining these with other smart devices enables you to perform a plethora of functions, including controlling lights, heating, setting reminders, living a more independent life, or enabling a loved one to do so.

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Smart home basics

Here are some general tips for setting up smart devices within your home.

1. Boost your connectivity

Image shows the home screen for the WiFi analyzer for AndroidMake sure you have good Wi-Fi coverage before you introduce multiple devices. 

There are useful apps to analyse your Wi-Fi network, such as Wifi Analyzer for Android and Network Analyzer for iOS

Where you find issues, there are a few things you can do. Check your Router and contact your internet service provider (ISP) as you might be due an upgrade. Your ISP may offer a Wifi extender for greater coverage throughout your property. 

2. Secure your network

Security is a concern for many. TL Tech recommends changing the default passwords on smart devices. You can use the app LastPass to help you keep track of multiple passwords if you’re concerned you won’t remember them all.

3. Register your device

Smart devices require a periodic update for security, or so they can do more. Register the device with the manufacture during installation to make sure you get updates.

4. Secure your home

Image shows the word Private written above a letterbox of a red doorThe popularity of the Ring doorbell is growing. It can bring peace of mind by allowing you to check who’s at the door without physically going to the door. You can also buy smart sensors for doors and windows. Smart sensors are useful for spotting intrusions and if you have a relative living with dementia and are worried about them going outside on their own.

5. Use smart buttons for specific tasks

Image shows the zigbee logoYou can also use smart buttons such as Samsung SmartThings to control individual functions. You can programme these to perform functions such as controlling lights. 

When adding devices into your network, compatibility is key. 

On our webinar, TL Tech recommended looking for products that use Zigbee. This is a decade-old standard within low-powered connected devices such as smart home sensors, plugs and more. Amazon’s smart speakers support Zigbee as standard.  

The Zigbee Alliance is part of the Connected Home for IP initiative renamed Matter, or the foundation for connected things. Matter aims to make it easier to buy devices and know they’ll work with other devices at home. 

Assistive technology training

Many people are unaware of the accessibility and productivity tools built into mainstream packages such as Office 365 and Google Suite.

AbilityNet can provide 1:1 training on most assistive technologies (AT). Find out more about our Assistive technology training

Making the most of your smart speaker

Here are some tips from AbilityNet Head of Digital Inclusion Robin Christopherson on making the most of your smart speaker.

6. Who can use a smart speaker?

Your smart device is at the centre of controlling your home. Smart homes are inclusive, and that means anyone, regardless of age, can use them. As Robin says, “there’s no hurdle to using these types of devices.”

“You should be able to talk and have them helpfully give you the information that you want or perform the task that you want. But particularly with disabilities, you know, we need to look at how they can be customized so that you can get the most out of them.

“They are on the whole a much simpler proposition than a desktop computer. A smart speaker is another whole level up of simplicity where you can ask it intuitive questions.”

7. Features for people with hearing impairments

The Amazon Echo has features for people with hearing and speech impairments. 

Captions within Amazon Echo

Echo devices with screens offer captions for YouTube, Netflix or Amazon Prime, which is essential for people with hearing impairments. Alexa also offers captioning on devices with screens and will display the answer to your questions there. You will need to turn that on in the accessibility settings. 

Often, Alexa will put additional information on the screen. So, if you ask for the weather forecast, she'll put a graphical summary on the screen. 

Tap to Alexa: speak-free access

Tap to Alexa is a relatively new feature for people who can’t speak at all. Alexa displays many titles on the screen to get quick actions, music, and weather news, for example. With a single tap, you can get that functionality straight away. There's also a question mark for accessing a keyboard and an on-screen keyboard for typing in specific commands that other people would speak out loud.

You can save those as quick tiles as well. 

You can use your Echo Show without speaking to it, including calling and messaging. You will get transcripts of messages, for example, up on the screen. 

8. Adjusting the colour on your smart speaker

You may wish to change the colour of your smart display. This is useful for people who have colour deficit conditions. 

Colour contrast can also play a role for people with Dyslexia.

Alexa includes colour inversion. Images will look quite strange, but for text, black text on a white background or be inverted to make it really easy to see. Alexa can also tweak colours for people with common colour deficit conditions to see things more easily on the screen.

You can magnify what’s onscreen or use voice view. In that mode, the device will talk to you and access the information that otherwise would be on the screen.

9. Using the skills within your smart speaker

Image shows bins outside they are yellow, red, blue and greenGoogle has Actions and Alexa Skills, which are akin to smartphone apps. You can use your voice to open them. For Alexa, for example, say “Open” and the name of the skill, and it will enable the skill from then on. 

There are hundreds of thousands of Skills. They include games – you can Ask Alexa to play 20 questions, for example – or ask her, “what are your top quizzes?”

There’s a Bin Calendar, a skill for programming when you need to put out the bins – it includes the Landfill Bin or Recycling bin.

Family notes is another useful Skill that enables you to leave virtual post-it notes for family members.

For entertainment, you can ask your smart speaker to play the radio – TuneIn for Alexa, for example – or to play Netflix if your device has a screen. Big Sky is a weather app that provides localised weather within the UK. 

To discover the thousands of Apps available, Robin Christopherson has two podcasts that cover what’s available.

Listen to the weekly Echo Show and the Dot to Dot daily podcast

Occupational Therapist’s tips for tech in the home

Katie Harrison is a specialist Occupational Therapist working in East Lothian, Scotland. Katie has a background in dementia and has experience working with technology as well as service delivery development. 

Working alongside colleagues, they have created a working “smart home” that they call the Wellwynd Hub. Opened in November 2018, it acts as an assessment clinic.

“For me, it's about using the technology creatively [and] supporting someone to meet their goals, carry out their activities of daily living, and support them to do a task,’ said Katie. 

“I'm trying to maintain their independence for as long as possible by working with the person or their family to establish what's important to them,” she added.

With that in mind, here are Katie’s top tips.

10. Use smart speakers for orientation

For some with dementia, smart speakers can help them to orientate. You can ask what the day and time is or use it to know what the weather will do. 

11. Create a shopping list

Alexa’s shopping feature is a great tool. Use it to add items to your shopping list. The other great thing is that information pools through to the Alexa app. So, if you or your relative has that app on your phone when you're right in the supermarket, then you've got that information there.

12. Prompts and reminders, including medications

You can create a variety of lists using Alexa. It could be a list of visitors or medication prompts and reminders. At the Wellwynd Hub, Katie and the team are using Amazon Alexa buttons so when the person has received a medication prompt and have taken their medications. They hit the button, and it pings an alert to the family member with a pre-set message letting them know. 

She also recommends reminders for short-term events – such as switching the cookers off – and for regular, recurring events such as putting the bins out. 

13. Keeping connected with family and friends

The Wellwynd Hub is using the Echo Show, which has a screen. The screen provides added benefits. Most notably, the opportunity for face-to-face video calls. “It’s great for reducing isolation and keeping people engaged and connected with family and friends, particularly over the last year,” said Katie.

14. Smarter dining with the Echo Show

Image shows and Echo Show with the time displayed. In the background is a puppy holding a ball in its mouthAs an OT, Katie recommends using the Echo Show and YouTube to access recipes, which can help build confidence. It could be something as simple as making a pot of soup or using it to make a cup of tea. In people with Vascular Dementia, for example, sequential tasks can prove difficult. 

People also use the Echo Show or an iPad for digital dining. 

Katie said: “So one person would have their device set up in a dining area, and they'll cook a meal and connect to the friend or relative who could even be a few hundred miles apart. What we find is actually it motivates people to prepare a meal.

All tips are from a FREE AbilityNet Live! webinar. For details of more FREE webinars, visit

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