Alexa and Grandparents: What I’ve Learned

This year for the holidays, I was going to gift the gift of all gifts. My plan came to me in the fall, discussing with my mother how she could only communicate with her mother if she went to the assisted living center in person. She had seen an Echo Spot commercial and wondered if that could work for them. Then she forgot about the conversation entirely. I thought something like Alexa might be the best way to bring technology into my 97-year-old grandmother’s life.

First thing’s first: an intro to my wonderful Grandma Mary. She is an absolute sweetheart, had three kids with the love of her life but he passed away when her youngest was 16 (my mother). She went on to be married once more, and proposed to three times! The wonderful man who stepped in as a grandfather to me never married her (her decision, “how modern”) but did give her a ring. I wear the diamonds from that ring as a necklace almost every day. A lot of heartaches and hard work during her life, but she always has a smile on her face and can tell great stories from back in the day on the farm.

Anyway, this lovely lady has not grasped technology. Phones have become difficult, so introducing a cell phone or an iPad just isn’t in the cards. When she moved to her current assisted living center, we decided to not spend the money on a land line. She had so much trouble with the last phone, it would eliminate the issue. But like anyone, she still wanted to communicate. She still has siblings who live an hour’s drive away–all in their 90s, can you believe it? My mother lives very close, but as a small business owner and grandmother herself, it is hard to stop in a few times a day to chat. Especially when it gets icy out in their small Midwestern town.

I thought Alexa could save the day! I compared the Alexa Show to Facebook’s Portal. Based off of my original research, I thought Alexa would be the better fit. Facebook Portal required a Facebook account, which she didn’t have. She did have an Amazon account under my mother’s household as she used to be an avid Kindle reader. The Portal had a bigger screen and was a higher resolution, but she only had access to the free wifi at the assisted living center, and I wasn’t sure if it could handle it.

From the description of the Alexa Show on Amazon, I thought it could call regular phone numbers (allowing her to call her siblings), she could use all voice directions instead of having to work buttons/press things which had stopped her in the past. I ordered two Alexa Shows (one for Grandma Mary one for my mother) on Black Friday and was excited about my decision.  Fast forward to Christmas…

Turns out, you have to have a cell phone to set up an Alexa Show. If you want it to be able to call regular phone numbers, you have to also purchase an Echo Connect AND have a landline. Not a cell phone, a land line. My head was spinning so fast. I felt betrayed by this Amazon solution that I thought was SO PERFECT for grandparents and great-grandparents. We quickly ordered two Echo Connects and had them delivered the same week. When I looked up the costs for setting up a landline in her room, I was shocked at how expensive it was. $60 a month for her to be able to call her siblings. Plus the cost of the Echo Connect and the setup fee. Somehow we also needed to figure out how to give her a cell phone on top of it as a source for contacts.

The solution

My husband had his suspicions that this would work, but I cobbled up a bit of a solution. First, we took one of my dad’s old iPhones and wiped it clean. Then we downloaded Google Voice and set up a number. This allowed us to set up the Alexa Show using the Alexa app. I didn’t think we could set up my Grandma’s Alexa Show using my mother’s phone/Alexa app because I didn’t want her Alexa or phone to ring when others called my grandmother. The Google Voice number is tied to my mother’s gmail account, as I didn’t want to create a bunch of new accounts that we would have to remember passwords for.

The cell phone just sits in her room, as it doesn’t have any cellular capabilities. Nor could she work it even if it did. We were able to set up the Alexa Show, and she was able to answer a call/end a video call. It was adorable. She couldn’t believe that she could see into my parents’ kitchen. Then she could see my daughter! My parents’ dog! This morning my mother used the “Drop In” feature which was perfect. Granted, my grandmother looked at the door for my mom and started to search for her Life Alert necklace (ha!) but then she realized the voice was coming from that strange black box on her table. Then she could see us and was very thankful that my mom could call in and check up on her.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a solution to allow her to call her siblings other than an expensive land line. I have the Connect just in case she really gets the hang of Alexa and we can justify the expense. But right now I’m not sure the extra $60 a month is worth only a few calls.

Things I wish Amazon would change

I’ve learned a LOT about the Echo Shows during this process. Here are a few things I hope they change in the future.

If you are going to require a cell phone, then allow someone to call phone numbers without needing a land line. Setting up my grandmother with a Google voice number or even adding her to my parents plan would be cheaper than the landline, but I wasn’t sure how to pull it off without the landline at this time.

Be more upfront about the need for a landline and cell phone. I thought we just needed wifi, and then I could set up Alexa from the Echo Show. But to set up the contacts, I HAD to import the contacts from a cell phone and provide a phone number. Until I set up the Google Voice account and the wiped cellphone, I couldn’t finish the setup. The people who can benefit the most from Alexa Show are people who don’t have cell phones.

It would be amazing if by using this hobbled-together setup she could call her siblings. She does have a Google Voice number – if only she could utilize that to call a land line without the need for an additional land line and an Echo Connect.

Overall Thoughts

I still think the Alexa Show will be useful. She can ask it for the weather, the Chicago Cubs score, or call my mom when she needs more bananas. I think adding them to a shopping list is a way down the road, but might be possible. Either way, the Alexa Show is a way to expand technology to a generation that isn’t used to it in a world that is all about technology. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so much effort to try to game the system to give it to her.

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