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GSS > Blog > Coronavirus (COVID-19) > Setting up a smart speaker for my grandmother

Setting up a smart speaker for my grandmother

My grandmother (granma) is currently resident in a renablement home. On Friday 13 March we were told because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, all visitors were banned until further notice.

My mother had mentioned my granma was loving the Alexa speakers in the social areas of the home so I rang them to ask if they would be able to set up one in her room for her – they said yes.

I started researching.

I chose the Amazon Echo Show 8. This is an Alexa speaker with an 8 inch screen. Good enough for video calling.

You can get this for £99.99 from Amazon or £119.99 from Currys. You can get an Echo Show 5 (5 inch screen) for around £80 and there is also an Echo Show 10 (10 inch screen) for around £220. You can find various offers on all these online I think – I didn’t look into it too much into it as I was trying to get it done before we went into lockdown (I wasn’t sure at that point if deliveries were going to continue in any lockdown scenario we faced).

The main issue I hit was trying to work out if she needed a smartphone to make it work. This was not easy to work out. The staff in Currys said she did. My dad said she didn’t. The answers online were not clear.

The answer is: she did not need a smartphone!

You need a phone number for the speaker to work but this does not have to be a phone number for a smartphone.

You will need access to a smartphone to set the speaker up.

The speaker needs to be linked to an Amazon account that is linked to a phone number. You will need a smartphone to set stuff up – but once that’s done the speaker is good to go on any WiFi network.

I downloaded the Alexa app on my phone, plugged the speaker in and connected it to WiFi. I created an email account in my Granma’s name and then used this to create an Amazon account. I then linked this account to my Granma’s mobile number.

Then I linked the speaker to my Granma’s Amazon account using the Alexa app on my phone.

The speaker still works when I sign out of the app on my phone.

This was the thing I was most confused about – I couldn’t work out if her account needed to be signed into the app at all times. Answer: it doesn’t!

Music and photos

I also created her a Spotify account and an Amazon photos account and I linked both of these to her Amazon account using the Alexa app.

This means as well as using the speaker to make video calls and phone calls, she can also listen to music and view a photo slideshow. I can use my phone to make her playlists and to add photos to her slideshow without having to do anything on the speaker itself.

Once Amazon photos was up and running I also changed the settings on the speaker so the background was a photo slideshow.

Adding contacts

Finally I entered her contacts into the Alexa app on my phone, while signed in to her Amazon account. I added everyone I thought she might like to ring or receive a call from. I asked all these people to download the Alexa app on their phone and link it to an Amazon account and their phone number.

Then I checked the speaker worked when you asked Alexa to place a call and answer a call.

I did run into some issues – for example, sometimes when you say “Alexa, call Hannah” she answers by asking “Do you mean Hannah Thomas?” even though there are no other Hannah’s in her contacts. Or, when you first make a call to someone, Alexa asks you if you want to call their mobile or their Alexa devices (it should default to what you have chosen after asking you once – but it didn’t always seem to do this).

I worried about this a bit as I knew any extra layer of interaction would be an issue. So I made sure all her contacts only had first names saved in the address book and I called everyone in her contacts from the speaker, choosing “Alexa devices” each time, in the hope that it will continue to default to this.

Dropping it off

I dropped it into the renablement centre on Monday 16 March and someone set up in her room later that day.

I checked beforehand and knew all they would need to do is plug it in, connect it to a WiFi network and possibly type her Amazon account password in, if asked (I left this on a piece of paper in the box).

I also left her a letter with some instructions outlining possible things she might like to ask Alexa to do: e.g. “Alexa show me my photos” or “Alexa play Frank Sinatra” or “Alexa play BBC Radio Wales”.

How is it going?

She’s made and received several video calls and although the signal has not always been great I think she is enjoying it. She also phoned me to tell me she loves the photos and that she has managed to get it playing music and it was lovely.

However, she did say at one point she managed to put some rap music on and it had filthy language. I have changed the settings on Spotify now so this can’t happen again – don’t want her neighbours complaining!

There have been a few glitches – at one point she seemed to have switched the microphone off somehow so she could hear us but we couldn’t hear her. And yesterday a few people tried to ring her and she was “unavailable”. But she has now learned how to turn it on and off, and this fixes most issues!

There is also the fact that if she is not in her room she will not know the speaker is ringing. But this is not necessarily a bad thing as face to face social contact with other people in the centre is just as valuable I think.

Some contacts might revert to ringing her mobile but this is fine. The speaker gives her the option of a video call which is especially useful with babies and children who won’t be able to talk on the phone and who can change so much in a short space of time. It also means she has a way of contacting us if something happens to her mobile and she has the added benefits of access to music and photos.

A recommendation

In summary, this is definitely something I would recommend doing while elderly people are isolated. If you need any advice on setting something like this up, please email hannahdawnthomas@hotmail.co.uk and I will try to help!

Update

My granma is now back in her house. I spoke to her today and she was listening to “The Inkspots” on her speaker. I asked her to turn it off because she couldn’t hear me properly (it was very loud!). She said, without any hesitation “Alexa you can stop for now” (like Alexa is some sort of servant) and Alexa stopped!

Update 2: sorting this out under lockdown conditions

Now we have stricter “lockdown” controls in place setting up a speaker in a house where someone is isolating may be more complicated. But I think it is still doable. You can order the speaker to be delivered to your house, set it all up in your home and then all you need to do is get it into the person’s house. How tricky this will be will depend on how good the person is with technology – alternatively, if someone else is going in to provide care, they could set it up.

The speaker will need to have a WiFi network to connect to. If you cannot get WiFi installed (we managed to get this done in my granma’s house this week so it is still possible) then you can order a WiFi dongle with a pay as you go sim card that can be topped up remotely. This will create a WiFi network in their house without needing an engineer to go there or to set up a monthly contract.

Hannah Thomas
Hannah Thomas
Hannah works in the Good Practice Team in the Office for National Statistics.