'˜Amazon Alexa has changed my life' says Titchfield MS sufferer
Speaking out loud across her living room, Claire Williams has turned on a lamp with just her voice.
The 57-year-old then lists shopping items to send to her husband’s Eric’s mobile phone, again just by talking.
Claire has secondary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) which means she cannot move.
The disease prevents her from even using her hands and she only recently got her voice back.
She is totally dependent on Eric to do everyday tasks like getting her ready, making them both meals and cleaning the house.
And up until six months ago, she also needed his help to turn on the radio, read books and even switch on lights.
But now, thanks to a new scheme by Hampshire County Council, Claire has got some independence back.
A grant from NHS Digital meant the local authority is the first council ever to purchase 50 Amazon Echos, a voice-activated audio speaker, with the voice of a virtual assistant called Alexa, to help people under its care.
Eric and Claire, from Titchfield Common, received the device at the end of last year and got it upgraded to an Amazon Alexa recently.
Since having it installed, Claire said it has changed her life.
‘It really has made a huge difference,’ she says.
‘I used to love reading but couldn’t because I can’t hold a book or turn the pages.
‘Now Alexa reads to me, plays music and gives me news updates.
‘I can ring Eric, ask it the time, get the weather forecast and we even get football results through it.
‘Although I still rely on Eric for a lot of other things, it has given me a lot of independence back.
‘I have only recently got my voice back and it is quite quiet but even with a soft voice, it can pick up what I am saying.
‘I can do loads of things for myself now which when I was first diagnosed with MS seven years ago I didn’t think I’d be able to do.
‘Before, Eric couldn’t leave the house for long periods of time because he had no way of calling me to see if I was okay. Now, I can call him if there’s a problem and he can call me.’
The couple said even the minor things the audio speaker can do like turning on a lamp have made a big difference.
Eric, 59, says: ‘Once I went out in the evening and it was still light in the living room when I left.
‘When I got back, it was dark but Claire hadn’t been able to turn on the lights or the lamp. Now, we just say “Alexa, turn on the lamp” and it comes on.
‘It is like an encyclopedia really, we can ask it anything.’
Claire has been under the care of Hampshire County Council’s adult social care after Eric twisted his back and was unable to move her around the house.
As part of their care plan, the couple were the first household in the area to be given the Amazon Echo after the council got the grant for the technology.
Eric adds: ‘We had someone from partner company Argenti Telehealthcare Partnership, come out and assess us and they realised Claire would benefit from having one.
‘They came in and set it all up for us and it has been amazing.
The next stage is for them to link the television to it and then Claire will be able to turn it on and switch channels.
‘Argenti have been really good. They have been happy to help and tweak things if there are problems.’
Claire and Eric said they were surprised at just how helpful Alexa has been and what it can do.
Eric says: ‘We are still discovering things it can do.’
And they both support the council’s scheme and using technology in this way.
Claire adds: ‘It is a great idea to use this technology in lots of different situations.
‘I am really pleased the council is using the money from the grant to help people like us.’
Having Alexa has not only made a difference to Claire’s life but has allowed Eric to be more at ease too.
He said he can go out knowing Claire will be okay and has the means to call him if she needs to.
‘I can let her know when I am due home whereas before, she didn’t know,’ Eric says.
‘If I am going to the shop, she can send my phone a shopping list and let me know if she needs anything.
‘I just don’t have to worry as much; that is the independence it has given us both.’
Hampshire County Council was one of 12 local authorities to receive the cash from NHS Digital and managed by the Local Government Association.
It hoped the scheme will be widened to remind people to take medication, prompt them to make drinks to stay hydrated and reduce isolation.
Councillor Liz Fairhurst, the council’s executive member for adult social care and health, said: ‘This is an important trial for the council and a world first for a local authority and Amazon.
‘Early feedback from the trial is very positive, particularly from participants with physical disabilities.
We are excited about the potential for using Alexa to support people with a wide variety of adult social care needs.
‘We are now looking to develop a range of “skills” or “apps” with our telehealthcare partner, PA Consulting, for use with the Echo device.
‘The council continues to be at the forefront of developing new ways for technology to support vulnerable people, and in the next five years we expect more than 12,000 people to be benefitting from its use.’