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‘OK Google, play the oldies,’ Petaluma seniors get wired

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A Petaluma senior housing nonprofit is transforming 20 units into technology-rich smart homes, equipped with voice-command devices that will enhance the quality of life for some of its most vulnerable residents.

PEP Housing is outfitting each residence with eight cooperative pieces of technology, specifically Nest doorbells and thermostats, August door locks, smart outlets and light bulbs, and Google Chromecast. The main hub will be an iPad, and the voice commands will be facilitated by a Google Home smart speaker.

For PEP executive director Mary Stompe, the hope is that those residents will be able to perform routine tasks like turning on the lights, adjusting the temperature and opening doors that become more difficult with aging simply by saying it out loud.

“We saw that the iPad project had a big reduction in social isolation amongst our residents,” Stompe said. “This is going to be so great because a lot of very, very frail residents that can’t get out, they have (their Google Home) to talk to. Or it may be such a challenge to get up and change the thermostat that they don’t do it. If they can just talk to it, this can do everything for you.”

The iPad project Stompe referred to was a two-year initiative that provided almost half of PEP’s 500 residents with free iPads, Wi-Fi and training.

In partnership with Petaluma City Schools, the intergenerational program that pairs students with seniors subsequently transformed from assisting with chores to lessons in using tablets with the tech savvy youth.

Stompe said many residents formed “iPad groups” where they would share their latest notifications on Facebook, find Pinterest projects and, more importantly, socialize.

“They’re taking what they learned in phase one and incorporating it into phase two,” said fundraising and outreach coordinator Ty Camacho. “So they also continue to grow on what we’ve taught them in the past and keep the product relevant as they grow into things like voice command.”

All technology has its share of bugs, though. Property manager Morgan Lemos, who oversees the Caulfield Lane complex, has been a test dummy for the smart home project over the last month, pairing various devices and figuring out how to incorporate everything into a cohesive – and manageable – experience.

The PEP offering first begins at the front door. Once a resident comes within a certain range of their home, the August door lock automatically unlocks the door. After 15 seconds of either opening or closing the door, it locks on its own, but it can also be used manually like any other deadbolt.

The Nest doorbell has a motion sensor which activates an HD camera. A live feed is sent to either a smartphone or the iPad, giving residents a real-time look at who is outside. The camera can also capture images of frequent guests and store them in its memory so Google Home can announce who’s there.

For example, Lemos has hers set to say “Your boyfriend is at the door,” or “Unfamiliar face at the door.”

Once inside, the smart outlets allow specific items to be voice activated by simply pairing them to the iPad. When Lemos says, “OK, Google. Turn everything on,” every light in the house comes to life.

“It’s got all the lighting, which is pretty key for a resident if they’re waking up in the middle of the night and they don’t have to struggle to find the light switch to turn on,” she said.

When paired with the Google Home, the Nest thermostat can receive voice commands to adjust the temperature, or give updates on what it’s currently set to.

Google Chromecast manages streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu and is managed either with a mobile device or with voice command. When Lemos said, “Hey, Google. Play Friends on Netflix on living room display,” Google Home confirmed the command and began playing “The One Where Ross Dates a Student” on her TV.

Google Home has the most potential of any device in the package, and can store personalized commands that cater to the specific needs of its owner.

“There’s no real instruction or guidebook on how to make all these products work together in unison,” Camacho said. “So using Morgan and her household as kind of our pilot project has been super helpful because we run across a lot of challenges on how to connect them all together … to make it easier to enhance the living experience for all our seniors.”

The idea for a technology push came to Stompe when she was tending to her late mother. A cancer diagnosis steadily eroded her lust for life, but when she gave her an iPad, Stompe was amazed by how it turned around her level of engagement.

“Towards the end of her life, she had lost interest in reading and everything else. But she died with that iPad in her bed,” Stompe said. “She was able to communicate with her family and her doctors. … If we could get that out to (our residents), it would open their world. So that’s how it started, and it’s taken off from there.”

The total cost for fully equipping each unit is $1,500. PEP’s technology program has been funded entirely by grant money, and was recognized by Leading Age and Aging2.0 at its annual “Optimize” conference.

There were 26 total applicants for the smart home project, and the six that were not selected are still receiving a Google Home Mini.

PEP will be the first senior affordable housing company to offer smart homes to its residents and, if successful, could pave the way for others to follow suit.

“We’re hoping it will be replicated,” Stompe said. “Our iPad project was replicated across the U.S. and across the world … so we’re hoping this is just the start of the next phase in that.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)