The occupational therapy program at USC is in the process of improving the lives and health of older adults.
Stacey Schepens Niemiec, assistant professor of research at the Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, is spearheading the creation process of the MovingUp app, along with a team of health professionals, software engineers and community partners. The app, made possible by a $468,000 grant from the National Institute on Aging, focuses specifically on improving the physical activity of the older adult population.
“I want people to understand that older adults are open to trying technology and using it for their health,” Schepens Niemiec said. “They just need access to it and they need something that is tailored to their specific needs, and that is what we are doing with this grant.”
MovingUp was originally funded by an award from the Rehabilitation Research Career Development program, which was only able to fund the beginnings of the app over the last five years. However, the new grant from the National Institute on Aging will ensure the finalization of three of the five envisioned features of the app within the next two years.
Schepens Niemiec is an occupational therapist and instructional designer by training, and first came to USC as a postdoctoral fellow. Her research and interests have always concerned technology use in older adults, as well as technology use for health and wellness.
“There is this trend of using mobile health apps to improve health in generally younger populations,” Schepens Niemiec said. “I saw a gap there in terms of what’s known as the digital divide.”
Schepens Niemiec sees this digital divide as a failure to introduce technology into older adults’ lives. She believes that there are stereotypes instilled in society that the elderly population is averse to using mobile applications as a part of their everyday lives.
The challenge of creating an app has turned out significantly different in practice than the design team had initially envisioned.
“The development process is so cumbersome and I didn’t know that until I started working on a single app,” Schepens Niemiec said.
Nevertheless, the MovingUp team is making an effort to promote health in a way that has never been done before. The application will be evidence based, which is the first time such a design will be implemented in a wellness app. Due to its design, the development process requires an extensive commitment to beta testing.
“We are doing a little bit of testing with the funds that I have,” Schepens Niemiec said.
She tested 150 people in getting the self-tracking component up and running, including 50 younger, 50 middle-aged and 50 older adults doing a walking, standing and sitting task.
This progress check feature, as she calls it, is about halfway done at the moment, as are the two other funded features.
The remaining two features are currently in storyboard development, and their completion will depend on whether additional funding is granted.