Techie volunteers create app to educate elders on falls, dementia

October 1, 2017


Older adults served by the AZCEND community center in Chandler, Ariz., now can access important information about preventing falls and about recognizing the signs of dementia, with an application created by Dignity Health Mercy Gilbert Medical Center volunteers.

The app developed by seven volunteers, with input from community center staff, includes health information, interactive games, quizzes and tips related to fall risk and dementia. The volunteers have loaded the app onto laptops that the senior center loans out to older adults served by its programs.

Barb Farmer is the recently retired manager of the volunteer program at Gilbert, Ariz.-based Mercy Gilbert Medical Center. She helped to organize the project. The app launched late last year. She said the community center and its clients "were overwhelmed with the quality and content" of the app.

The community center operates a variety of aid programs for vulnerable populations, including meal services for older adults. More than 700 elders received meals at two locations and about 400 received meals delivered to their homes during the last fiscal year.

Trinity Donovan, the community center's chief executive, said the center hosts presentations on health topics, and had tried passing out fliers with health information to its clients. But, there was a concern that not everyone was getting the information they needed, in an engaging way, when they needed it.

The community center and Mercy Gilbert are longtime partners, so Donovan turned to Mercy Gilbert for solutions to the information gap.

In response, Farmer last year sent out an email to the hospital's corps of volunteers asking who might be interested in helping the senior center develop an educational computer app. The six teens and one senior volunteer who responded to Farmer's invitation formed a committee and over the course of six months last year developed the Homebound Outreach for Mindful Engagement, or HOME, app. Farmer dubbed the group the Dignity Health Voluntechies.

Farmer said she was gratified to learn that there are creative ways to engage volunteers beyond traditional volunteer roles at the hospital.

Volunteer Raj Shah
As a high schooler, Dignity Health Mercy Gilbert Medical Center volunteer Raj Shah consulted online information to learn the mechanics of building an app — knowledge he used to help a team of volunteers create a health care information resource for seniors.

Raj Shah had been volunteering for the hospital for about a year and a half when he responded to Farmer's call and became a Voluntechie. He said he and the other volunteers worked with the senior center and conducted Internet research to come up with content topics. The group selected fall risk and dementia because these "are two of the most significant health risks that seniors face today," Shah said. The group spent hours researching the topics on credible websites to develop the content.

Shah was a senior at a Chandler charter school when he became a Voluntechie. He knew some computer programming, and built on that with online courses about app building. He spent about 35 hours on the project. He is pursuing a computer science degree at Arizona State University.

Donovan said the senior center promotes the app through a center newsletter, handouts and through the volunteers and staff who deliver meals to clients' homes. Currently, clients check out a center laptop to use the app. In the future, Donovan said, the center is considering having outreach volunteers and staff bring the laptops along during wellness checks, so that they can help homebound clients navigate the app.

Shah said the app "should serve the dual purpose of informing seniors about health risks in a more engaging manner, while also introducing them to the world of technology, which has so much potential to better their everyday lives."

Farmer said the community center is using the app as a pilot to determine how well it works for homebound clients. If the effort is successful, the center may tap teens to write additional educational apps for the elderly related to health, safety and well-being. As for the teen volunteers, "We wanted them to know that their skills were valuable and that they can have a positive impact in people's lives — we were planting the seed," she said.


Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.