An Award-Winning Advocate and Ally

Helping older adults has been USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology graduate student Brenda M. Vázquez’s day job for almost a decade, but she prides herself on continuing to search for new avenues and opportunities to serve.

In the past two years alone, she co-produced On the Move, a reality television show aimed at helping older Angelenos become physically active. She served as an advisor to the California State Libraries Association to create a health education toolkit for librarians to more efficiently serve the public. Vázquez also designed a pilot e-health promotion program, the Exergamers Wellness Club, to engage older adults in “playful” physical activity and self-care using technology, which won the top 2012 innovation award from the National Association of Senior Centers.

As the director of disease prevention and health promotion programs at Partners in Care Foundation, she has led numerous projects to enhance the health status and quality of life for older adults in Los Angeles, including the first implementation of evidence-based health promotion programs in Los Angeles senior centers. In light of her accomplishments and professional potential, Vázquez recently received a career development grant from the American Association of University Women, a national network dedicated to advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education and research.

“The AAUW award means a great deal to me as I prepare to take on formal research moving forward in my career,” she said. “Over the years, working with some of the most talented and committed professionals, we have conceptualized and implemented a variety of well received health innovation programs. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done in developing culturally appealing programs that engage and retain older participants.”

Vázquez joined Partners in Care in 2003 with the charge to start up a citywide health promotion program—the Wellness Club—under contract to the City of Los Angeles Department of Aging.

The program provides preventative clinical screenings, functional fitness assessments and evidence based health promotion programs to 16 senior centers and numerous community-based sites. The Wellness Club benefits from the guidance of a distinguished group of professionals in geriatrics and gerontology, including such experts as, Mary Cadogan, DrPH, from UCLA’s School of Nursing, Alison Moore, MD, of the David Geffen School of Medicine, and Dennee Frey, PharmD, a USC-affiliated pharmacist. Now in its tenth year, the program has grown to serve more than 6,000 elder residents annually across diverse neighborhoods, including demonstrated success reaching the city’s Spanish- and Chinese-speaking elders as well as the aging African-American community.

“Cultural sensitivity and adaptive capacity are at the heart of the program’s success,” she said. “We tailor outreach and engagement to variables such as health status, location, language, literacy, values, culture, consumer interests and functional abilities.”

Her most recent innovation with the Wellness Club is a new program that pairs the video game system Kinect for Xbox 360 with evidence-based health education in order to help older adults “play” their way to increased physical activity and social engagement. Inspired by the program’s success, Vázquez will partner with the USC Leonard Davis School’s Kate Wilber, PhD, to conduct further directed research.

Another area Vázquez has been involved in is workforce development and training. As part of this initiative, her team took on a major role in coordinating the Geriatric Social Work Education Consortium (GSWEC), co-founded by Partners in Care Foundation’s CEO, June Simmons.

GSWEC is a unique model of collaboration between schools and agencies and allowed them to begin an internship program whose first intern was—Vázquez noted proudly—a USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology grad student.

“A field placement at Partners in Care or any of the other excellent agencies within GSWEC offers unique hands-on experiences for students planning to go into a range of leadership and professional roles in health and human services,” Vázquez said. “We are committed to educating the geriatric health, human services, social workers and gerontologists of the future.”

As she helps train the next generation of gerontologists and geriatric social workers while pushing herself and her colleagues to continually innovate on behalf of older Angelenos, Vázquez is also continuing her own academic and professional growth.

“I hope to bring my work to publication during my tenure at USC,” she said. “I am grateful and excited to collaborate with the many wonderfully talented and supportive professionals I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years at Partners in Care as well as here at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.”