Image: group of student volunteers outside of Tampa’s HART station

 

Whether the barriers are access to vehicles, medical conditions, or a global pandemic, many older adults face transportation challenges. About 15% of Hillsborough County’s population belongs to the 65+ community, and their limited access to transportation options restricts medical visits, grocery shopping, and visiting family and friends.

The Healthy Buddy Program (HBP) at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) provides older adults with personalized transportation options and health-related resources.

Established in 2018 by Siwon Jang, Ph.D., HBP matches University of South Florida students with older adults at Hillsborough County senior centers. Students with backgrounds in social work, public health, or other related fields work directly with their older adult “buddy” to craft a personalized transportation plan.

“Affordable transportation options exist in our community, but many transportation-disadvantaged older adults do not know how to use them,” said Jang. “We wanted to connect the older adults with our trained USF students to provide  transportation and health resources available in Hillsborough County.”

Exploratory interviews with local older adult residents were conducted in the first phase to determine the feasibility and desirability of HBP. The second phase paired English-speaking Hillsborough County residents with students. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, students traveled with the research team to local senior centers to speak with residents about their needs during an assessment period. The students recorded their findings and worked with the CUTR research team to produce a unique transportation plan for each participant. Many of the participants had limited transportation resources and faced affordability issues; the team found innovative solutions to a variety of barriers including paratransit and local buses. In the second phase, 22 older adults from the case group completed the program and received their personalized transportation plan. Another 21 participants from the control group provided invaluable feedback to the program.

In spring 2020, the Center for Transportation, Equity, Decisions, and Dollars (CTEDD) accepted the team’s proposal for phase three. The third phase introduced the program to Hillsborough County’s Spanish-speaking older adult population. The Hispanic/Latinx population in Hillsborough County is significant, at approximately 30% of the area’s total population, compared to 18% at the national level (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). Program materials were translated, and Spanish-speaking students were recruited to assist.

With COVID-19 and safety being their first concern, Dr. Jang and her team morphed the program for remote delivery: students met with older adults through conference calls and virtual settings for needs assessments. In addition to providing transportation plans, the team is also providing COVID-19 safety and travel information for vaccines.

The lack of in-person collaboration has decreased the program’s enrollment numbers, and the team is searching for ways to engage the community during this global crisis.

“The Spanish version of Healthy Buddy Program was started to respond the need of Spanish-speaking older adults we met during Phase I and II of the study,” said Jang. “Even though we are having hard time to connect with them due to COVID-19, we strongly believe that there are many Spanish-speaking older adults who need this transportation and health-related information to maintain a healthy and safe life. We hope that the Spanish version of the Healthy Buddy Program could be recognized more in the community so that it can contribute to improving mobility and quality of life for transportation-disadvantaged Spanish-speaking older adults.”

To learn more about the Healthy Buddy Program, please visit:

English site 

Spanish site

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