Dr. Robert Kane spent his life studying aging and railing against nursing homes, burdensome regulations and a long-term care system that too often fails to support families and their frail loved ones.
So it was some consolation that Kane himself didn’t have to endure the indignities he so pointedly criticized through the years. The longtime University of Minnesota professor and researcher died suddenly of a heart attack on Monday, after spending the weekend working at his campus office. He was 77.
“He still had so many balls bouncing in the air,” said his wife, Rosalie, a social worker and fellow U scholar who co-authored numerous books and journal articles on the long-term care system with her husband.
One of the world’s leading researchers on aging, Kane was thick into leading a project to find ways to fix underlying problems with America’s long-term care system — a system, he long argued, that was ill-suited to treat chronic conditions that last for decades.
A bill seeking funding for the initiative, which he called a “rethink tank,” had gotten bipartisan support in the Minnesota Senate before getting shelved last week.
“It’s kind of my grand hurrah,” Kane said in an interview less than two weeks ago with the Star Tribune. Kane said he and his team already had developed a protocol and were laying groundwork for a demonstration project in Minnesota to test new ways of providing housing and services for older and disabled people.
Born in New York City, Kane met his wife while they were freshmen at the University of Toronto. He graduated from Harvard University’s medical school and arrived in Minnesota in 1985 to become dean of the U’s School of Public Health, a post he held for five years. He and Rosalie raised three daughters — Miranda, Ingrid and Kate.
Over four decades, Kane became known for his withering critiques and scientific analysis of aging and long-term care systems in the U.S. and abroad, writing or editing more than 35 books and 500 journal articles. Those in the aging field sometimes referred to Kane as their “frenemy” for his relentless push against the status quo and failure to sugarcoat his opinions. But Kane’s hard work and dedication always earned respect.
“The guy was very much driven by excellence,” said John Finnegan, dean of the U’s School of Health, who talked to Kane just last week of creating a universitywide center on aging to honor his legacy. “He was driven by next set of research questions. You could say in many ways he did not suffer fools gladly.”
Author and explorer Dan Buettner called Kane the “godfather of ‘The Blue Zones,’ ” Buettner’s bestselling work on the areas of the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives. Kane introduced Buettner to the nation’s top demographers and scientists at the National Institute on Aging, and helped secure a grant that led to formative early Blue Zones research. Kane considered Buettner a key ally in his long-term care “rethink tank” project.
“He always kept me on the straight-and-narrow scientifically,” said Buettner, who met Kane regularly for breakfast at the Lowry in Minneapolis.
For all Kane’s scholarly work, it was the 2005 book he wrote with his sister, Candy West, that touched the hearts of many and turned Kane from a researcher into an activist.
The book, “It Shouldn’t Be This Way: The Failure of Long-term Care,” chronicled the siblings’ difficult three-year experience caring for their mother after she had a stroke. “It was one thing to write about as a scholar and hypothesize,” said his sister, a retired Long Island schoolteacher. “But when you’re going through it, it’s pretty mind-blowing. … He was so dedicated to the idea that this system should work.”