When the University of Minnesota’s world-renowned aging expert Robert Kane died unexpectedly in March 2017, he was heavily involved in state and federal projects to address housing and the way older adults receive long-term care services. Into that gap stepped Joe Gaugler, a longtime researcher on family caregiving and dementia. Gaugler had worked on many research projects with Kane through the decades as a leader in the university’s School of Nursing. A year ago, Gaugler was named to the endowed chair in long-term care that now is named in Kane’s honor. He is working to reignite Kane’s vision of creating a universitywide Center on Aging.
Q: What are the roots of the Center on Aging at the University of Minnesota?
A: I’ve discovered so many interesting details about its history as I’ve sorted through the documents left in Bob’s office after I moved in. The Center on Aging evolved out of what was called the All-University Council on Aging. It was supported by CURA — the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs — which was part of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The council was composed of subcommittees of people across campus interested in aging, education and research. Every year they put out a brochure for students of all the courses on aging, they held a regular seminar and produced a newsletter. In 1988, the provost redirected funding from CURA. To expand funding options, council members decided to form a center. Bob was elected director in 1994.
Q: What was its purpose?
A: The Center on Aging’s mission was — and still is — to serve as the hub of research, practice and education related to aging at the University of Minnesota.
Q: What’s the current status of the center?
A: Since Bob passed away in 2017, it’s been on hiatus. In the past 20 years, a number of school-specific initiatives on aging research have emerged. The School of Nursing has its own center, the Medical School has several initiatives related to the biology of aging. Even though the Center on Aging operated as a schoolwide center, because of its structure, it never received institutional financial support. Many of Bob’s memos were to the director of the Academic Health Center, to the president of the university, to others beseeching them to provide financial support to the center, and that never really happened. Much of the center’s universitywide profile and success was based on Bob’s efforts, his will, his force of personality and intellect to keep it running.
Q: How are efforts going to reignite the center as a hub?
A: Our initial strategy at the School of Public Health was to re-establish it as a true universitywide center with support from the provost office and the president. But because of the transitions in university leadership, that’s been put on hold. (Former University of South Carolina provost Joan Gabel will take over as U president on July 1 when Eric Kaler’s term ends.) Now we’re working with colleagues across campus to build research collaborations, but also looking to build aging science and scholarship in the School of Public Health. It’s possible the Center on Aging might be a school-level initiative rather than universitywide.
Q: Have you made progress?
A: We started the Aging Work Group last fall with faculty members from across the university to discuss research ideas and, more important, identify strategies to develop them collaboratively. My strategy is to build from the ground up vs. going to the upper levels of the administration. You can argue that the strongest centers start that way anyway. Faculty come together across disciplines and they craft and forge ideas themselves.
Q: Is there a downside to not addressing something as vast as aging under a single umbrella?
A: Having a universitywide structure helps secure much larger, collaborative, infrastructure types of research grants. These are much higher dollar amounts and more prestigious, which helps position the university develop large teams and multiple students in various areas of aging science and aging scholarship. Because we don’t have that larger university superstructure on aging, it’s more challenging for us to compete against other institutions that do.
Q: Has the university lost influence in the interim?
A: I don’t think so. Based on Bob’s efforts, as well as many of the innovations that were developed by the Minnesota long-term care network, that was achieved. Minnesota is known as a leader in long-term care throughout the U.S. The AARP puts out a report card on long-term care services and supports, and Minnesota is routinely ranked No. 1 or No. 2. Nobody can replace Bob. He was a giant intellect and personality. At same time, many people in aging science, geriatric practice and gerontological education want to work together. It’s an exciting time to try to bring together faculty, students, staff and Minnesotans to create an academic hub of aging that will stand out.