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NMSU interim dean appointed to Institute of Medicine committee to study family caregiving

In the United States today, the oldest-old population – 85 years and older – is the fastest growing age group. This also is the age group that is most likely at risk for cognitive and physical health problems.


Woman talking on a phone in her office.
Donna L. Wagner, interim dean of the College of Health and Social Services at New Mexico State University, will serve on the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Family Caregiving for Older Adults. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

For many older Americans, the majority of their long-term care needs are taken care of by a family member or friend. As many as 40 percent of American families are providing ongoing care to an older family member.

Recognizing the importance of family caregiving, the Institute of Medicine has begun a new study to address the myriad of issues involved. Donna L. Wagner, interim dean of the College of Health and Social Services at New Mexico State University, has been selected to serve as a member of the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Family Caregiving for Older Adults.

Wagner said she was thrilled to be asked to serve on the committee and understands the importance of the committee’s purpose.

“The Institute of Medicine’s studies are really important game changers in a couple of ways,” she said. “The studies not only have an effect on curriculum in higher education but also public policy. Study recommendations inform health professionals as well as policy advocates. They are very proactive studies.”

The committee is scheduled to meet every few months for approximately 15 months at different locations across the country, and the meetings are open to the public.

Wagner is one of the country’s leading experts in the field of eldercare. She joined NMSU in January 2011 as the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for the college before her current role as interim dean.

The goal of the committee is to create a report for universities and policy makers to raise awareness and set out prescriptive recommendations about family caregiving.

A 2008 Institute of Medicine study, “Retooling for an Aging America: Building the Health Care Workforce,” has had an impact on funding for universities, including NMSU. In 2012, NMSU’s School of Nursing received a three-year, $810,000 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to infuse gerontology into the curriculum.

According to Wagner, family caregiving is a both a public policy issue and personal issue.

“Families are the default long-term care system in the country because we do not have a public long-term care system in the U.S. Contrary to public opinion, Medicare does not cover long-term care,” Wagner said.

The financial aspect of caregiving is just one of the challenges. Nursing home care can cost more than $100,000 a year in some locations.

Wagner said the committee members will have many resources to examine for their study, not only academic research but also practical experience.

“Our work will be supported by vast literature,” Wagner said. “The literature on family caregiving is very large and many of the members of the committee have made important contributions to this literature.”

Currently, about 40 percent of the American public is providing family caregiving for an older adult and about 15 percent of caregivers are not family members. The average length of time a family caregiver provides care is more than five years, and many caregivers leave the workforce every year to care for a family member.

“As we look forward to the next 20 years, we see a very scary future because a lot of people in my generation and the generation right after me forgot to have kids,” Wagner said. “Absent a comprehensive, long-term care system, we have to wonder: What is going to happen to older adults who need care and have no children?”

Despite the challenges of family caregiving, Wagner said in her nearly 30 years of research experience in the field, she has found that caregivers believe the experience is a positive one.

“All of the people who I’ve talked to who are caregivers, including the people in my family, report it’s an honor to help a parent or grandparent. You have the satisfaction of knowing that you did everything that you could,” she said.