After seven years of commuting by train from Philadelphia to her job at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Philadelphia native Laura Gitlin is happy to have a local commute again.
Starting Feb. 1, she’ll be the new dean of Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, a division that boasts 4,500 students in a wide variety of disciplines, including behavioral health counseling, physical therapy, health services administration, nutrition, and nursing. It does not include Gitlin’s field: applied sociology. That’s fine with her. She has never worked in sociology departments and thinks her background will help foster interdisciplinary work among students and help them understand that social factors such as where people live and who they live with affect their health status.
“The social and medical cannot be separated,” she said.
An expert on home- and community-based interventions for people with dementia and their caregivers, Gitlin lost both of her parents during her stint at Johns Hopkins, where she was founding director of the nursing school’s Center for Innovative Care in Aging. Her mother had heart disease and her father had frailty and cognitive problems associated with years of cancer treatment. In some cases, the gaps between research and personal experience were telling. Research, she said, is “unsophisticated” about the variability of cognitive changes in aging.
“The profoundness of caregiving, I don’t think we understand that — and the financial toll.” The relationship between caregiving and employment needs more attention, she said.
She also got a taste of how frustrating caregiving can be. She’ll never forget a phone call with her father in which she told him he had been repeating himself, something that she would have told other caregivers not to do because it doesn’t work. “Oh, I can’t believe I said that to him,” she thought.
Gitlin was an anthropology major at Temple University. She taught at St. Joseph’s University and Rutgers University-Camden but is likely best known locally for her work at Thomas Jefferson University, where she started in 1987. She was the founding director of the Center for Applied Research on Aging there.
She recently became the chair of an advisory council for the National Alzheimer’s Project Act that reports to the secretary of Health and Human Services.
She said she was attracted to Drexel because of the College of Nursing’s commitment to civic engagement and the range of its disciplines. Its five clinical practices, some of which are in “the most poorly resourced sections of Philadelphia,” were also appealing. At this point, she said, she is less interested in publications and more in “impact.”
Gitlin said the U.S. needs health care that is not only more patient-centered but more inclusive of families and caregivers. Health professionals need to be more aware of how trauma, communities, and poverty affect medical conditions.
“It’s not only about taking a pill,” she said. “Can you open the pill box? Can you get your prescription? Can you walk in the neighborhood to get fresh fruits and vegetables?”