In Memory of Dr. Kathryn Hyer
Director of the Florida Policy Exchange Center on Aging, 2009-2021
Kathryn Hyer loved policy. In a field such as gerontology, with its multiple branches of study, from the biological determinants of aging to age-friendly communities, she kept her focus on policy. She viewed aging and policy broadly - as the workings of government and private systems and how they affect the lives of older adults. She cared especially about understanding the complexities of long-term care and the quality of care in nursing homes and assisted living communities. She knew the value of data, and long before she became FPECA director in 2009, she obtained multiple years of nursing home data from the federal government.Her goal: to give students and faculty researchers the tools to study the effect of staffing increases in nursing homes in Florida. The studies that followed provided valuable evidence that quality of care in nursing homes is tied to the number of direct care staff members.
After four hurricanes struck Florida in the summer of 2004 she turned her attention to the effects of these events on nursing home residents. This began a program of research that led to research, policy reports, and government and industry workshops on how to protect older adults in disasters. And in 2017 she became the principal investigator on a National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Aging grant to study the effects of Hurricane Irma on nursing home and assisted living residents. By this time, she was a full professor in the School of Aging Studies at USF and had become so well known as an expert on disaster preparedness in long-term care that she was invited to testify at a U.S. Senate hearing on the topic.
Along the way, Professor Hyer inspired and contributed to many other projects on key policy issues – the role of Medicaid funding in long-term care, reducing nursing-home-to-hospital transfers, improving training for geriatricians, dementia training in long-term care, end-of-life and hospice care, and the growth of the assisted living industry.
She gave her time to multiple community and long-term care industry groups to help translate research into practice. Long active in efforts to promote gerontological education, she worked to ensure that her students understood policy, why it mattered, and how it related to their research.
Kathryn Hyer’s love of this work, and her expertise, stemmed from her early studies at Boston College, where she majored in sociology and economics, going on to get a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a PhD in public administration from Arizona State University.
One of her first jobs in gerontology was with Robert Butler, chair of the Department of Geriatrics at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York. Butler was the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Why Survive? Being Old in America, written the same year he was founding director of the National Institute on Aging. Butler coined the term ageism, drawing attention to the institutional practices that perpetuate negative stereotypes about older adults.
Professor Hyer drew on her experiences with Robert Butler when, in 2020, she prepared to serve as president of the Gerontological Society of America. She’d been elected to the position by the GSA membership, made up of more than 5,500 researchers, educators, practitioners, and other professionals from around the world. As president she was responsible for coming up with a theme for the Annual Scientific Meeting in 2021, the 75th anniversary of GSA. She chose “Turning 75: Why Age Matters.”
To her it meant many things, from the use of age as a variable in research to the meaning of a long life and the incorrect and damaging stereotypes tied to aging. But underlying all of that was a challenge to her students and colleagues to think about their work in gerontology and why they do it, and to understand one thing: Why their research matters.