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Researcher Keen to Advance Geriatric Social Work Policy

By David Miller

Aug. 4, 2020

Dr. Nicole Ruggiano’s work to improve services and support of family caregivers in Alabama will grow significantly over the next two years.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has appointed Ruggiano, associate professor in the University of Alabama School of Social Work, to the Alabama Lifespan Respite Coalition, a team of legislators and healthcare workers tasked with improving the state’s resources, education and outreach for caregivers.

The Coalition supports the broader mission of the Alabama Lifespan Respite Resource Network, which offers education and training to caregivers, and vouchers for respite reimbursement services.

Ruggiano said the Coalition will help identify problems in communities throughout the state, and how to solve them.

Since 2016, Ruggiano has worked extensively with families affected by Alzheimer’s Disease and other types of dementia in the state of Alabama. She noted that, while these families have many needs, respite care is vital for caregivers, particularly for their own mental and physical health.

“Caregivers who have heart conditions or other serious conditions will put off their own doctor visits because they don’t have someone to help them when they’re out of the home,” Ruggiano said. “They’re making a lot of tough choices with the little bit they have.”

“Caregivers need a lot of respite – more than what’s available. In some places, there are no agencies to provide respite.”

Ruggiano’s appointment to the Coalition follows her prior collaborations with the Alabama Department of Senior Services, for which she has provided statewide trainings on dementia care and caregiving. Her work with that agency is an outgrowth of a yearlong fellowship with the American Political Science Association’s Health and Aging Policy Fellowship program in Washington, D.C., where she worked with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) to advance services and policy on health issues among older people.

Ruggiano said the fellowship yielded a new perspective on how government works – a stark contrast to the partisan clashes covered in news media.

“I helped devise testimony to congressional stakeholders and worked with executive branch administrators and administrators from AHRQ and the National Institutes of Health to develop health technologies for people with multiple chronic conditions,” Ruggiano said. “So, I was able to see collaboration within the federal government that we don’t see on the news. We’re at a point right now where people are really exhausted with politics, but people need to be engaged right now.”

Alabama’s focus on respite care mirrors efforts at the federal level to support caregivers, Ruggiano said. The RAISE Family Caregivers Act was signed into law in January 2018 and tasks the federal government with providing a strategy for “communities, providers, government, and others are taking and may take to recognize and support family caregivers,” including respite options. For instance, AARP and other nationwide agencies have since worked with states to advance respite care legislation.

Ruggiano, who holds a PhD in public policy, has been keen to work with governments to advance geriatric social work policy, and her community work in Alabama has provided a unique opportunity with the Coalition.

“This is where I do my social work practice, in addition to my research and teaching,” she said. “Sometimes students don’t understand the concept of macro-level social work, but this is macro practice – trying to make change from 10,000 feet.”