Kathleen Insel, PhD, RN, stays active, physically and mentally, as she leads an initiative intent on improving health and well-being throughout the lifespan.
Kathleen Insel, PhD, RN, has been fascinated with aging since she was a child and looked up to her grandmother, who lived her life with vigor and wonder and marked milestones with a collection of rare teacups.
In honor of her grandmother, Insel has a teacup collection of her own. The collection transports her to her childhood when she admired her grandmother’s collection. For Insel, the teacups freeze time, allowing her to hop back through associated memories and feelings by looking at each piece.
“I had the most amazing grandma, and I think it starts with that,” Insel said. “It was peaceful at her house. Everything was clean and organized. You'd walk in the door, and she'd offer you a cup of tea.”
Seeing her grandmother’s vitality sparked Insel’s interest in health care, specifically uniting people to promote healthy aging. From her early days as a critical care nurse to her current positions as director of Innovations in Healthy Aging, a University of Arizona Health Sciences initiative, and a professor at the UArizona College of Nursing, Insel stepped into leadership roles, embraced changing technology and blazed a trail through the ranks of academia.
Promoting healthy aging
As a first-generation student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Insel gravitated to the sciences, particularly physiological sciences. She wanted a profession that would guarantee job opportunities following graduation, and nursing seemed a logical choice. Little did she realize in those preprofessional days how critical this early decision would be. She found in nursing not only a source of income, but a rewarding career touched by profound experiences while providing care for patients and families.
Throughout her career in nursing, education and research, Insel has been drawn to helping people maintain health. She is fascinated by the process of aging – the way the body adapts and changes over the decades – and takes satisfaction in helping older adults recover from health challenges.
Often, she feels she benefits from the experience as much as her patients do.
“It’s not what I do for them, it’s what they do for me,” Insel said of her interactions with older adults,” Insel said. “Because I have a critical care background, I tend to be results-oriented and a quick decision maker. I get data, and I move on it. It’s fast-paced. When I’m with an older person, I slow down. I take in a different perspective. I focus on what they’re saying, what they’re doing and how they’re behaving. I’m a better person when I’m with older adults and children. Aging is fascinating; lifespan is fascinating.”
Innovations in Healthy Aging dovetails with Insel’s passions. The initiative brings together experts in the field of aging from across the University of Arizona to pursue novel opportunities to optimize health and wellness while acknowledging the challenges that come with aging. This can include helping medical professionals increase their understanding of the way the body heals as it ages, as well as finding ways to help older adults adapt to changing environments, putting them in a better position to help themselves.
“One of the things we prioritize is working to create an age-friendly university, so that older adults feel a part of the university – they feel like they belong,” Insel said, adding that Innovations in Healthy Aging is the ideal outlet for her to help fill the critical need of supporting older adults as they age.
Quote: “One of the things we prioritize is working to create an age-friendly community, so that older adults feel a part of the university – they feel like they belong.”
—Kathleen Insel, PhD, RN
When it comes to healthy aging, Insel practices what she preaches. Since moving to Tucson in 1980, she gained a passion for cycling, which continues with regular rides with friends. She previously completed El Tour de Tucson and Tour of the Tucson Mountains. She takes pleasure in the way cycling with friends helps recapture the whimsy of youth while also providing a rewarding workout.
“I feel joy and childlike riding a bike, like it takes me back to an earlier time,” Insel said of morning rides with friends that help calibrate her mind and body for the day ahead.
Enlisting technology to help
Insel channels much of her research into developing and testing technology to maintain health. With funding from the National Institute of Nursing Research, a division of the National Institutes of Health, she developed an app that integrates education, enhances encoding and storage, and reminds patients to take their medications.
Insel’s goal is to simplify the process of tracking when to take medications regularly and safely while eliminating the anxiety that comes with wondering whether they’ve forgotten to take a medication or whether they’re in danger of going over their prescribed dosages.
The idea sprung from a desire to find a way to use technology to sustain the successful strategies tested in the multifacted prospective memory intervention, a study she led that was published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society in 2016. The intervention switched older adults from relying on executive function and working memory processes, which show effects of cognitive aging, to mostly automatic associative processes that are relatively spared with normal aging to remember things such as taking mediations.
“What we’re really driving at is improving self-management capacity by using strategies that support self-management,” Insel said. “For example, I’m good with numbers. Years ago, somebody would give me a phone number, and I could remember it. It was just imprinted in my brain. Now, I have to write it down or it’s gone. Now I have a strategy; I know I have to write down the phone number.”
“We’re striving to support autonomy and independence,” Insel said. “We want to help older adults, including those with mild cognitive impairment, stay independent for as long as possible. MEDsReM-M is a way to leverage technology by using the smartphone app to facilitate self-management.”
Preparing the next generation
When asked to lead the UArizona College of Nursing as interim dean in June 2022, Insel, a natural leader, embraced the opportunity. She says she cherished the chance to help prepare the next generation of nurses. For her, it was a way to give back to the profession she chose at the beginning of her career.
“That was an amazing experience for me, and I liked it more than I thought I would,” said Insel, who served until May 2023, when dean Brian Ahn, PhD, MSN, MS-CTS, MS-ECE, APRN, ANP-BC, FAAN, was hired. “I was in a position to learn so much more about what others were doing and about the absolute critical importance of each member of the team.”
Just as in bike riding, her career has always been exciting, with promise of adventure and thrills around every turn. Insel plans to continue down her path to exploring the wonders of aging while taking time to enjoy the ride.
“We have a burgeoning, aging population and a large influx of older people in Arizona. We can’t ignore their needs. They will impact every one of our public, social and economic systems,” Insel said. “Careers that focus on addressing these opportunities and challenges will be in need more than ever, and that future is bright.
“Nursing is an amazing profession. I’ve gained much more from it than I’ve given,” she added. “You go to work every day, knowing that what you’re doing is important to someone.”