Marc Cohen, PhD, worked for decades in private industry before joining UMass Boston in 2016. His transition to an academic setting was nearly seamless, he says, because for all those years, “I was a misplaced academic in the corporate world.”

As co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center @UMass Boston, Cohen leads a small team conducting applied research to improve quality of care and quality of life for the most vulnerable older Americans. The center is unique in combining the resources of a major research university, with the expertise and experience of its researchers, with applied researchers at LeadingAge, a nonprofit membership organization representing providers of long-term services and supports (LTSS). The aim of the partnership is to translate research into policy and practice to address the quality of care and quality of life for older Americans.

Cohen has always been drawn to research. After earning his doctorate in social welfare at Brandeis University, he and three colleagues founded LifePlans, Inc., a long-term care research and risk management company that worked on issues of financing and delivery of LTSS. Cohen served as chief research and development officer as well as its former president. Over the years he conducted extensive research and analysis on a variety of public policy issues affecting LTSS financing and delivery, and he has promoted public-private partnerships to address these national challenges.

“Even when I became president of LifePlans, I always had a research group working with me,” he says. “I felt knowledge generation was critical to expanding opportunities and reform efforts. And I saw publishing research as part of good corporate citizenship.”

Yet research itself isn’t his endgame. “When Len Fishman [former director of the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston] recruited me here, my resume looked like I might fit in very well at the university. But I also had a practical understanding of how organizations work and the business decisions that play into why services are delivered in a certain way. My entire research career has been in applied research, always with the aim of influencing policy and practice.”

His work at the LTSS Center also includes serving as research director for Community Catalyst, a national consumer health advocacy organization. “Thanks to working with Community Catalyst, I’ve come to understand more fully that real policy change has to happen from the ground up, which means investing in grassroots coalition building. I’ve learned how critical it is to bring in consumer voices for advocacy. So we are doing more qualitative research, a lot more talking to people about their experiences.”

Among Cohen’s current research projects are:

  • Continuing research into person-centered care and why it matters, funded by the SCAN Foundation. In their latest report, the researchers found that one-third of people 50 and older report that their health care clinicians rarely or never take into account their care preferences, and that a person’s race, insurance status, and income level affect the quality of person-centered care they receive. Read more about the person-centered care research
  • For the Department of Health and Human Services, the project “Assessing Medicaid Rates and Costs in Nursing Facilities,” seeks to collect data state by state to answer the basic question of whether Medicaid reimbursement rates cover the costs of the services provided by nursing homes. Read more about the Medicaid reimbursement research
  • Working with the National Council on Aging, Cohen and his colleagues created a health index that measures disease burden by looking at the cost of care and the cost of foregone wages to provide a more complete picture of the economic impact of chronic disease on older adults. Read more about “Chronic Inequities” research
  • Cohen and Community Catalyst researchers continue to work on issues around family caregivers and how to support them, including support for coalition building.  The LTSS Center is conducting an evaluation of those efforts, and are already learning the challenges associated with evaluating advocacy efforts.  Read more about family caregivers research

Cohen credits his doctoral thesis — which asked whether nursing home care is an insurable risk —as setting him on his career path. But he also found inspiration for working in gerontology closer to home. “The single most unique person I’ve ever known was my grandmother, my father’s mother. She aged well, and she died well,” he says. “We always had a very strong connection.”

Working to change how we pay for and provide long-term care is slow, challenging work, but Cohen is hopeful. “It feels like change is on the horizon,” he says. “When people start to believe that the cost of doing nothing exceeds the cost of doing something, they move. That’s why these coalitions are forming.”

Cohen points to a Jewish proverb that says we are obligated to plant new seeds even if the trees won’t bear fruit in our lifetimes. Cohen isn’t likely to benefit himself from potential changes to how we provide and pay for long-term care, “but that’s OK. The next generation will.”

Read more: WISH Act and UMass Boston’s Marc Cohen Hope to Transform American Elder Care