At age fifty-seven, Donna Cohen has a number of credentials she could boast about. A scientist, educator, and clinician, Cohen has testified before Congress, published ten books, and written more than 180 scientific articles on the topics of dementia, mental health, and violence among the elderly. She serves as a professor in the Department of Aging and Mental Health at the University of South Florida and as director of the university's Violence and Injury Prevention Program, which she helped to start.
But corner Cohen at a party, and you will just as likely hear her tell a ghost story. While she was a student at Duke, she volunteered as a subject for ESP research at the storied Rhine Research Center and even spent two summers investigating haunted houses. "Once, a man in Tennessee met me with a sawed-off shotgun," Cohen recalls. "He said he didn't want us to take his ghost away. We told him not to worry, we just wanted to get to know it."
Even Cohen's choice of universities had an eeriness about it. When she was a senior in high school, a Ouija board at a party spelled out D-U-K-E. "I was not part of a group of believers, but there was openness to investigate new ideas," she says, chuckling. "I look back and smile at myself."
Cohen entered the land of the living in Baltimore. Her mother was of Swedish stock, her father descended from Russian Jews. Her strong relationships with both sets of grandparents taught her that people didn't necessarily become less interesting as they became older.
A biology major, Cohen forged friendships with researchers at the Center on Aging and Human Development (now the Center for Demographic Studies) that eventually led to a serious interest in the field. In 1975, she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. Her dissertation focused on differences in spatial and verbal ability in men and women over sixty.
At the University of South Florida, Cohen put together a Ph.D. program in aging and was its director until 1998. Meanwhile, she conducted research on Alzheimer's that helped establish diagnostic criteria for the disease and identify risk factors.
She was a founder of the National Alzheimer's Association and, in 2001, co-wrote a book about the latest treatments and ways that caregivers can cope. The Loss of Self: A Family Resource for the Care of Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders contains personal stories and reminds readers of the humanity of dementia patients.
Cohen's experience with elderly caregivers has also led her to study incidents of violence in that population. In Florida, 40 percent of murder-suicides occur among people fifty-five and older. These crimes are rarely the result of suicide pacts between a terminally ill couple, she explains. More often, they occur when a caregiver becomes chronically depressed and reaches the breaking point.
Less common, but just as disturbing, is the phenomenon of dementia homicide, in which a dementia patient kills as a result of the disease, not criminal intent. Cohen has been an expert witness in both types of cases, and her research has been used to help law enforcement officers, judges, and other professionals identify warning signs.
She might still be investigating haunted houses if a physicist friend hadn't spooked her. "He said if I was serious about studying strange forces in the universe, then I needed to approach it as a physicist. But I didn't have a head for physics." The field of aging is grateful her talents lay elsewhere.
Donna Cohen '69
Better With Aging
June 1, 2005