Meet the researcher: Wendy Duggleby

Wendy Duggleby has been gradually winding down at the U of A in preparation for eventual full retirement in June 2023. But in many ways, her work is picking up steam.

Sasha Roeder-Mah - 01 August 2022

When Wendy Duggleby, ’90 MNurs, returned to the University of Alberta in 2010 to assume the role of endowed research chair in aging and quality of life, she knew she was joining a nursing faculty with a shining global reputation. As she recalled, the quality of education and scholarship she’d experienced in pursuit of her master’s at the U of A often exceeded what she went on to receive in her PhD in Houston. What she didn’t know when she began as chair was where her research would take her — only that it would be driven by the needs of the community. And that it would be fully supported by her tightly knit Faculty of Nursing family.

Duggleby has been gradually winding down at the U of A in preparation for eventual full retirement in June 2023. But in many ways, her work is picking up steam.

We spoke to Duggleby about her biggest project — Nav-CARE — the challenges she and her co-principal investigator faced getting it up and running, and how it feels to have opened the door for researchers and communities to help it grow and flourish after she’s retired.

What is the focus of your research?

The goal of my research is to enhance the quality of life of older persons and their families, working with community organizations to address their needs. 

With national and provincial funding support, my research teams and I have developed and evaluated several interventions to foster hope and quality of life in older persons and their family caregivers. 

How did you determine where the greatest need was as you began your research?

I started by conducting focus groups with older persons and their families, asking what their biggest issues were and what could really help them. They said they really could use navigators, from their own communities. 

I went through the literature to see whether this had ever been done before and discovered this model had been used, but with health-care professionals supporting cancer patients. So we had to determine whether a similar approach would work for us and older persons and their families.

Tell us more about the beginnings of Nav-CARE.

In the model used with cancer patients, professional health-care providers help patients navigate the complexities of the health-care system. My co-PI (Barbara Pesut, professor at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia) and I determined a new working definition for our project, which would be carried out by volunteers: Navigation is working with older persons and their families to help them identify their quality-of-life priorities. Navigators help them access resources, information and people, and help them re-engage back with their communities, to increase quality of life and independence. 

This spawned the development of Nav-CARE, with the first site launching in Nelson, B.C., followed quickly by Camrose, Alberta. Nav-CARE is now at 33 sites across Canada, with more than 400 active volunteers. Last year alone we trained about 250.

What do navigators typically do?

Volunteer navigators always ask this question, “What is most important to you today?” In that way the focus is on quality of life. Surprisingly, 70 to 80 per cent of the time, it’s more to do with social care than health care.  

Navigators might connect patients with friends and family, community activities. They might have to arrange transportation to appointments, set up help with meals. Navigators have to be prepared to handle all kinds of different needs and situations. 

All navigators are volunteers trained in our system, and have previous experience working within an organization like a seniors centre or a hospice society. We also try to ensure navigators come from the patients’ own community, to help with issues such as language barriers and cultural differences. 

What were your biggest challenges in getting Nav-CARE up and running?

At the beginning, one of the most challenging things was introducing the project to different health-care organizations. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t treading on people’s toes, and explain that what our volunteers were doing was very different from what health-care professionals do. With health-care professionals, assessments are often focused on disease and symptoms and that is only a small portion of a person’s life. Navigators’ work is not disease focused; it’s about quality of life.

At first, I was surprised at the barriers and resistance I ran into within the health professions. But I tried as often as I could to meet personally with people and listen to their concerns. In fact, one person who objected quite strongly to Nav-CARE in the beginning has become one of the program’s strongest advocates. 

What’s next for Nav-CARE and other related research projects from your team?

Most recently, the program was translated into French for Canada’s francophone population, and there’s also one new site in New Zealand. And, after a research group in the EU read our publications, they asked for our help to adapt Nav-CARE for Belgium, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland and Portugal. 

With our consultation, they got a grant to get it up and running, and we’re all gathering in September for a week to kick off the project. For the next while, Barb and I will be making regular trips to Europe to help support the growth of these new sites. 

What has given you the most satisfaction in watching your research grow?

I’m excited to see my students carry the torch forward. One of my former doctoral students, Hannah O’Rourke, is now a faculty member at the U of A and she’s talking about adapting some toolkits we started together to support caregivers of people with young onset dementia. I’m really glad she’s able to take that work and move it forward. I’m having fun watching her be so successful. 

Another former doctoral student, Shelley Peacock, is now at the University of Saskatchewan, building an app of resources for caregivers of persons with dementia.  

I think this is why I feel ready for retirement — there are these hugely talented researchers I’ve had a chance to work with and watch go forward with their own connected projects and it makes my career feel so meaningful. 

What have you loved most about learning and working in the Faculty of Nursing?

When I started my master’s degree at the U of A, I realized the faculty here in nursing — they’re the ones who write the textbooks! It’s that kind of atmosphere, so I was so pleased to be able to come back as a research chair. When you come here, it is research intensive and you really are surrounded by a community that you don’t get in other places. The number of stimulating discussions, the support — my research really took off. I am very grateful to have worked in that stimulating and supportive environment. 

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