Experts discuss alternatives in geriatric medicine

Last year, more than 450 people attended the Alaska Health Summit at the Captain Cook Hotel from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 and learned about modern medical miracles and problems in a weeklong program. The attendees were diverse, which reflected a myriad of issues that are often overlooked.

Gary Ferguson, wellness coordinator for the eastern Aleutian tribes, graduated from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Ore., and can easily discuss the differences between population-based and “boutique-based” health treatment-terms that are foreign to most people.

 ”Population-based treatment means looking at one individual with the idea of what is good for the general population this person fits into,” Ferguson said. “Boutique-based means looking at just the individual. We’re trying to move more to look at the needs of the individual, but it’s a slow process.”

 Ferguson, who is originally from Sand Point, worries about the area where he was raised and still calls home. Located in the Aleutians, the island’s economy relies on fishing and subsistence that is only beginning to recover from dips in the fishing industry. Having been raised in an area with a population that is more than 40 percent Alaska Native — a heritage he shares — he became acquainted with change.

 Out of the population of 1,000 people, many are at or below the poverty line, including over 30 percent of those 65 and older. The area has gone up and down both socially and economically.

“They (residents) have seen huge challenges in that region – They’re disenfranchised,” Ferguson said.

Commercial fishing and seafood processing accounted for 94 percent of the entire economic base, but fewer salmon and lower prices practically bankrupted the area.

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 Ferguson, who currently lives in Anchorage, said he has several family members in Sand Point, and has “a vested interest in bettering it.” But he only visits on occasion, usually to help with health care needs.

 He said he is hopeful.

 ”I think they’re becoming more community-focused, again,” he said.

Still, Sand Point’s roller coaster economy persists. Unemployment jumped from 11 percent in 1990 to more than 20 percent in 2000, but it’s down to about 3 percent, now.

 Ferguson said he has hope for his home community and the future of care for Alaska Native elders and children.

“Eventually, (I’d like to) work and create the wellness center or retreat center, hopefully at the Alaska Native Medical Center, where elders and youth spend time together,” Ferguson said.

 Dr. William Thomas discussed this type of holistic approach is his presentation, titled “What Are Old People For?”

 Thomas, a geriatric physician with mid-length hair, a full, dark beard and rolled up sleeves, looks more like a logger than a doctor. He is outspoken, stating that public health, policy and news stories about aging are disturbed and ignorant.

“You hear how old people are like a plague of locusts in the news-they just keep taking, taking, taking, how are we going to afford them all?” Thomas said. “That logic takes us to a scary place-where we only value what people can contribute economically.”

Thomas’ proposed “Eldertopia” is a form of care similar to what Ferguson envisions for his elders in the Native communities.

“It’s a community or society that sees old age as what it is-an accumulation of experience, an asset that needs to be protected,” Thomas said.