Alaska's Geriatric Education Center provides needed resources

Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Senior News By Marianne Mills

This year 78 million baby boomers will start to turn 60 years old. Alaska ranks No. 1 in the nation in the percentage of the statewide population who are baby boomers. "The whole country, especially Alaska, needs to figure out how we are going to have a trained workforce to care for all those seniors," says Pat Luby, Advocacy Director for the AARP Alaska.

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Fortunately, in 2003 the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and University of Alaska Southeast Sitka formed a consortium to create Alaska's Geriatric Education Center. The AKGEC offers training for a wide range of professional and paraprofessional workers, including senior center staff, certified nursing assistants, home health nurses, social workers, administrators, policy makers, health professions faculty, and current or aspiring health care professionals. The program emphasizes the unique needs and issues affecting older Alaskans, celebrating Alaska's unique history and cultural diversity.

AKGEC staff members, experienced in elder care issues, are located in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Sitka, although distance learning is offered throughout the state. During its first year, AKGEC served 569 trainees, with 818 persons receiving training in the second year. At le'ast 30% of AKGEC trainees have been from the rural and bush areas of the state.

A growing number of Alaskans who work with seniors have benefited from the annual Care of the Elderly Conference, the certification course about Alzheimer's disease, and the "Promoting Best Practices in Elder Health" event. These are just a few of the many training opportunities offered by the AKGEC. Funding for the program is made possible by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Bureau of Health Professions. The AKGEC is one of 50 Geriatric Education Centers nationwide. Unfortunately, funding for these programs was eliminated in fiscal year 2006.

"For the Feds to think of cutting back training in gerontology makes absolutely no sense when we know that we are going to have more older people," explains Luby. "We need to start training people now."

Pat has a master's degree in gerontology, thanks to the federal government. Back in the '70s there was a program funded by the U.S. Administration on Aging that paid tuition fees to prepare people for the workforce. "We need to return to those days," tells Luby.

Pat goes on to explain that the AARP recently signed onto a Leadership Council of Aging Organizations letter urging U.S. Congress to restore funding for programs that train health professionals in geriatrics. The HRSA supports three initiatives: the Geriatric Academic Career Award, which helps develop newly trained geriatric physicians into academic medicine; the geriatric faculty fellowships, designed to train physicians, dentists and mental health professionals who decide to teach geriatric medicine, dentistry and psychiatry; and the 50 geriatric education centers across the country that have trained personnel from over 20 professions to care for elderly patients.

Given the lack of adequately trained health care providers in geriatrics, it is critical that the funding be restored.

• Marianne Mills is the program director of Southeast Senior Services, which offers home and community-based services for older Alaskans throughout the region.

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