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Tom Choate climbing McKinley at 78 is an inspiration for healthy living

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
As the rest of Alaska was soaking up the sun on solstice, Tom Choat, a self-described “old mountain goat” became the oldest man to climb Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. NPS photo

As the rest of Alaska was soaking in the solstice sun, a self-described “old mountain goat” was setting a record as the oldest man to climb Mount McKinley.

The story of Tom Choate, who climbed the 20,320-foot mountain at the age of 78, was told this week by several news outlets, and is nothing short of inspiring. Choate has been climbing Denali since 1963, spanning five decades of successful accents. On his most recent climb, he had an artificial hip.

Stories like this are inspiring to say the least, especially given the national statistics which point grimly in a different direction. While Americans are living longer, seniors are not necessarily living healthier lives. In Alaska, 29.3 percent of our elders are obese, according to 2012 statistics. A whopping 66 percent of our seniors have diabetes. And nearly 26 percent are physically inactive.

We haven’t always been like this. In the 1990s, fewer than 15 percent of our population overall was obese. But perhaps as we get more and more “civilized,” the problems of the rest of America are sneaking in the Last Frontier. On the other hand, we have long been the No. 1 consumer of ice cream. And Spam, if you trust popular statistics.

When Choate first ascended Denali, climbers weren't dropped on a glacier about 7,000 feet up McKinley. He and his team walked in. Hundreds of miles. Uphill both ways.

The funny thing is that Alaskans know how to take care of themselves. They are just choosing not to. In a single generation, diets have changed from Pilot Crackers and canned corn to soda and chips. We sit down a lot more than we used to, even if we don’t have artificial hips. Hardly anyone has to haul water. And there is no finer upper body workout than chopping wood, but fewer and fewer people are well versed in that any more.

At a recent meeting, a Barrow elder testified about the hardships he witnessed as a young man, when food was scarce and hunger was real. It's hard to imagine today, when there is so much excess. But all that excess hasn’t done much for us, really.

People like Choate offer a glimmer of hope, though. And while not all 78-year-olds are climbing mountain peaks, you probably don’t have to look too far to find someone who understands that living a long life and living a long life of quality are two entirely different things. Use them as an example and you’ll probably find yourself eating better, being more active and making safer choices.

But while I am sure that 90 percent of the reason this incredible athlete was still climbing mountains was his own doing, it did occur to me that he had some help. Chances are pretty good that without some sort of health insurance, he wouldn’t be scaling mountains with a new hip.

During a recent presentation in Southcentral Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was asked how optimistic she was that ObamaCare would actually work. Not very, she said. She had concerns about many parts of the plan. She thought it was too expensive – around $500 a month for the basic health care plan. She was also concerned about what would happen to businesses when they tried to cover the cost of insuring their employees.

Not to dissuade sympathy for the small business owner, nor to minimize the impact something like this could have on the economy, especially in the beginning, but all that pales in comparison to the fear you face when you are staring a big health issue in the face and not only do you have to deal with the reality that your health is failing, but also the very real possibility that you will lose your home, your car and any other major investment you have in your quest to pay for your health. That’s not right. And unfortunately, the people who are making decisions about these issues have probably never had to weigh the choice of whether to pay the mortgage or get a needed test done.

I admire men like Choate immensely. He symbolizes Alaska’s awesomeness to me. This state is full of people who live life well. And I’m sure he has earned the right to be fit and healthy at his age mostly through his own blood, sweat and tears.

But once in a while, even people like Choate need some help. And I like to think this country, with all its wonders, is the kind of place that can provide that help. ObamaCare has a long way to go before the kinks are worked out. And it’s no substitute for taking ownership of your health and making sure you create a future for yourself that is healthy and vibrant with the choices you make ever day. But sometimes we need more, and when we do, I certainly hope it’s there.

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared. It is republished here with permission.

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