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Did I Miss Something About Menopause?

category_bug_journal2.gif [Men: you can take the day off from Time Goes By; I don’t think this is of much interest to you. However, do scroll down to the end for the link to today story at The Elder Storytelling Place.]

It was recently pointed out to me that Google returns nearly 13 million items when you search menopause. Amazon has almost 21,000 book listings on the topic.

A new report suggests that less use of hormone replacement therapy is reducing the number of cases of breast cancer and these days, thousands of “natural” products are touted to ease the symptoms of menopause. (Whether they are useful or not is different issue.)

Did I miss something about menopause? When did it become so much a “problem” that millions, perhaps billions of words are now written about it?

A small percentage of women run into real medical issues with menopause, just as a few have difficulties with menstruation. But for the rest of us – a large majority – it is a normal biological transition, and how or why it has come to be treated almost as a disease is baffling.

I was shocked when, at 43, a doctor told me my newly erratic periods were the beginning of menopause. If I had ever thought about it, I supposed it was way off in some indefinite future. But he said women who begin menstruating late – I was 15 – stop menstruating earlier than other women. When I asked what I should do about it, he said, “nothing.” It is a normal function of getting older and so I treated it that way.

Hot flashes were a hoot. It awed me that my body could go from dry to dripping in less than five seconds. It made me laugh when I wasn’t peeling off soaked clothes. I wore a lot of silk blouses and dresses in those days which I immediately ditched.

My mother had an ingenious solution: about two weeks after I complained about hot flashes, a big box arrived at my home. Inside were ten sweat shirts, each in a different color, with dyed-to-match lace sewn onto the front. They looked terrific under suit jackets for work and soaked up the excess moisture without leaving wet spots. (If you’re thinking of using this idea yourself, the sweatshirts must be the cheap, thin kind to fit under jackets.)

I invested in several beach towels for night sweats and slept with one beside me. That way, when I woke up drenched and shivering, I could just roll over onto the dry towel and go back to sleep.

The good thing about menopause is that it’s not forever and the sweating gradually diminished until it stopped after a year and a half or so.

As to memory – mine has always been poor and I have kept daily lists since adolescence; I didn’t notice any change during menopause. And mood swings? Yes, that happened, but I would be hard-pressed to decide if they were due to menopause or some difficult times I endured during the decade it took until menstruation ended for good. Depending on life circumstances, I’ve been through many giddy and depressed periods before and since menopause, so I don’t see the difference; it's called life.

Toward the end of my menopause, a new gynecologist urged me to begin hormone replacement therapy. I told her that everyone in my family dies of cancer and since the verdict on HRT and breast cancer wasn’t in yet, I preferred to be prescription-hormone free. She pushed, I pulled and so it went until she said I would get wrinkles if I didn’t take hormones.

Angry that a physician – and a woman! – would rank appearance over possible increased risk of disease, I immediately found a new gynecologist.

Since then, undoubtedly due to the lure of bucks from millions of aging baby boomer women, the menopause industry is charging full steam forward with unneeded and questionable remedies for what is a natural, biological function. Sure, it has some irritating side effects, but they are not anything a grownup can’t handle.

To return to Google and Amazon as rule-of-thumb measures of popularity: I am still puzzled about how so many people have so much to say about menopause. Menstruation lasts a lot longer with many more consequences and possible medical issues, but Amazon lists about the same number of books for each. Google returns five million items - less than half the number of listings for menstruation - for menopause.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nikki Stern tells of food and family and grief and comfort to be found In the Kitchen.]


“There is No Blogging, Only Writing”

On a number of occasions, on his blog and in comments elsewhere, Frank Paynter of listics has spoken eloquently about what blogging is and is not. Mostly recently, he left this note, in part, at Kalilily Time:

“There is no blogging, only writing. Too many of us attempt to straighten this form into a single genre and then feel low when we grow stale. There's more here than the asynchronous rhythm of post and comment, comment and post…”

Perhaps it is spring fever, maybe in combination with how little has changed for elders in the three-plus years I’ve been writing Time Goes By, but I have increasingly felt I am repeating myself, have nothing new or useful to say and am growing stale.

As much as I am gratified at the community that has grown up around Time Goes By which crosses and intermingles with other blogging communities, I write for myself. When, decades ago, I first ran across E.M. Forster’s quote – “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” – it was an AHA! moment. I write to sort out my thoughts, find out what I believe and try to make sense of the world around me. I always have, filling hundreds of notebooks in years past, then computer files and now a blog.

And so, we each write for our own reasons and I agree with Frank that defining ourselves as bloggers is restricting although I don’t believe we should abandon the importance of what blogging has created - in my loftier moments, I take Jay Rosen’s position that “Blogs are little first amendment machines” - and this most democratic of formats is beginning to have an influence that can be seen.

There was a time when people could be writers only if they could convince a newspaper or book company to publish their work. That is no longer so. We are all writers now involved in an unprecedented phenomenon that, as Frank says, is more than “post and comment, comment and post.”

And just to prove Frank’s point, his comment at Kalilily Time is lifting my mood about writing Time Goes By and has started me on further thought about what we are accomplishing - or not.

[Today at The Elder Storytelling Place, Tom Shugart writes in Restoration of revitalizing weekend away from home enhanced by - surprise - the company of bloggers.]


USA Today Gives Elders a Bum Rap

category_bug_ageism.gif According to USA Today [undated but published about a week ago], elder Americans are rolling in dough at the expense of younger generations:

  1. “…67 million people 55 and older who are so affluent that the gap between them and younger people increasingly is making the USA a nation of have and haves-much-less.”
  2. “The rich are getting richer, but what’s received little attention is who these rich people are. Overwhelmingly, they’re older folks.”
  3. “Wealth has doubled since 1989 in households headed by older Americans.”
  4. “Ages 55-59: Median net worth – the middle point for all households – rose 97% over 15 years to $249,000 in 2004…Median income rose 52%.
  5. “Ages 35-39: Median household net worth fell 28% to $48,940. Median income fell 10%.

  6. “Old people have been racing ahead, helped by government retirement benefits.”
  7. “Social Security and Medicare increasingly are functioning as a transfer of money from less affluent young people to much wealthier older people.”
  8. “Older people are thriving in wealth and income.”

Not so fast, USA Today. There is so much wrong with this report that I cannot address it all and one wonders what the newspaper intended to accomplish beyond making young people hate elders.

Most of these “facts” are opinion quoting no sources except “federal government data” and the “IRS” with no links. So here are a few facts of my own starting the a couple of the hard numbers on that list:

Ages 55-59: Median income $57,067
Ages 35-39: Median income $56,909

Not a difference worth speaking about. Now let’s look at:

Ages 65-plus: Median income: $26,036

[Figures are for 2005 and from the Annual Demographic Survey.]

The average Social Security benefit is about $10,740 a year, so no one is getting rich on government retirement benefits. As to transfer of wealth from young to old, that is way Social Security was designed: deductions from my paychecks for 50 years went to supporting retired people older than I. You can find out more about how Social Security works here.

If the USA Today writer thinks an average net worth of $249,000 is excessive, he should try living on it. Invested in safe securities, it earns about $12,500 a year. And anyway, most of the net worth of elders is equity in their homes which is always a volatile number depending on the housing market and which is shrinking now that the housing boom has busted and prices are dropping. I checked some real estate listings here in Portland, Maine, and I'd be hard pressed right now, if I wanted to sell, to get what I paid for my home just a year ago.

There are many problems with the distribution of wealth in the United States. One of them is not that elders are ripping off the young, and USA Today should retract this story with its selective and misleading information.

[Pete Sampson, who is a fellow although native Mainer, tells a funny story about his father's first encounter with the heat of an Oklahoma summer in The Apparel Oft Proclaims - at The Elder Storytelling Place today.]


The Pleasures of the Mundane

category_bug_journal2.gif One of the drawbacks of all but the richest of rich apartments in New York City is lack of storage space. Paper towels on sale? Too bad. No one can store more than three or four at a time. A bane of my existence for 40 years in that town was buying toilet paper every week or two.

All that has changed now in my home in Portland, Maine. I have an extra room that could easily be a smallish, third bedroom where the laundry machines are and which has become the holding pen for perennials that would not survive winter on the deck. When I moved in last year, I had many shelves built for just such storage as these necessary but boring items.

Although Portland has no Costco or K-Mart or Walmart, there is a BJ’s – a big box store the pleasures of which are unknown to New Yorkers.

And so, running low on both toilet tissue and paper towels, I hied myself to BJ’s over the holiday weekend – about a 15-minute drive – and purchased 36 rolls of tissues and 24 rolls of towels. Here they are (the shelves are deeper than they look in this photo) and you can laugh if you like, but I am comforted in a way I never could be in New York knowing that it will be several months before I need to refill the shelves with these items again.

Storage

Most of the rest of BJ’s isn’t much use to me, living single. I mean, what would I do with 18 lamb chops, four pounds of butter or a crate of oranges? I do, however, load up on 48 AA batteries at a time which everything I own except the cat seems to require.

Every now and again, there is a news story of an old lady or old man who has hoarded stacks of newspapers or tins of tunafish or who keeps 57 cats. It's never young people who do this. So is it a quirk of aging, do you think, that some of us get a little dotty about stocking up on some items? Am I heading in that direction to feel surpassingly satisfied with having what some might say is too much of a good thing or two?

BONUS PHOTOS: On a whim, I picked up this balloon flower because I like the color, but look at this surprise I hadn't noticed at the plant nursery – a teeny-tiny, additional flower in the middle of the main bloom.

Balloonflower


And I thought you should see part of the lilac bush at its peak of perfection on Sunday.

Lilacperfection

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Claude Covo-Farchi tells what her remarkable father taught her about “Rowing the Boat of Life.”]


David Wolfe and the Seven Tasks of Aging

category_bug_journal2.gif

“Growing old is mandatory. Growing up is optional.”

Every time that little ditty shows up in my email box – which it did today and does with regularity – I cringe. It reeks of youth-centric culture, irresponsibility and denies the value of all that elders have experienced and learned in their long lives.

A couple of days ago, David Wolfe, who blogs at Ageless Marketing, began a series about Carl Jung’s seven tasks of aging. He quotes a woman who says she will never refer to herself a senior even if it means no discount at the movies, and that baby boomers should rename everything to do with aging to thereby make getting old cool.

David challenges her:

“…boomers will make old age cool, but not because boomers are any cooler than their parents were at the same age. And, my definition of cool in this context is probably at odds with how Fisher defines cool. By cool she seems to mean staving off the time-worn physical signs of age. By cool I mean the seasoning to rediscover in the later years the beneficent wonders of being a child when nearly everything new is astonishing, curiosity is boundless and the longevity of disappointments rarely exceeds an hour.”

With “wonders of being a child”, David by no way means childish. This is David’s second go-round at discussing Jung’s seven tasks of aging. He wrote a remarkable series on them in 2004, and if memory serves, he has become even more erudite on the subject in the intervening years:

“Those who refuse to act their age in the fall and winter seasons of life are not cool. Their penchant for masking their age indicates a decision to stop growing – to be forever encapsulated like a primitive insect in a bubble of amber: perfectly preserved but essentially dead.”

Oh, how I wish I had said that or, rather, for all the times I’ve tried to do so here at Time Goes By, I wish I had said it as well. David, a widely recognized expert on successful marketing who blogs about how advertisers can best target various age groups. But he really writes about how we age – physically, psychologically, spiritually – with deep seriousness and joy, which are not mutually exclusive.

“Trust me when I say this:” writes David, “one of the greatest tragedies that could befall you would be to become permanently of any age you might choose. Age is the arrow of time that permits you to be more today than you were yesterday and more tomorrow than you are today.

“Unhappiness over aging is not to be cured by denying it, but by embracing it as a source of great fulfillment and joy. In fact, doing so is the first of Carl Jung’s Seven Tasks of Aging, which when well tended [brings] more pleasure into one’s beingness than is imaginable at the earlier ages of life.”

Read the rest of David’s introduction to his series on Jung’s seven tasks of aging and follow along in the coming days as he reveals each one. (The second part is already posted.) You will not be sorry and I will continue to be envious.

[Norm Jenson is back at The Elder Storytelling Place today with a delightful story about spring cleaning and a dead music icon titled "Thrift Store Elvis."]


Spring on Munjoy Hill

category_bug_journal2.gif It has been awhile since I’ve posted photographs and spring is a good time to get started again now that it is warm enough to be out and about.

Munjoyhill1

This is a portion of the neighborhood I live in which is called Munjoy Hill, considered the bohemian section of Portland, Maine. It is almost entirely residential so it draws little traffic and I like the quiet after 40 years of raucous New York City.


Snowdog

This dog just loved playing in one of the last winter storms. His owner threw snowballs as the dog bounded after them in the street for half an hour. I could feel his joy clear up in my second story window.


Kayakcar

At the barest hint of spring, even with snow still on the ground, the kayaks come out of storage. I’m guessing that half the people who live on my block drive around through spring, summer and fall with kayaks on their roofs of their cars.


Lilacs

If it is May, it is time for lilacs, my favorite flower. There is something deliciously decadent in their overripe fragrance. For 25 or 30 years in New York, when lilacs appeared at the corner flower stalls, I indulged myself in 40 or 50 stems arranged in huge bouquets all over the apartment. For one week each year, I wallowed in, got drunk on the fragrance of lilacs. How lucky for me now that there is a giant lilac bush that blooms right beside my second-story deck.


Deckgarden

I finished planting most of the deck garden this week, although there isn’t much to show off yet. This year, it is a fragrance garden: sweet peas, hyssop, sweet allysum, lavender, heliotrope, bergamot, sweet william, rosemary, lemon balm, sage, cilantro, basil and I’m trying a Japanese willow tree the nursery says will grow several feet this year and even survive the long, Maine winters.


Pinktreesmall I hadn't realized how much farther north Maine is from New York City, pushing spring back three or four weeks from what I had been accustomed to. So the spectacular color in these pink-blossomed trees is a welcome burst of exuberance when winter at last departs.

The city horticulturist, if there is one, must have gotten a good price on them a few years ago because there are hundreds of these trees around town – half a dozen along my block alone. No one I’ve asked has any idea what they are called, so perhaps a reader can help me out. And here is a close-up of a branch. Gorgeous.

Pinktreelcu

[In "Angel Story" at The Elder Storytelling Place today, Colleen Shannon recalls a mysterious and mystifying childhood experience.]


The Time for Universal Healthcare is the 2008 Election

category_bug_politics.gif Last Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran a story titled, “Tale of Last 90 Minutes of a Woman’s Life.” It details what may be criminal negligence of a hospital in relation to 43-year-old Edith Isabel Rodriguez who was brought to the emergency room for the third time screaming in pain. Some short excerpts; you should read the entire piece:

“Turning to Rodriguez, the nurse said, ‘You have already been seen, and there is nothing we can do’…

“When the officers talked to the emergency room nurse, she ‘did not show any concern’ for Rodriguez, the police report said…

“The officers left and Rodriguez again pitched forward onto the floor, apparently unable to get up, according to people who saw the videotape…

“Arriving to find Rodriguez on the floor, her boyfriend unsuccessfully tried to enlist help from the medical staff and county police — even a 911 dispatcher, who balked at sending rescuers to a hospital.

“Alerted to the "disturbance" in the lobby, police stepped in — by running Rodriguez's record. They found an outstanding warrant and prepared to take her to jail. She died before she could be put into a squad car.”

On the following day, Monday, New York Times [subscription required] columnist Nicholas Kristoff reported on “the superb medical school student named Leana Wen” whom Kristoff has chosen to accompany him on a trip to Africa in June. The woman, who receives her MD this month, is working at a Washington, D.C. think tank over the summer:

“I asked Leana,” writes Kristoff, “about health insurance coverage, just in case she catches leprosy on the Africa trip.

“’Actually, I was going to become one of the 45 million uninsured for the summer,’ she said. ‘The think tank does not provide insurance for temporary employees, and my school did not allow extension of health insurance post-graduation. I still haven’t found a reasonably priced insurance plan for this period.’

“Aaaaargh!” continues Kristoff. “When a newly minted doctor investigating America’s access to medical care has no insurance – then you know that our health care system is truly bankrupt.”

On Sunday, blogger Randy Bayne of California Notes, reported on his mother’s upcoming heart transplant surgery:

“My parents are not wealthy, but Mom is getting great care at one of the premier heart transplant facilities in the country. Care that most people couldn’t come close to affording. Care that she gets because she is eligible for Medicare.

“Universal, single-payer health care is available in the United States, you just have to live long enough to get it. Why is that? Why can’t we all get the kind of coverage that Mom has?”

Why, indeed?

Kristoff has some trenchant answers:

“The medical and insurance lobbies have been busy blocking national health care programs since they were first seriously proposed back in the 1920s – and the result has been millions of premature deaths in this country because of people falling through the cracks. Doctors fighting universal coverage have been saving lives in their day jobs while costing lives in their lobbying.

“Over all, a person without insurance is less likely to have diseases diagnosed early, less likely to get routine preventive care – and faces a 25 percent greater chance of dying early…

“The U.S. now spends far more on medical care (more than $7,000 per person) than other nation, yet our infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate and longevity are among the worst in the industrialized world…

“There’s evidence that the most efficient financing system would be a single-payer structure, such as found in most Western countries. Some 31 percent of U.S. health spending goes to administration, more than twice the rate of Canada.”

And then, as too often happens at The New York Times, Kristoff wimps out:

“Even if a single-payer system isn’t politically possible right now…”

My question is, why isn’t it politically possible? If our representatives in Congress represented the people of the United States rather than corporate America who pays for their lunches, dinners, jaunts to foreign countries to play golf and their election campaigns, it would be done. Listen again to blogger Randy Bayne:

“The truth is, universal health care is within our reach. We have the ability to assure that every American is covered by comprehensive, affordable health care. The truth is, we can all have the health care that Mom has. What is needed is the resolve to stand up to insurers who make billions off our premiums, to stand up and make our voices heard in the halls of Congress and state legislatures, demanding Medicare for all.” [emphasis added]

Like Mr. Bayne’s mother, many who read this blog are old enough to be covered by Medicare. Good for us. But it is not good enough for the country. The half-hearted effort in Congress to ensure medical care for children (which is nowhere near passage) still leaves about 35 million adults uninsured.

Elders are the strongest voting bloc in the U.S. There are 35 million of us 65 and older, increasing every day and we vote in larger numbers than any other group.

If enough of us make it clear to our representatives and senators that we will not vote for them unless they have a feasible plan to enact universal healthcare within the first two years of the next Congress – that would be passage by 2010 – we will not vote for them in 2008. We are a powerful voice. Let’s use it to share our good fortune to have universal coverage and do something we can proudly leave behind for generations to come.

[TravelinOma's story at The Elder Storytelling Place today is titled "I Flashed Her" and it's not what you first think.]


Age and the Encouragement to Lie

category_bug_ageism.gif One way to understand how little respect there is for old people in the U.S. is to count up the number of television commercials on any given day that are selling lotions and potions promising to take years off one’s appearance.

That was my assignment to myself for this story: count up the number of commercials and note the age-related messages. I gave up partially because the number is astounding and my hands are usually busy with another task when the television is on with no pen nearby.

I gave it up too because it is disheartening, when you pay close attention to each commercial, that the underlying message – usually from semi-famous beauties who could stand in for Venus – is that only youth has value and you, the old bag watching this commercial, have no value unless you make every effort to erase signs of aging.

And, there is a more insidious message included in the ubiquitous exhortations to buy expensive creams or, even better, indulge in Botox and cosmetic surgery: the culture is advising, even insisting, that you lie. The entire point of these interventions with nature is to fool people into believing you are younger than you are.

The pursuit of the appearance of perpetual youth is understandable in a culture that refuses to hire anyone who looks older than 40; it is terrifying to know that one’s livelihood can be snatched away for nothing more than the passage of time. We are a country that pays lip service to education and experience, but places no value on it in the workplace - nor in any other area of life.

But it is the encouragement to lie, to present a false image of oneself, that bothers me today. Just last week, a woman who had worked at MIT for 20-odd years was dismissed because it was discovered she had lied on her resume. One of the most important indictments against the Bush administration is that they lied about intelligence reports to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

So where is the line drawn? Which lies are okay and which are not?

At some time in the past, a commenter here suggested that Botox and plastic surgery were no more than an extension of dressing nicely, keeping one’s hair neatly trimmed and wearing makeup to enhance one’s facial features. Certainly not. Grooming is simple respect for others and oneself. Taking extreme measures to fool people about one’s age is a lie which perpetuates ageism and prejudice.

And each and every television commercial for potions with the false promise to remove wrinkles does its part as well to convince everyone that lying is acceptable.

By the time anyone reaches the age of most people who read this blog, we have learned that lies are self-defeating; one is almost always caught out. The larger point is that to lie is to ignore the humanity of the person being lied to and to undermine trust in society.

With a few minor exceptions, all philosophers prohibit lying as a perversion, as do all religions. So what can be said of a society that encourages lies in the everyday presentation of ourselves?

[Today at The Elder Storytelling Place, Kent McKamy tells the story of his recent discovery of family panic words.]


Elder Unfriendly Airports

A disadvantage of living in Portland, Maine – compared to New York City – is that unless one is traveling to Boston or New York, it is not possible to get anywhere without changing planes.

Last week, Crabby Old Lady had reason to travel to Baltimore overnight – or so it was planned. Outward bound, aside from the usual indignities of half-undressing in security, having her toothpaste confiscated and a squeaker making it onto the second plane at LaGuardia due to late arrival of the first, the flights were uneventful.

Crabby’s return trip, however, was a nightmare that has become all too familiar.

Travel Nightmare – Part 1
Because Crabby’s gig ran into overtime and she had experienced the mile-plus walk the day before from gate to airport exit, she knew it would be a tight squeeze to make it to her 6:10PM plane. So the travel coordinator arranged for an electric cart to meet Crabby at the ticket kiosk, but someone misunderstood the request and it was a wheelchair that awaited Crabby.

“What the hell,” she thought, the young man could push faster than Crabby could run pulling her bag and toting her laptop, especially in the stupid-but-pretty girl shoes she wore. The porter understood that Crabby was not crippled and so together, they rocked and rolled through security and down the long walkway with the porter making noises like The Train Man whenever the course was blocked.

They got to the gate with 10 minutes to spare only to discover – what else? – that the flight was delayed for an hour. Concerned about missing her second flight in Philadelphia, Crabby asked the airline agent if the new departure time was real. “I don’t know,” he said without looking up or missing a stroke on his keyboard.

Crabby harrumphed and was further displeased, as always, that there is never a pleasant place for a meal in an airport. She skipped dinner.

The new departure time came and went with no airplane in sight and in fact, Crabby did not leave Baltimore until 15 minutes past the departure time of her second flight in Philadelphia.

On arrival in the city of Brotherly Love, an agent told Crabby she would need to go to the airline customer service desk to make new travel arrangements. “How far is that?” asked Crabby. “It’s only about a five minute walk,” the lady said.

So Crabby walked. And walked. And walked. After 20 minutes, Crabby believed her feet would start bleeding soon and her shoulder was rubbed raw from the weight of her laptop.

She walked for another ten minutes and still no customer service desk. It took five more minutes of walking to find a courtesy telephone and after five minutes or so of advertisements, she at last found a live human voice and begged for an electric cart which arrived after another five- or ten-minute wait.

Do you want to know how far that customer service desk was? Try another 20 minutes riding on the cart.

Now Crabby is not the girl she once was, the one who could trip the light fantastic even in three-inch spike heels through any airport in the world. Even so, had she been wearing reasonable walking shoes, she could have dragged herself to that customer service desk on her own, although it would have taken at least 55 minutes longer than the five minutes the airline agent so chirpily told her.

What if she had had more than an overnight bag to haul along with her? What if she had arthritis or a bum knee or what if she was just older than she is and not capable of walking that far? Until Crabby telephoned, she did not see a single electric cart. She did not pass an information desk along the way. Nor did she see any airport personnel. The airport was mostly deserted.

Travel Nightmare – Part 2
Crabby thought the customer service desk would be a breeze; there were only five people in front of her and three agents to help. Crabby was wrong. It took 45 minutes to reach the desk (while her feet burned) only to find there were no flights to Portland until morning.

It was nearly 11PM by then and Crabby was exhausted. She considered stretching out on the nearby row of empty seats, but was grateful when the agent said they would send her to a nearby hotel.

Crabby would have been better off sleeping on those seats at the airport.

It took another hour for the van to arrive and, with dozens of other stranded passengers, to check in to the well-known chain of mid-range hotels. By then, Crabby wanted only one thing in the world - to lay down her head.

Until she got to the room.

The smell of disinfectant – not a good sign – hit Crabby as she opened the door. When she set down her key card on the desk, she felt something old and sticky on her fingers. The toilet was stained, as was the ceiling in several places and the basin leaked onto her toes. There were rust marks in the bathtub. “Ew,” thought Crabby, and she may have said it aloud.

Wary by now of the bed, Crabby carefully pulled back the spread with thumb and forefinger. The sheets and pillow cases appeared to be freshly laundered, but she didn’t want to touch that bedspread again.

After four hours of fitful sleep, Crabby was relieved to get back to the airport. This time she asked for an electric cart before setting foot toward security – and a good thing she did. It was a 30-minute ride this time to her gate, and the plane left on time.

The Philadelphia airport may be the worst Crabby has ever seen in terms of facilities for elders or the disabled, and the lie from agent about the distance to the customer service desk is unconscionable.

As the population ages in the coming years, air transportation must be improved for those who are slower or disabled. Why aren’t there individual baggage carts at the security stations? Why aren’t electric riding carts always patrolling the halls? Crabby has seen that in some airports.

In fact, why not individual electric carts as in supermarkets? Why are the courtesy phones spaced so far apart? And why not have ticket agents at the arrival gate when planes are late so passengers don’t need to walk a mile or more to re-book?

Air travel is simply intolerable nowadays. And next time, Crabby will sleep at the airport. It’s cleaner than that roach motel the airline paid for.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Leah Aronoff tells the story of her pet spider - which is a whole lot more entertaining that Crabby Old Lady's trip.]


A Lifelong Pleasure

[EDITORIAL NOTE: This story was originally published in slightly different form at Blogher.]

category_bug_journal2.gif Last December, after six months in my new home in Portland, Maine, shelves were installed in the library – a room I’ve dreamed of having all my life. I eagerly sorted through 50 cartons of books, reacquainting myself with old favorites and organizing them into useful categories.

I was surprised to find that my collection of Gore Vidal takes up three sections of shelving. In my New York home, his books were scattered among Essays, Politics and Fiction and I suppose that’s why I didn’t realize I own and have read (and re-read) most of everything he’s written over 50 or 60 years.

In addition, I have several binders where I have collected his periodical writing and the print interviews he has given over many years.

Mr. Vidal was much in the media late last year, promoting his newly published second memoir, Point to Point Navigation. I read it along with a collection of his eight short stories, Clouds and Eclipses, that had been reissued under this new title a few months earlier.

The short stories were written when Vidal was in his twenties; the new memoir finished in his 80th year. To read them side-by-side was a revelation. His youthful talent already showed the clarity of vision, the wit and biting satire that he developed to an nth degree of perfection in intervening years.

I began reading Vidal in my teens, in the 1950s. He doesn’t know it, but he was then, has been and continues to be the only mentor I ever had, leading me to ideas, history, politics and literature I would never have found without him while delighting me in every publication with his inimitable voice.

Interests in our lives come and go and we have no idea, when we take up one, if it will last or be fleeting. Some time ago, a reader here, whose name I don’t recall, left a comment saying one of the good things about getting old is that you know how your life turned out. In sorting through my books in December, after not having them available for six or seven months, I realized how important and enduring an influence Gore Vidal has been since high school - on my education, thought and intellectual development – a lifelong pleasure.

Now and again, people make lists of the four or five individuals – dead or alive – they would most like to have dinner with and in fact, some decades ago, Steve Allen produced a show on PBS doing just that with actors playing such historical figures as Benjamin Franklin, Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln. And I think there is a meme with this question that now and then pops up around the blogosphere.

When I ask it of myself, there is only one name that matters. I would like my dinner to be a private one with Gore Vidal. Actually, I’m greedier than that. I would wish it to be a weekly dinner going on indefinitely. And to many of my friends certain astonishment, I’d even let him do all the talking.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: At The Elder Storytelling Place today, there is an extraordinary story of strength in adversity from Holly Stevens titled Keep on Singing.]


Some Oddities of Being Old

[EDITORIAL NOTE: This story was originally published at BlogHer in slightly different form.]

category_bug_journal2.gif It is the oddest thing, sometimes, being old.

I have often taken issue with such statements as, “I’m 65, but I don’t feel that old.” Huh? Since no one has been 65 before they get there, whatever they feel must be how it feels. What people really mean is, “This isn’t nearly as terrible as I believed 65 would be.”

But the feeling is more complex than that. It draws on unconscious ageism, misunderstandings of what old age is like, denial of one’s age, knowing but not “grokking” that you are nearing the end of life, and most of all that whatever number of years you have reached, you are still and can feel, when you close your eyes, all the ages that have come before.

Any number of occurrences can slam you back to age 10 or 25 or 50: an aroma, for example, a taste, a piece of music you haven’t heard in decades. When it happens, for a moment or a few minutes, it is more than a memory; you are there again.

It happened to me last fall at my first T’ai Chi class. The large, empty room, a full wall of mirrors, the polished wood floor and suddenly I was in ballet class again on the day I first accomplished a relatively competent series of pirouettes en pointe.

In that T’ai Chi room, I felt my calf muscle stretch up and down and the snap of my head during each turn, the thrill at controlling my balance through eight, ten, twelve turns along with the Wow! – how good I look doing it in the mirror. It was an important day 50-odd years ago, and I lived it again as both new and a memory in that T’ai Chi room. For those moments, I was 13 years old.

Even if you haven’t worked at it much, by 50 or 60 and more, you’ve gained a lot of knowledge. One of the most important things you’ve learned is how little you know and that continues to be more true as the years pass.

I always told myself that I’d wait until my old age to re-read all of Shakespeare. I’d save studying the philosophers for then too along with digging deeper into the history of the Middle Ages, and spending the time necessary to really understand Wagner’s music.

Yeah, right. In additional to all that, there’s always something new to learn and on the day I die, the list of what I wish I understood will be longer than it is now (and undoubtedly still include those items in the immediately preceding paragraph).

On the other hand, so much of life is easier in later years because of the knowledge, experience and judgment gained, sometimes without noticing it’s there until you need it. Practical stuff like what’s essential to ask when buying a house and how to give dinners and parties without panic. And when it’s a better idea to pay someone to do it than making yourself nuts doing it yourself.

By late life, you have answered a few of the big questions too: you know you can’t solve friends’ problems, but that listening, really listening, is almost as good. And you’ve learned how to mourn. It doesn’t take the pain of loss away, but you know how to feel your way through the darkness and that there will, eventually, again be light.

These are good things, but that other list of what I would like to know keeps growing even though I haven’t a chance of fulfilling it.

Then there is a paradox I have mentioned here before, one that becomes increasingly puzzling the more I ponder it.

In my youth and mid-years, I was always in a hurry. Rush, rush, rush so I could get on to the next thing to rush through – and woe unto anyone who slowed my progress. I still get irritated when my time is wasted unnecessarily (the only thing of value we own is our time), but the oddest thing has happened in recent years: it makes no sense to me that as my time on earth gets shorter, I am more willing to postpone almost anything (sometimes never to return) when another catches my fancy.

There’s no telling how many unfinished books there are around the house. And some of them even interest me.

Other elders I’ve spoken with have noticed the same phenomenon and are equally puzzled. Why, when there are so many things we still want to do and know, do we lollygag along telling ourselves we’ll do it tomorrow?

It makes no sense.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jo Ann writes of The Power of Love - with a twist.]

[A VIDEO EXTRA: I found this video from a young woman named snowfeet on YouTube this morning who is reading from my story The Mystery of Life published on Monday.]


At Home in the 1940s

[EDITORIAL NOTE: I will be traveling for the rest of this week and for the next three days I am posting some stories that were originally published at Blogher. This one, written in December 2006, is a rare indulgence in nostalgia.]

category_bug_journal2.gif At year end, many people step back and take a look at the year past – what happened, what didn’t happened, what was gained and what was lost. But at my age, the years go by so quickly that it feels like I just did that.

What I found myself thinking more about this year is how much daily living has changed in my 65 years. Here are a few ways of life from the 1940s and ‘50s younger readers may not know about. Some things have gotten better; some have not.

When I was kid, my mother had a wringer washing machine. It washed on its own, but she had to then run the dripping clothes through a ringer – two hand-cranked rollers - to get out the excess water before dragging the heavy basket of wet clothes outside to hang on the line.

Our refrigerator was an icebox. The iceman cometh-ed once a week to haul in a hundred pounds of ice to keep perishables cool if not cold. There was a drip pan on the floor that had to be carefully emptied every day so not to spill over and we planned overnight trips toward the end of the ice cycle so it wouldn’t flood the kitchen while we were gone.

Milk, butter, eggs, cream, cottage cheese and other dairy products were delivered. There was a box on the front porch where the milkman picked up empty bottles when he delivered the week’s order. The bottle stoppers were cardboard disks and in winter, if I didn’t bring in the milk early enough it froze, rising in a solid cylinder out of the top of the bottle.

About once a month, the tinkerer came by to sharpen knives on the spot with his foot-powered grinding wheel, and repair pots and pans too. The throw-away society had not yet developed.

Twice a week, the vegetable man came down our alley, the back of his open truck filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, carrots, turnips, parsnips and every other sort of veggie depending on the time of year. He rang his bell and all the women on the block gathered around to make their purchases and gossip.

There were hardly any convenience foods. My mother cooked everything from scratch. If there were to be cookies or cake, they had to be baked. I spent a lot of time in my childhood shelling peas and walnuts, removing strings from beans, sitting on a high stool stirring soups and puddings for my mother and helping her can vegetables and make jam.

There was no frozen food until I was about 10 or 12 years old and I remember the first I ever ate were peas. I still like how they pop in my mouth and - they don’t need shelling.

Penny candy really did cost a penny. When I went to the movies on Saturday afternoons, my dad gave me a quarter for the admission price and 10 cents for candy. A lot of it was two or three or even four for a penny, so I could get more than enough of a sugar high for a dime.

Movies were always double features plus a whole lot more: previews, the newsreel, four or five cartoons, the serial (sometimes two) and then two movies. No adults went to these matinees and I’m betting they loved having Saturday afternoon – four or five hours – free of the kids.

We walked to school in those days and yes, sometimes a long, long way. No one had to worry about child predators back then, and there were no drugs, alcohol or guns at school. The worst that happened – entailing a trip, if you were caught, to the principal’s office which we all feared – was spitballs. The only time we ever saw a police officer was once a year when he came to lecture us about crossing streets safely.

There was one summer when it was believed that swimming might cause polio so none of us kids were allowed to go to the community pool that year. Every fall when we returned to school, one or two kids were missing, either dead or in an iron lung. When the oral polio vaccine was developed in the mid-1950s, the entire population of the United States was inoculated on the same day, gathering at local schools where sugar cubes with the vaccine were handed out to everyone.

Before television, there was radio – not just music, and no call-in shows yet. Instead there were dramas and mysteries: Inner Sanctum, The Shadow, Lux Radio Theater, Mr. District Attorney and Radio City Playhouse produced shortened audio versions of current movies with the original film stars. In fact, I own a CD of Casablanca from that show starring Humphrey Bogart and it is remarkably compelling as audio only.

And that’s about all the nostalgia I can tolerate in one day. They were simpler times, but a lot of drudgery, especially for women who rarely worked out of the home. I have often entertained the idea that labor-saving devices are what made the women’s movement of the 1960s possible.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Today, Leah Aronoff joins the growing list of fine storytellers at The Elder Storytelling Place with a piece titled Chasing My Childhood.]


Pharma Profits Sky High From Medicare Part D

category_bug_politics.gif According to U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform investigators, prices for the ten most prescribed, brand-name drugs under Medicare Part D climbed 6.8 percent in just four months – from mid-December 2006 to mid-April 2007.

The price of my one drug of choice or, rather, my physician’s choice for me – Lipitor – increased by 9.6 percent during the same period, from $76.91 for a month’s supply to $84.27, and the list price has climbed by five percent.

[The reason the list price is less than the actual increase has to do with rebates drug companies pay the Part D insurance companies. If you really want to know, you can read Jonathan Weisman’s story in the Washington Post.]

Of course, Part D subscribers’ co-payments are less than that full price – until they hit the doughnut hole during which they pay all drug costs until they reach the $3600 out-of-pocket limit when Part D kicks in again. So those who reach the doughnut hole will be paying more now.

Because most Part D subscribers have a fixed co-payment those who, like me, do not reach the doughnut hole, will see no change in their cost - this year. Premiums are likely to increase in 2008.

“In dollar terms, Medicare beneficiaries will spend $1.2 trillion on prescription drugs over the next decade,” writes Jonathan Weisman. “A reduction in discounts [rebates to insurance companies] from 6 percent to 4.6 percent over a decade would cost beneficiaries and taxpayers about $17 billion in unanticipated prescription costs, with all of that going toward the drug industry.

“Brand-name drugs prices were expected to climb 7 percent over all of 2007. They nearly hit that mark in mid-April.” [emphasis added]

Washington Post, 13 May 2007

Last fall, the House Committee on Government Reform headed by Rep. Henry Waxman [D – Calif.] issued a report on pharmaceutical industry profits [PDF] in the first year after Medicare Part D went into effect. The overall increase was $8 billion. Here is a breakdown of the percentage of profit increase listed by pharmaceutical company:

Pfizer: 73%
Merck: 44%
Sanofi-Aventis: 35%
AstraZeneca: 33%
Hoffman-Laroche: 29%
Novartis: 17%
J&J: 13%
GSK: 13%
Wyeth: 6%
BMS: - 10%

Are you angry yet?

Representative Waxman’s committee is expected to hold hearings in the near future on Medicare drug prices and he wants to rescind the Part D regulation that Medicare may not negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies. The House has already passed such a bill, but a filibuster by Senate Republicans killed it.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: In a story titled, The Cover-Up, Frank Paynter joins in at The Elder Storytelling Place today explaining how he found out at age five that moms know everything you do - even when they're not there to see you do it.]


The Mystery of Life

category_bug_journal2.gif Remember when you were a little kid and your parents – even if they were only 25 or 30 or so – seemed ancient, and that it would take forever to be as old and big they were?

Remember when you were in college or maybe your twenties and just starting out in adult life. To think then of one day being 65 seemed so far away that you did not need to consider what it might mean yet.

And do you remember when you first understood how permanent death is? I was still somewhere in the single-digit age group when I came to know that and it terrified me. The knowledge of future oblivion haunted me for years in my private moments, and for a long time I couldn’t believe anything except that I was the one immortal on earth and too bad for the rest of you.

In the ten years since I started studying aging, an amazing fact has consistently emerged: as people get closer to the time of their death, when they get old enough that contemporaries – friends and well-known people who share their time span – are dying more frequently, acceptance of their own death is nearly universal. Fear diminishes dramatically.

It is true for me at 66. I am not eager to die anytime soon; I feel healthy and have a lot I still want to do. But the date of our departure is not ours to choose and due to some combination of decades of contemplation and what is, apparently, a natural resignation or acquiescence or stoicism, I have lost the terror of death that plagued my younger years.

People have many ways of mitigating the knowledge of their own demise. Some believe in a literal heaven – or hell. I rejected that a long time ago because it presupposes a god who would consign some of his creatures to eternal damnation and for me, that is not possible.

Others believe in reincarnation. What stops me from embracing that idea are those who say they remember previous lives were always famous – Joan of Arc, Napoleon, a prince in the court of Agamemnon or such. No one was ever a pauper or a slave. Well, except for General George Patton who believed he had been a Roman legionnaire.

Another problem with reincarnation is that if you believe Albert Einstein, time is tricky thing – not so linear as it appears day-to-day – but no one remembers future lives.

The stories of near-death experiences have convinced many that our personalities survive physical death and our ancestors will greet us at the end of a tunnel of white light when we die. I cannot convince myself that these experiences are anything more than a chemical fairy tale created by a dying brain, or that people who remember these events are not influenced by previous such stories.

Then there are the longevity researchers who, unwilling to rely on the promise of some version of afterlife, are spending millions (that could otherwise go toward improving human health during a normal life span) to extend life indefinitely. As far as I have observed in my 66 years, everything dies, returning to the earth to nourish future generations of flora and fauna.

But the larger question I have for those longevity researchers is where they think all the people who will never die are going to live and what they are going to eat. I suspect Mother Nature or Gaia or the Great Pumpkin has something up a sleeve to foil this endeavor.

To each his own - or whatever gets you through the night - is fine in the desperate hope we each have to dodge our individual oblivion. But the older I get, the more I believe in the necessity of death to our enjoyment of life.

Television is not usually the place to turn for profound philosophical thought, but a simple line from the extraordinarily thoughtful and well-written show, Six Feet Under, answers for me the question of why we must die: “Death is what makes life important.”

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, in a story titled The Frugal Crafter, Ronni Prior explains how it took half a century to finish knitting a sock.]


Mother's Day

It is a common regret that we did not ask enough questions while our parents were still around to answer them. Were we too incurious when we were younger or too busy with other things? Did our parents live far away? Did they, perhaps, not encourage questions? How many old family photos do you have in which you cannot identify some of the people? I have quite a few.

For some elders, however, there is still time. And today at The Elder Storytelling Place, Fred First writes of an exchange of stories with his 80-year-old mother titled While There is Yet Time: Mother's Day 2006.


Stories About Elders for Kids

category_bug_ageism.gif Thanks to Alexandra Grabbe of By Bea’s Bedside and Wellfleet ChezSven whose story, Svenska Brolopp, was published at The Elder Storytelling Place last week, we now have an extraordinary list of children’s books that portray elders in a positive light.

From the introduction:

“Numerous studies have found that while American children have a positive view of older adults in their own family, they have a negative world view of aging. Nobody has been able to explain this paradox.

“But Gene D. Cohen, MD, Ph.D, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University postulated that a major factor contributing the children’s negative attitudes about aging is that the earliest literature in the form of fairy tales that the youngest of children are introduced to typically portray older people as wicked, weird, or weak…

“To the extend that the youth of America have a better sense of the potential that can accompany aging, they can develop a life chycle perspective that improves their preparedness for both the problems and the possibilities of later life as well as enhancing their attitud4es toward positive intergenerational relationships…”

That’s all bit too much academic-ese for me, but the message is good and the list of books to choose from is about 12 pages long, each with a short synopsis of the story.

Come birthdays and other holidays for pre-kindergarten to grade 6 grandchildren, this is a terrific resource for Books with Positive Portrayals of Aging and Older Characters [PDF].


Our Growing Age Phobia

category_bug_ageism.gif Not long ago, in The New York Times, Natasha Singer made a few good points about the ubiquity of products carrying the anti-aging label. She finds the phrase baffling:

“…to be ‘anti-aging’ seems about as logical as being ‘anti-Tuesday’ or 'anti-weather.’ Like them or not Tuesday and rain will come. As will skin aging…”

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been saving some of the anti-aging, miracle-product spam that drops into my inbox at the rate of 20 or 30 a day. [Emphasis added]:

“The next generation breakthrough in anti-aging has arrived! Go beyond fighting wrinkles and fine lines to decrease the appearance of skin discoloration. Olay(R) Definity penetrates through up to 10 surface layers of skin to help reverse any damage your skin might have!”
Look ten years younger after one treatment. Guaranteed.”
“How many years do you want to take off? Start now.”
Doctor's new discovery stops effects of aging. Wrinkles disappear after just one treatment.
Decrease fat reserves in the body
Increase muscle and bone mass
Improve your skin
Give your libido a boost
Sleep deeper and need less of it
Increase your energy and metabolism
Maintain and increase your memory
Intensify mental alertness and concentration
Improve overall physical and mental well-being [trademarked HGH product]

These snakeoil products are probably harmless, although researchers warn against such fake HGH products as in the last example. But overall, the immediate damage is to the pocketbooks of those who are demented, or desperate to deny their age.

As Ms. Singer points out, there are so many anti-aging nostrums that a search for the phrase garners more than three million Google returns. And the Olay cosmetics firm is positioning itself as the leading anti-aging purveyor by purchasing the top-of-Google-page ad.

The main point of Ms. Singer’s story, however, is the phrase itself and she spoke with Nina Jablonski who is head of the anthropology department at Pennsylvania State University:

“'Anti-aging is one of the words that has slipped into the language in this decade because everything connected to natural aging is anathema…,' said Ms. Jablonski. 'Anti-aging is equated with not being old, and especially not looking it.'

“We’re experiencing the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war against AIDS and the war on terror,” Ms. Singer continues. “Now we are witnessing the war on aging. Once a fact of life, aging is emerging as a malady to be fought with the same vigor as, say, cancer.”

What a surprise it is going to be when they arrive at the Pearly Gates, for those who have surgeried, Botoxed and anti-aged themselves to the limit: “But wait,” they will argue with St. Peter. “There has been a mistake. I’m not supposed to be here.”

As he waves her in, St. Peter will sigh, roll his eyes and call out, “Next…”

[Hat tip to Chancy of driftwoodinspiration.]

[EDITORIAL NOTE: I don't know about the rest of you, but it's been a long and hectic week for me which isn't going to slow down for another week. At The Elder Storytelling Place, Joy Des Jardins has written a hymn - perhaps better called an evensong - to peace and tranquility called Gilbert Lake.]


The Aches and Pains of Age

category_bug_journal2.gif A few days ago I ran across an elder’s blog, new to me, in which the blogger went on at length – in many, long, unbroken paragraphs - about his back pain. He described where the pain is located, its intensity, what caused it, how it moves around, how it affects his activities, which medications help or not, on which chairs he can comfortably sit and why.

The story read more like a medical report than a blog post, something a physician would need to treat the poor fellow, and three or four sentences of this are all any other person would normally subject herself to. But I slogged through it, curious to see what the point or punchline would be.

There was none. The story dribbled off at the end and the only use I could see for it would be to keep it by my bedside for some future bout of insomnia.

All my life, there have been complaints, bad jokes and the rolling of eyes about elders dwelling on their aches and pains and how excruciating it is to hear. It is comparable, I suppose, to the bores (boors?) of all ages who describe their surgeries in gruesome detail.

But it caused me to think about the new pains that have turned up in my life in recent years. Not too long ago, I mentioned to a doctor that when I squeeze my elbows, they hurt. He told me to stop squeezing them and so I have.

When I get out of bed in the morning or stand after sitting for an hour or more, I hobble for 15 or 20 seconds until my leg muscles kick into gear. In the past two weeks, there is a pain I’ve never felt before in my side. It appears now and again during the day and then stops, and I wonder if it is something I should pay attention to. I haven’t decided.

The only aches and pains I remember prior to the last five or ten years could be attributed to an injury – a fall, for example, a pulled or overused muscle - or a medical procedure that when healed, ended the pain. That seems to be changing a bit at age 66, but I am grateful for so few of the ailments usually attributed to age.

To the degree that elders do talk more about their aches and pains than younger folks, and sometimes bore people cross-eyed about it (I’m not convinced this isn’t a bum rap), I wonder if it is due to the newness of the phenomenon.

For decades, we cruise through life hardly thinking about our bodies as they respond to our demands – even abuse - mostly without complaint. Barring disease or debility, they function smoothly. Then one day, there’s a new ache here, a pain there, a hitch in our gitalong that never happened before.

So is it any wonder people talk about it sometimes, as people do about other new things in their lives – a car, a house, a job, a baby? Humans like to compare notes, share experience, weigh conclusions, learn from one another and I think that may be what’s going on when the conversation turns to aches and pains.

On the other hand, a lengthy and detailed litany is not a reasonable blog post. If you must, if it is all you have to say today, at least end it with a worthy punchline.

[Norm Jenson is back at The Elder Storytelling Place today with the tale a tiny intruder who has taken up residence near his desk.]


The Fraud of Medicare Advantage Plans

category_bug_journal2.gif When I was plowing through the paperwork to join Medicare about a year-and-a-half ago and again when renewals of the Part D prescription drug plan and the supplemental coverage were coming due late last year, the phrase “Medicare Advantage” frequently turned up along with fat envelopes in my mailbox of four-color brochures touting such plans.

Not knowing what they are and believing I am adequately covered, I ignored it all; Medicare and the associated coverage programs give me enough paper to deal with. But recent news stories have set off alarm bells.

Medicare Advantage is private health insurance that replaces Medicare A and B, Part D and supplemental (Medigap) coverage with one overall plan. It is, in effect, partial privatization of Medicare similar to what President Bush proposed for Social Security in 2005.

The plans promise better benefits, larger choice of physicians and lower cost to beneficiaries than traditional Medicare. The insurers can charge less due to extra-large subsidies paid to them by Medicare – up to 19 percent more on average for the private fee-for-service plans than the cost of traditional Medicare. Enrollment has skyrocketed in the past year with almost one-fifth of Medicare-eligible people – 8.5 million - now in some kind of private plan.

“Richard S. Foster, chief actuary for the Medicare program, said ‘the additional payments to Medicare Advantage plans, above and beyond the costs’ of traditional Medicare, were causing higher premiums for all beneficiaries and speeding the depletion of the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund for Medicare.”
The New York Times, 7 May 2007

And, the coverage is not always as promised. Some physicians will not accept fee-for-service plans and some co-payments are shockingly higher than with traditional Medicare. In addition, reports of companies cherry picking only the youngest and healthiest beneficiaries, sales abuse and actual fraud are surfacing all around the United States.

“In Georgia, two insurance agents were arrested last month and accused of conspiring to defraud Medicare beneficiaries. 'The agents signed up unwilling consumers and even deceased individuals for private Medicare plans,’ said John W. Oxendine, the Georgia insurance commissioner. ‘This appears to be a national problem, based on my conversations with insurance officials around the country.’”
The New York Times, 7 May 2007

In his excellent New York Times piece, Robert Pear writes of one beneficiary, also in Georgia, who refused the coverage from an agent who then forged her signature forcing her into a nightmarish two months to get it canceled.

There are similar stories from insurance commissioners in North Carolina, Florida, California, Minnesota and Mississippi.

These private Medicare plans were authorized by Congress in 1997. Now, a little-known, new rule inserted in the Medicare Prescription Drug Act of 2003 (MMA), may destroy Medicare altogether. It is a bit complicated, so follow me here:

  • There are three significant funding sources of Medicare: beneficiary premiums, payroll taxes and general revenues
  • Each year the Medicare Trustees evaluate and report on Medicare’s financial status
  • If, for two years in a row, the Trustees determine that more than 45 percent of Medicare’s budget will come from general revenues within the next six years, the president must propose legislation to reduce the amount to below 45 percent
  • That happened when, this year, for the second year in a row, the Trustees estimated that the 45 percent mark would be reached by 2013

According to a report from the Center for Medicare Advocacy, Inc., there are several reasons:

  • The prescription drug benefit (MMA) is allowed to be funded only from general revenues
  • MMA regulations do not allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with manufacturers (the Veterans Administration does)
  • MMA regulations mandate incentive programs, paid by Medicare to private companies to sponsor prescription drug plans
  • The large subsidies paid to private insurers for the Medicare Advantage programs mentioned above amount to billions of government dollars paid from Medicare

Now that the two-year prediction has been made, the president, by law, must propose a solution for keeping Medicare funding from general revenues below 45 percent, and Congress must consider his proposal. Given Mr. Bush's record, an increase in the Medicare payroll tax is unlikely leaving, according to the Center of Medicare Advocacy, only three possibilities:

  • Increases in Part B and Part D premiums
  • Reductions in benefits under Part B and Part D
  • Capping the amount the government will pay each beneficiary, regardless of health requirements

In an editorial on Tuesday, The New York Times noted the previous day’s story of abuse and fraud from their reporter, Robert Pear, and then wimped out on the solution:

“Congress needs to demand rigorous policing of the Medicare Advantage program…it should eliminate these lavish subsidies, which are draining the Medicare trust find and imposing unfair cost on beneficiaries in the traditional Medicare program.”

“Demand rigorous policing?” The federal government can’t police our ports or the border with Mexico. And Congress is not going to cut subsidies to the corporations who pay for their election campaigns.

There is only one solution that will reduce costs and not cut benefits: get rid of all private coverage and create a single-payer system - that is, universal health coverage, as every industrialized nation except the United States has. And, it eliminates the fraud problem too.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Alexandra Grabbe has given us a story titled Svenska Brolopp. But you will have to go read it to find out what that means.]


Elder Technology Use

Anyone reading this is at least up to speed on using a computer and getting onto the internet, if not always a blogger. We are the elders who defy statistics on use of technology in the later years of life, although our numbers are quickly growing.

According to the most recent age statistics from the Pew Internet and Technology Project dated 26 April 2007, 70 percent of people age 50 to 64 use the internet. Only 33 percent of those who are 65 and older do. [We could add one to that number if anyone can help find a computer coach for savtadotty's brother. See yesterday's post.]

Pew has just released a new report titled “The Typology of Information and Communication Technology Users” [pdf]. What they mean is, who uses what technology and how do they feel about it. Here are some results of the survey:

  • 49 percent of Americans only occasionally use modern gadgetry
  • 10 percent use information gadgets, but find it a hassle
  • 10 percent rely on mobile devices for voice, texting or entertainment
  • 23 percent are heavy users
  • 8 percent are deep user of participatory web and mobile applications

In all, there are ten categories ranging from Off The Network to Omnivore users. Here is a chart showing median ages of each kind of user:

Pewagechart

If you are curious about where you fall in the hierarchy, Pew has provided a handy quiz to help you determine that. There are only 10 multiple choice questions and it shouldn’t take you more than two minutes.

For the record, Pew says I am in the Connectors category. Let us know what you are and if you think it means anything...

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Today at The Elder Storytelling Place Judith Taylor rounds out her Tapestry trilogy with Cartoons and Romance that includes some nifty images.]