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Thursday, 08 May 2014

Some Rituals of Life are Better In Person

A story in the Baltimore Sun on Saturday reported that a memo from the Social Security Administration reveals they are considering moving almost all services to the internet and closing thousands of field offices.

”The document, drafted by an independent nonprofit as part of the agency's effort to develop a long-term strategic plan, envisions Social Security using websites 'as [a] primary service channel' by 2025, which the writers conclude would ultimately result in a smaller workforce...

“About 28,000 employees work in those offices, and nearly 180,000 people visit them every day.”

As anyone who reads this blog is aware, I am no Luddite particularly in regard to the internet. The ease of use and time-saving qualities for such chores as shopping and banking and communication are modern miracles and that's not even adding in the value of information and entertainment that are available.

To be freed from travel and static business hours for these tasks is a time-saving relief. But there are some events too important to be sucked into the soulless maw of the internet in the name of efficiency.

When I was thwarted in trying to sign up for Social Security online, it changed what would have been just one more routine form to fill in into something unexpectedly special. I wrote about it here in 2006.

Back then, the Social Security website was not as well-run and organized as today. Here's what happened:

”...when I tried to sign up online – twice – the link to that page was broken.

“That didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the enrollment, if I could catch the webpage on a day it was working, would happen without a glitch, and as time went by, I began thinking that becoming a Social Security beneficiary is too important an event to toss off with an online form.”

That broken link allowed me the time to realize that I was not filling out a routine form, I was was crossing a border into new territory that was mostly foreign to me. Now I wanted to mark the moment, make it a rite of passage, to create something memorable about moving into a new stage of life.

So I gathered up the required papers and hied myself to the Social Security office in the town where I was then living, Portland, Maine.

“After a 30-minute wait, I was called to the counter. 'Social Security number?' the woman asked. Then, instead of 'what is your name,' she asked, “Who are you?” Since I am more than my name, I liked that and decided on the spot that it was an auspicious beginning for my little ritual.

Soon thereafter, I was invited into the cubicle of a Mrs. Ortiz who, like me, was a transplanted New Yorker and we had a fine ol' time reminiscing about our previous home and what we did and didn't miss about it.

”It was nearly an hour we spent together looking at my papers and leisurely filling out forms while I swore to the facts that I’m not a felon or a fugitive, am not lying about anything and understand my rights.

“Except that the Social Security office is as drab and dull and gray as all government agencies and, oddly, neither Mrs. Ortiz nor any other employee I could see had a single personal item in their cubes – not even a box of Kleenex – it was the best experience I’ve ever had with a bureaucracy.

”As the final step in our ceremony, we shook hands to affirm that my new status had been ritually achieved. I was now a Social Security beneficiary and, in the lights of the U.S. government, I had become an official old person.

“Aside from whatever number of additional birthdays the gods grant me and unless I marry again, this was the final rite of passage before my funeral. Mrs. Ortiz may or may not have realized it, but she made it feel like the ritual I wanted. And to celebrate my "coming of age," I had a glass of wine with dinner. Whooeee!”

If I had been able to sign up online, it would have felt – and actually been – little different from checking the balance on my credit card or paying bills on my banking website. No big deal.

But making that passage should be a big deal, it was a big deal to me and thanks to the excellent Mrs. Ortiz who seemed to understand the significance of the moment to me, I can recall that hour as clearly as if it happened yesterday.

The plans for shutting Social Security offices are connected to cost cutting. You remember, I'm sure, the Republican sequestration demands? Yes, some of those cuts are already in effect and more are required of the federal government. I have no doubt that most Social Security offices will eventually be closed.

And that's too bad. We lose a little piece of our humanity when we can't mark an important milestone with a live person and not just a screen.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Janet Thompson: Whew, Some Smell!


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

I get your point, but I think I'd rather sign up online ... or by phone, can you do it on the phone?

While I will admit that I signed up online, I still think closing those offices is a shame.
I realize that I'm stereotyping, and as a Social Security recipient of several years, I'm older than the next batch of applicants, but isn't this a population that might not be particularly internet savvy? I wonder if the lack of access to a human may compromise some people's ability to join the system.

If any of what I hear is true - the internet, as we know it, will slowly disappear.

The story is the cell traffic (smartphones) will take over.

So, as newer and newer technologies takeover - how do these seniors relearn new tricks? And, are they then expected to buy the hardware and software to implement these websites?

Where's all that purchase money going to come from? The cookie jar!

Like many people, I too signed up for SS online and found it to be very easy but what I liked most was follow up call I received a few days later by a live human being (I think his name was Sam) who wanted to make sure I understood all of the ramifications of signing up early and that I would not be receiving the full benefits I would have received had I waited until I was 67. He spent almost thirty minutes with me and only said goodbye when he was sure I had no more questions. Since then I have always found dealing with the SS Admin. to be a pleasant experience.

SS rocks. The online support team has been consistently polite and brimming with knowledge. I'm with Marty: How will non-Internet-connected/savvy folks register if their local offices are shuttered?

I signed up ten years ago when the online service was not available. Once I got to the window all was OK but before....it was a hot day and I anticipated a lengthy wait, carried a plastic water bottle in with me and was immediately screamed at by the armed security guard. No water bottles allowed. Take that back to your vehicle. I humbly returned the bottle to my car and reentered the drab building feeling like I was a whole different person.

I, like you Ronni, am quite apprehensive with regard to the subject changeover. And like Susan, I was required to go to a Social Security office when I signed up some ten years ago. Admittedly I was just as apprehensive about that visit and the associated governmental bureaucracy as I am about the on-line scenario but as it turned out, the whole ordeal was quite a pleasant experience, completely painless.

Nevertheless, that does not in any way give me comfort that an on-line, non-human interaction experience is going to go just as well. It’s not the process itself that is difficult but there can be a number of questions unique to the signee that are important, especially questions regarding additional income and the like. If there is a comprehensive questionnaire prodding you as you proceed through the sign-up process I suppose all could end well but I remain somewhat skeptical.

And… your previous commenter “Yellowstone” makes an excellent point about older seniors and the lack of expertise with the technology, a subject also discussed in a couple of your recent posts.

We are here on a computer, or a smart phone, I guess. When I eat lunch at a Council on Aging site, there isn't another smart phone in the room (of about 25 seniors) and none of them have a computer at home. They rely upon others who are tech savvy to help them, and I don't see that changing for many of the lower income people in our world!

I signed up so many years ago that I didn't even know about computers and I really don't remember the experience at all.

If an online site is working properly and you can follow instructions it is really very simple and time saving, but let one thing go wrong with the system or with your computer and you can spend hours, and sometimes days, trying to get it all straightened out. As long as computers are so prone to problems I still think an office with live people to turn to is necessary.

Sad to say there are still people who cannot read or follow instructions and what are they to do? Another type of office would have to be opened to help the clueless.

I signed up on the phone six or so years ago. The fellow I talked to was informative and thorough explaining about signing up early by a year. We still have an office here in our rural town and that's where I go to make changes even though I can do it online. I like the personal touch. I agree it is a passage.

For the low income elders in my area the cost is too much for many. The alternative is the library computers and logging on your laptop at the library as my sister does.

Going to 2 different local SSA offices, in my area (DC suburbs) has been a horrific experience for me. I remarried in 2003, and went in to change my name on my account and get a new card.

Repeat per above comments with water bottle, cell phone, pocketbook, totebag. Nothing allowed in but paperwork, ID, car keys. Empty your pockets. After 2 hours of waiting for my number to be called, I was told I was not allowed to change my name simply because I remarried; I had to file legal papers, go to court( um...didn't I just do that for the marriage license?) and come back.

Rather than go to jail for arguing my case with the *^&$ employee, I went to leave, and realized I had locked my keys in my car in my flurry to dump my pocketbook, paperback, etc in my car. The woman would not allow me to use a phone to call my husband for rescue; the other patrons?customers?taxpayers? couldn't have cared less to help me, as they would have had to leave their place in line to go to their cars, retrieve their phones.

I didn't have any money in my pockets, so I had to walk past the payphone outside (remember, 2003)and waddle ( I can't walk anymore) about 1/3 a mile in September heat,to a tall office building, just outside the NASA Goddard center, in hopes of finding a kind human there. ( I knew not to approach the guard station at NASA!)

Long story short, the real estate office lobby receptionist set me up, I was rescued. And very pissed off. I don't recall how I finally got my SS account changed, it must have been a wonderfully bland occassion that I don't remember it.

My second foray into an SSA office was the first year they stopped mailing out annual statements. You couldn't even order them online. One year's income was not showing on my previous year's statement, so I went in to a different office (closer to Baltimore, hoping for nicer people)and after a long, slow wait there, was told to go online to fix it. That error (of their's) was eventually fixed by almost 6 months of snail mail.

So when I'm ready to start drawing the funds I hope to God, Goddess, Allah,Yahweh, and Ganesh haven't been hoovered off by the Republicans, perhaps I should research (on the internet!)all the SSA offices that are left, and hope that there is one in The Nicest Small Town In America, where ever that may be.

Last fall during the Republican's government shutdown I walked past the local SS office and came across a completely bewildered elder gentleman who was standing in front of the "closed" sign. It said he should try online. I don't know what language he spoke, but he clearly could not imagine that some computer could answer his question.

SS needs some offices while we still have lots of these folks. According to Pew, 40 percent of people over 65 don't "go online." We aren't ready to lose the SS offices, I don't think.

Like first time voting, felt very American to receive a personal welcome to SS in Baltimore--1995. Living in a retirement community, know Marty is on the mark,"this a population that might not be particularly internet savvy... lack of access to a human may compromise some people's ability to join the system."

Many longtime employees Baltimore SS are African American, hired when this was one of few professional opportunities--another ramification to this decision.

A ritual of life I hold sacred and that must be done in person, is that of voting. For me, it's a spiritual happening. I cherish the rituals of this Sacrament of our Democracty -- the standing in line with fellow citizens, greeting my neighbor volunteers at the check in table, entering the voting booth, blacking in the circles by the candidate of choice, placing my ballot in the big envelope, slipping it through the ballot box slot and then receiving my "I Voted" sticker to proudly wear the rest of the day. It always chokes me up with gratitude and pride in my country. Filling out an absentee ballot? Naah. Not until I can't get to the polls any more.

Try as I might. I could not do it in person. Everyone I talked to on the phone kept saying, 'We don't do this in person any more.' This was a year ago in a very small town. They sent someone to my home. Mine was complected.
Not a good experince

I took SS 16 years ago, so was able to talk with and be helped by two lovely women who did all they could to make sure I got all that I had coming to me.

I'm relatively computer savvy, but just today spoke with a woman who has a computer, but seems to feel that using it more than for the occasional email will cause it to break.
I can't imagine her trying to fill in forms for SS online.

And that is the problem I see with so many things going online and offering almost no other alternative. My 9 yr old great-granddaughter is computer/smart phone/tablet savvy but too many in my generation isn't willing to learn. Plus, there are those who simply cannot afford either smart phone or computer. What is going to help them?

When I applied for social security as a widow, I mentioned that I had a handicapped son. The woman I spoke to told me that my son’s social security should be increased because his father had died. Had I not been in an actual office and had that conversation, I don’t know if we would have known about this additional benefit.

This SS story is really a reflection of how all work will be changing. I read "The End of Work" by Jeremy Rifkin when it first came out in the mid-nineties. Everything he wrote about is happening. It will become an ever growing challenge to do business, in person, with actual people. I can't imagine how society will adapt. And i wonder how hard it will become for most people to have paid jobs.

Amen, I had a similar experience and am so glad the office was available and I could fill out all the paperwork with supervision, leaving confident that all was well. No matter how profecient we become on the internet I'm sure the human touch will still be essential.

I give 'lessons' at a senior center on occasion, to seniors who either want to buy a computer for the first time or who have one and have never done any of the maintenance to their systems (updates and so on) and whose mailboxes are so full due to the tendency to keep ALL the eMail, just as we keep some snail mail, that their systems have gotten bogged down and are slow.

All it takes is asking someone for help and to be willing to learn something new...and computers open the world of all the knowledge of all the libraries is available to anyone!
For the women I work with, I tell them to think of a new knitting, crochet or quilting design, of how we can learn to follow those intricate directions. A computer is just as full of directions and they are just as understandable once one allows themselves to be open to it.

I worked in the tech field, beginning with dial phones and wire spring relay systems and leaving at computer run phones and switching systems. Theres been a huge learning curve for all of us!

I think there should be live Social Security assistance for those who simply can't use a computer, or for whom one is not available. And I do understand this isn't happening next year..rather its a generally slow closure over the next 11 years. In 11 years, I'll be 82 (I'm not 'really' a boomer, having been born in 1943.) I think I'm the earliest to come to the computer world amongst my social circle, due to my job, and suspect that computers or whatever we are using in 2025, can only be less complex than we are using now, systems that are so much easier to use than the old programming of the 1980s and 1990s systems were.

I also suspect that availability by phone (hopefully not picture phone!) will still be available. With luck, any employees of Social Security can go into telephonic assistance..maybe from home!


I signed up on line but my past experiences with Social Security were very simple. I personally went just for name changes. it was simple and fast-I wish the DMV was run this way!

Elle-your neighbor in Beaverton

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