The Day After the First Presidential Debate of 2016
Elder Orphans – Part 1: Definition

A Rite of Elderpassage – One More Time

[EDITORIAL NOTE: A couple of unexpected appointments intruded yesterday leaving no time to get a post written before I ran out of steam by mid-afternoon so today I have a rerun for you.

This was first published here 10 years ago (while I still lived in Portland, Maine) and I may have republished it since, although I can't find it. A decade later, I still like it and I am still happy I made a point to mark this passage for myself. See what you think.

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We humans have numerous rituals to celebrate important events. Some are one-time, special occasions like baptisms for babies, confirmations and bar or bat mitzvahs at around puberty, marriage (well, not too many in a lifetime) and funerals. Others come ‘round regularly – birthdays and anniversaries, for example.

Many of our celebrations involve special foods and music, recitations of text and clothing just for the occasion. Our rituals give context to and mark our path through life. They strengthen social bonds, renew commitments, are demonstrations of respect or faith and, sometimes, are conducted for the pleasure of the observance itself.

There is one U.S. ritual, however, that is not remarked upon and as far as I have noticed, not widely recognized as a rite of passage: signing up for Social Security. I did that yesterday.

For all my life, 65 was the “official” U.S. retirement age, the birthday on which all workers and some others become eligible for Social Security. In the past few years, the government has been raising the age at which full benefits are given and for me, having been born in 1941, it is 65 and eight months – December 2006.

During the past two or three weeks, I checked the Social Security website and knew I needed a certified copy of my birth certificate, my tax return for 2005 and my checking account number to arrange direct deposit of my benefit. I had those, but when I tried to sign up on line – 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.

Nothing else we do marks our passage into old age. Oh, some have retirement parties when they leave their last full-time job, but with fewer people working at the same company for many years as in the past, retirement celebrations are less common and, anyway, it doesn’t rank up there with birthdays and bar mitzvahs. When was the last time anyone got a gold watch?

We have written and argued here for almost three years about the age at which someone becomes old. Obviously, it is a fluid designation - a different time for different people - and some refuse to be categorized as such at all.

But the whole reason Time Goes By exists is to exercise my curiosity about what being old is really like and receiving a monthly retirement benefit from the Social Security Administration is a pretty good signal that one is no longer young – or even middle-aged.

So I decided to make a private ritual of it, to mark the day when I became an official old person.

I could have called the SSA 800 number, but that's no better a ritual than a webpage form. So at about 8:45AM yesterday, I packed up my papers and drove to the local Social Security office – a dank little building down the street a short way from a strip mall where, inside, a police officer moonlighting as a guard sat reading a war novel. I was there at 9AM, early enough to be fifth in line.

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.

Another wait of 15 minutes and then a different woman, Mrs. Ortiz, called me into her cubicle. Like me, she is from New York City – Brooklyn, to be precise. Moved to Portland, Maine three years ago with her husband and two small children. We had a fine old time talking about what we like about Portland and what we miss and don’t miss about New York.

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.

Pleasantries were exchanged as if we might have been seatmates who had never met before at a wedding dinner. Questions were asked and answered. Computer keys clacked in response and a printer whirred.

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!

Comments

I went to the office in downtown Phoenix in 2007 to sign up, and like you I was glad I did. I agree that it is too important to just sign up on line.

It was a totally enjoyable encounter and I went away feeling good. It created a memory of the event.

I never thought of celebrating it but what a great idea.

That is an interesting post. Although my application for social security was only a year or so back, I did it online and then received a phone call where all my information was reviewed, a few questions asked, especially since I also receive a teacher's pension, and then I was told I could backtrack my social security payments to my birthday if I so wished. No, just start at the beginning of the year. That was it. Neat and tidy.

I was still employed full time when I signed up at the age of 65 about 12 years ago. At the interview the woman asked me about my two former spouses to check their social security incomes but why, I do not know, as I was remarried and so were they.... ?

Anyway it is about the only thing I remember about signing up for S.S. but it was a good thing to be able to have the extra income, almost like a gift if I hadn't worked for it all those years.

Funny, I've no recollection about signing up. I must have done it online and not given it a lot of thought. Perhaps I was more concerned about Medicare at the time, having been caught in a 2-3 year postmarital gap with no group coverage and no one willing to sell me an individual policy other than the state's "high risk pool."

Yes, it was an experience to be remembered in my life as well. 20 years ago (!) it was my turn to sign up. I can still remember perfectly clearly the office, (drab - check) and the person, (polite, interested - check) who guided me through the process. He brought up options to consider, and made himself useful and easy to communicate with. The whole process became crystal clear as he explained it.

When I was a young kid and begrudged the "contributions" out of my paycheck as they were called then, I did not understand that at the other end of my life these "contributions" would be as all-important as they turned out to be.

It took a while, but I am still grateful for this program which started in 1935, one year after I was born.

Eight years ago I signed up in suburban St. Louis in a pleasant, but not luxurious, office. I only remember the polite nature of the event, and that there were no hitches.

I wish I had thought to commemorate the event! I did not. I simply went home. But, you are right about this ritual signaling that we have turned a corner into official old age. However I was "only" 62 when I signed up.

Joan...
Divorced spouses are, under certain circumstances, entitled to a percentage of their former spouse's Social Security benefit. I'm not certain but one circumstance, I recall, is that you must have been married for at least 10 years. I don't know the others right now.

Yes, one has to have been married for 10 years, then not remarried, and I've always felt guilty for encouraging my sister to get out of her bad marriage when neither of us knew that her 9 years only marriage would disqualify her for S.S. later on. After my divorce, I lived and struggled at slightly over the poverty level income for over 30 years until my ex died. I am now comfortable on his full S.S.. (as is his 3rd wife, and the 2nd for the few months she outlived him). For the first time I have more than I need--which is good, because my microwave and my vacuum both died today--without having to spend down my meager savings that I hope to leave to my children, especially since they got zip from their dad. S.S. is indeed a blessing!

The SS office was in a federal building right down the hall from where I worked during my last 10 years of employment with the U.S. Forest Service. So going there was not big deal, and actually was a pleasant experience because I stayed around a while after signing up to visit with several former business associates.

I don't remember a thing about signing up for Social Security, except looking forward to the first payday I had for a long time.

I signed up online--no glitches--15 years ago at age 65. Like Joan, I was still working full time then and did not yet need S/S. It did indeed seem like a gift although earned through 57 years in the workforce, most of which was full time. I am SO grateful for S/S now that I am retired, an event that occurred involuntarily at the end of 2014 when the nonprofit where I'd worked for almost 40 years went bankrupt.

I wish I had been more aware when I filed for S/S that I would have been able to increase my monthly benefit significantly if I delayed collecting until I turned 70. This option was not fully explained or encouraged 15 years ago. With the wisdom of hindsight I would recommend that younger soon-to-be-retirees "file-and-suspend" if they are working, in good health and can afford to do so. If they choose to collect at what is now full retirement age (67, I believe) I'd encourage them to save as much of their S/S check as they can. I saved some of that "extra" income but could and should have saved more. Adjusting to life without a regular paycheck has been a work in progress.

Ronni,
You are amazing in so many ways. Your talent for the use of words, your commitment to this blog, I am blessed to have found you some years back. I admire you and your work ethic, and other qualities as well, but that is what I will mention today. ;)

Linda

Although not quite eligible yet to collect Social Security, I had to comment to echo Linda's sentiments. I always learn something from this most interesting and informative blog -- today, you have me meditating about rituals. Heartfelt thanks, Ronni.

For me, signing up for Social Security wasn't a rite of passage. I was moving back to Canada after working in the US for eight years, and there were way too many other bureaucratic matters I had to arrange at the same time. In fact, my husband and I still call 2006 our Year of Bureaucracy! There were bank accounts to set up, credit cards, health cards, drivers' licenses, car insurance... and it turned out my paper birth certificate I had kept for my whole lifetime was no longer accepted for anything because it wasn't computer-readable.

No matter how carefully we tried to prepare, we accepted after a while that there was always going to be some required piece of documentation missing. It was just easier on our sanity to go into it assuming that it was going to take at least two visits.

And yes, in the middle of all that, I applied for Social Security. (This was a surprise to me, but it seems Canada and the US have a mutual tax treaty that includes pensions. During my final earning years when I was not able to contribute to the Canada Pension Plan, I was contributing to Social Security, and that made me eligible for benefits. It works the other way, too. An American who was working in Canada would get CPP benefits.) I don't remember whether I did it online or by mail. Perhaps I even went into a SS office before we left... it's all kind of a blur, now.

I don't know if I ever had a rite of passage. Maybe that birthday when I turned 70.

I felt a little wistful reading this. I will be filing for SSA in 4 years. It is a rite of passage. I took early retirement 5 years ago. I cried every Monday and Tuesday for the 1st 4 months.
Filing for SSA will be a happier occasion, I think.

Ronni
Yes, I am aware of the S.S. rule that a spouse married for at least 10 years can collect same as her former spouse's amount unless she is qualified for more...which was my case after a 14 year marriage; the 2nd marriage was 8 years but he had minimum S.S. as he was retired under Cal Pers teachers retirement.

As I commented a while back, this was one of Ronni's posts from which I learned something so important to me. It was the ritual aspect that lured me and her wonderful description of the actual appointment.

When my time came at age 66, I marked my official status as an old person just as she did, and I'm so glad I did! I was still working, and I took the entire day off to celebrate. This is an important passage!

The woman I met with was so pleasant and engaging. My appointment lasted about an hour as well. As with graduations, I left feeling proud to have made it that far. I think that positive start is one reason i am still happy to be old - almost 5 years later.

Regarding benefits for divorced spouses, I also learned that day that my former husband was eligible for, and in fact is now receiving, my benefit. He was a teacher for 30 years with full retirement, but had very little social security qualifying income. He had already remarried so that was no barrier. It takes nothing away from me, but it does gripe me some that he gets about 90% of his final teacher pay plus my SS! (That last part varies from state to state based on public employee retirement rules.)

PS - thank you again Ronni1

hmmm - shift key stuck. That should be, Thank you again Ronni!

I am one of the 1% of Americans that waited until 70 to take my S.S. check. 1% is a statistic SS gave me, I didn't make it up. Apparently, the reason so few wait is they need the money and/or they don't know waiting makes your check 66% larger. Many of my friends said they were concerned they wouldn't live that long. SS told me if you make it to 70 without getting a disease, you will live (on average) to 87. It appears the danger isn't dying, it's living!
If you can afford to,wait. It's tough but do it.
Fred

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