By Brian Goslow
Karolyne White, 71, of Framingham, hasn’t been able to fully enjoy her retirement years, despite having worked her entire life, first as an educator, then in the Massachusetts Department of Education’s Office of Health and Safe and Drug-free Schools.
The past 16 years have been physically challenging: She’s been hit twice by drunk drivers, forcing her to endure long periods of rehabilitation — including the rebuilding of one leg just after she retired in 2004; her rehabilitation continues to this day.
White’s battle isn’t made any easier by having to balance a budget that recently left her unable to afford a much-needed heart pill. She worries that the future measures of the 2010 Affordable Care Act will not be implemented (especially the full closing of the prescription donut hole) or that the law will be overturned.
“I don’t want them to screw it up,” she said. “They keep wanting to tinker with this.”
White was among 400 state residents who participated in an AARP phone survey earlier this year to determine which issues were of primary importance to the organization’s over 800,000 state resident membership.
Though most (71 percent) said they were very satisfied with their communities, there is worry about the future and the ability to stay put for as long as possible (40 percent) or at their current residence (42 percent). There is concern about having accessible sidewalks with good street lighting (39 percent) and the ability to be able to drive around their community (25 percent). There is also worry regarding the availability of alternative housing options (40 percent).
Finances weigh heavily on the minds of those who participated in the “Voices of 50+ Massachusetts” survey, with a large majority (92 percent) saying having enough money to meet daily expenses was their top concern, followed by a desire to make sure their retirement finances were adequate (89 percent) and would allow for a comfortable post-workplace lifestyle (88 percent).
Finances also come into play in terms of having quality long-term care options when needed (85 percent) and being able to afford the cost of health care and having their prescription drugs filled (83 percent).
The preservation of Medicare (88 percent) and Social Security (85 percent) in their current form were the top issues of concern.
“The majority of the people we spoke to said that Medicare is very important to them but they’re apprehensive about the program going forward,” said Deborah Banda, state director of AARP Massachusetts. “It (the passing of the health care plan) should be giving seniors peace of mind but now we’re seeing Medicare is being attacked on another front with this proposal to turn it into a voucher system which, in our opinion, will pretty much make health care unaffordable for older persons.”
White calls the proposal by Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to replace Medicare with a voucher system “ridiculous.” She hopes the health care law stays in place — with tighter monitoring enacted to keep costs down by exposing fraudulent billing practices and multiple checkups for the same thing.
She said discussion on television and radio talk shows on the possible repeal of the health care law and misinformation on what it does and what it will provide in the years ahead has caused great confusion.
Rick Goldberg, 64, a public relations consultant who lives in Winchester, sits on the AARP state advocacy committee, serving as its district coordinator in working with Congressman Ed Markey, D-Mass., on issues of importance to AARP’s membership. “I have been working to keep Social Security and Medicare in place because they are separately funded and not related to the deficit,” Goldberg said.
Sixty-seven percent of respondents to the AARP study said they had major problems paying for their prescription drugs. And while 98 percent said staying healthy was one of their most important goals, 60 percent said they didn’t have the resources they needed to stay healthy.
Last year, White had $4,000 in prescription costs; she’s counting on $11,000 for 2011. “I’ve had to cut back. And when I had medicine I needed to have every day, I had to take some every other day because I just didn’t have the money for the refill and that’s scary,” White said.
“This is about health care,” Goldberg said. “I believe, and studies will show it, that once everyone in the commonwealth gets in the habit of seeing a primary doctor each year, and takes more responsibility for themselves, that the population will be healthier and it will cost less because they won’t be going to emergency rooms for critical care which can be avoided with prevention.”
All the programs in the world won’t help if individuals don’t take responsibility for their own health, he said. “Good health is a combination of primary doctor visits, nutrition, exercise, being connected with other people, spiritual peace — all that kind of stuff,” Goldberg said. “It’s based on the responsibility of the person, not the insurance company or the doctor.”
If we’re barely able to get what we need when we’re healthy, it should come as no surprise to learn we’re not prepared to deal with any major illnesses that come our way. The AARP study found only 14 percent of respondents were “very confident” in their ability to pay for three years of long-term care, if necessary; another 20 percent were “somewhat confident.” More striking is 32 percent were “not at all confident” and 20 percent “not very confident” that they were prepared to financially deal with extended health emergencies.
The economic downturn of recent years should serve as an example to people of all ages of the need to plan long-term for their retirement years, whether they’re baby boomers nearing their 60s or younger folk just starting their careers. AARP’s Banda said we, as a nation, have to learn to look at the big picture, not only saving for that new car, house or our a children’s college education, but our retirement years, from the moment we enter the work force.
“That’s something we can educate people about, showing them how to do it and how much they’re going to need,” said Banda, who pointed out the importance of getting new workers to start saving toward their retirement needs from day one. “If we can start that now, with people going forward, I think it will ease some of the challenges and concerns (about Social Security and Medicare) that we’re hearing from people.”
Banda noted that while many boomers now reaching retirement age are pointing toward the downturn and loss in investments as the main reasons for their unpreparedness, the reality is that even when the economy was booming, as a nation, we were very bad at saving.
On a state level, when it comes to budget concerns, protecting kindergarten through grade 12 education scored with 80 percent of the AARP respondents, followed by transportation, construction and road maintenance and care services that allow people to stay in their home (78 percent); and local government aid to fire, police, parks and recreation (77 percent).
“Our members are very concerned about their children and their grandchildren,” Banda said. “If we increase services and supports for the aging population, that’s also going to be a benefit for their kids and their grandchildren because there’ll be improvements to their neighborhoods, there’ll be improvements to transportation. If you’re making the streets safer for the aging population, you’re making them safer for the younger folks, too. If we improve infrastructure, that helps everybody.”
No better example of how true this is, Goldberg said, is the state’s readiness when western Massachusetts was devastated by tornadoes in early June. “We have an infrastructure of emergency response for both alerting people and being there to help them,” he said. “That made a major difference in a loss of life, considering our tornadoes were 39 miles long and up to half a mile wide.
“There were state and municipal police in Springfield neighborhoods, telling people to seek shelter in advance and while the tornadoes were coming down, there were ambulances and firemen from all over the state who were pouring into the area.”
Goldberg plans to continue working to discourage the slashing of budgets on all levels that would lead to the closing of fire stations, laying off of police and pulling of ambulances staffed by emergency response medical professionals off the road. “Those who want the cuts, when there’s an emergency, they’ll be yelling, ‘Rescue me, rescue me,’ ” he said. “They can’t have it both ways.”
Hitting the road and traveling has long been equated with retirement, so it was no surprise to find the ability to vacation at the top of the dream list of 41 percent of survey respondents. A quarter plan to use their time on hobbies and personal interests followed by spending time with family and friends (8 percent); continuing to work (6 percent); being in good health (5 percent); and being strong in faith and spirituality (4 percent).
Meanwhile, White would be happy to just walk normally again. Her foot is currently bandaged, keeping her from working towards her goal of being able to walk a mile-and-a-half.
Once she’s back walking without bandages, White plans to move from her house to an apartment where she won’t have to worry about cleaning the yard, shoveling the snow and covering “those awful oil bills.”