Tag Archives: Medicare

Try this Antidote for Aging: Leave the Car at Home

I gave up my membership at CorePower Yoga in September, in anticipation of becoming eligible for Medicare. After nine years, I said a reluctant goodbye to the Colorado-based chain that brought fast-paced, fitness yoga to the masses, at least those of us who could afford it.

Now, my Blue Cross Blue Shield Advantage plan, which supplements the hospitalization and basic clinical coverage in Medicare Parts A and B, offers free membership at certain health clubs. The youth-oriented CorePower is not among them, and so I took another step down the path leading directly to old age and signed up at the YMCA a walkable distance from my house and Lifetime Fitness, a bus ride away.

Exciting, yes, but the busing and walking will benefit my aging mind and body more than any health club membership ever could.

Four reasons why:

  1. I will engage in active transportation — walking (with or without my dogs) or riding a bus or bike — far more often than I’ll get to BodyPump at the Y or the Gluteous MAXout class at Lifetime Fitness.
  2. I notice more about my community and the wider world when I get around in a way that de-prioritizes cars, which separate us from other people. Paying attention makes me aware of how the world has changed, keeping me current on social trends, and that’s good for older people.
  3. I am more likely to engage with others — greeting them on a sidewalk, chatting with them on a bike path — and social interaction sparks my aging brain.
  4. My imagination takes flight and my worries right-size when I am gazing out the window on a bus or train or moving freely outdoors. Speed no longer is the top priority.

Being a daily pedestrian, a regular transit rider and at least a two-season cyclist have become ingrained habits. Because I live in a city — in a neighborhood with sidewalks, bike paths and several bus routes an easy walk away — I can incorporate those practices more readily than someone who lives in a small town or a suburb. And yet a walk or a bike ride can happen almost anywhere.

Active transportation is an ideal way to exercise as we age, at a time of life when we’re more serene and less competitive. (At 65, my last timed run is a decade behind me, and I never bought a computer for my road bike.) I have been keeping a multimodal diary since July, jotting down why I was grateful on any given day to have made the counter-cultural choice to leave the car in the garage and move instead on my own power.

Communal transportation requires patience, flexibility and, at times, humility — having to explain, for example, that a late bus is beyond your control. But all three traits are invaluable to graceful aging.

Consider this:

  • If I hadn’t taken the bus to a volunteer shift at Planned Parenthood North Central States, I wouldn’t have gained 3,000 steps on a brisk and bracing day, warmed slightly by the sunshine, when I missed my bus and had to high tail it to a different route.
  • If I hadn’t walked to the bus stop for yoga on a Sunday morning in July, I wouldn’t have been able to greet a neighbor and introduce myself to another. I would have lost the chance to read an article in that morning’s Washington Post. Still, had I driven, I could have left home 30 minutes later. In a go-go society, that matters.
  • If I hadn’t bussed to a business meeting where I didn’t have the option of running late, I would not have recognized the luxury of having choices. I allowed myself five minutes to get to a bus stop three blocks away: Why did my dog choose this moment to escape from the back gate? But, of course, I could always use my car if I missed the bus. Privilege means having options — and less anxiety than the young man in the back of the bus shouting into his mobile phone about how he was short on rent because he spends too much money (“meals out, shin guards”) on his girlfriend’s kids.
  • If I hadn’t ridden my bike to meet a friend for coffee, I wouldn’t have discovered the private, pristine patio behind Cahoot’s Coffee Bar on a lovely autumn day. It was the safest place to park my new bike, and the barista kindly helped me get it back there.
  • If I had driven to a meeting where the bus did make me late, I would have missed the 12-minute walk to the bus stop and the reminder that I used to commute to work by foot — 17 minutes each way — and need to build that exercise into my new routine of at-home contract work.
  • If I hadn’t taken the Green Line train to a meeting in downtown St. Paul, I wouldn’t have figured out how to feel safe on a transit system wrestling with crime. I sat in the car closest to the conductor, looped one strap of my backpack around my arm, kept my smartphone out of sight and minded my own business.
  • If I hadn’t walked to a meeting at a favorite coffee shop just far enough away to contemplate driving, I wouldn’t have snagged the metal plant stand shaped like a tricycle from a neighborhood antique store just moments before they closed.

We can’t lecture or guilt people into driving less, even though we know it helps cut greenhouse gas emissions. Sure, we can cite climate change as an existential threat, but Americans know that — we’ve been whipsawed all summer by news of drought here, torrential rains there — and still, our self-defeating practices don’t change.

I used to work for a man who left his climate-controlled house in the suburbs, got into his climate-controlled vehicle in his attached garage, drove freeways to the campus where we both were employed and parked in a climate-controlled garage beneath the student center. Once upstairs, he walked the equivalent of half a city block outside to reach his climate-controlled office. That was the extent of his engagement with the outdoors.

I don’t have enough years left on the planet to spend them encased in air-conditioned structures that separate me from what is real, and essential. I want to be out there, amid it all, with the city and Mother Nature, as unpredictable and sometimes scary as they both may be.

Photo courtesy of Jan Huber on Unsplash

Rejuvenated. Refreshed. And Resolute: I’m Not Retired

‘I hate the word retired,” says my friend Sandy (a pseudonym) as we settle in at our favorite coffeehouse on East Lake Street in Minneapolis to discuss our lives since leaving full-time employment.

She is 69, volunteering and still working part time after a departmental restructuring a few years ago eliminated a job she loved and nurtured. In early September, I left a well-compensated position two months after turning 65. I wasn’t pushed out. In fact, they were sorry to see me go.

Like Sandy, I transitioned immediately into part-time work, with two job contracts that total about 26 hours per week. Nothing close to my former full-on pace, but certainly not retired. And yet that is what many people — former business associates, one of my sisters, even a few close friends — insist on calling this period of my life.

“Congratulations on your retirement,” reads a card from a well-meaning former colleague, who softens the blow with a handwritten note: I know you will never officially be retired with all of your passions & energy.

Still. The R word bothers me enough (I literally cringe when people say it) that I reluctantly opt to poke at the bruise, look under the rock, examine the visceral impact that being called “retired” has on me. My friend Sandy nails it: It feels like an accusation, she declares, “like I sit in a recliner all day.”

Words matter, especially to a writer. And so, I believe I am being neither defensive nor in denial when I correct people — repeatedly — who say I am retiring.

True, I left my full-time job of eight-plus years on September 7. Yes, I acknowledge that I likely will never have a career, as I once defined it, again: a title, a stack of business cards, an office that overlooks historic Summit Avenue in St. Paul, name recognition among the constituents I served. I closed the door on all that, feeling like Mary Richards when she gave one last, wistful glance to the WJM newsroom on March 12, 1977.

Mary Richards, a feminist role model to girls of my generation, says goodbye to the WJM newsroom.

And yet: Here are three reasons why I refuse to use the R word for the next, and likely last, phase of my working journey.

  1. Social Security: The government declares my “full retirement age ” as 66 years and 6 months, when my benefits will be higher. Several of my peers are waiting to claim Social Security until they’re 70, which many financial advisors encourage. All I can promise is that I’m not going to claim benefits for a while.
  2. Continued employment: I have two income streams from part-time jobs, as managing editor of Streets.mn, a transportation and environmental community blog, and as executive director of a re-emerging nonprofit dedicated to urban parks and trails.
  3. I like working: Absent pressure from my retired husband, I would have stayed at my university job for another academic year. But two part-time jobs landed in my lap last spring, and that softened the hard decision to quit full-time work before I felt ready, either emotionally or intellectually.

If I’ve learned anything in recent years from the movement to declare pronouns when introducing yourself (“she/her”), it is that individuals have a right to describe themselves in words that feel affirming and true. The people who know me well will tell you, I am not retiring, in any sense of that word. My younger son’s partner suggested that I am “downsizing” my career. I can live with that.

Never depend on a single income. Make an investment to create a second source.

Investment guru Warren Buffett

Last Friday was the first time in four decades that a biweekly paycheck didn’t drop into my checking account, a tidy sum of money that helped me feel sheltered and secure, like a double bolt on the front door when I’m home alone. I now have three paychecks instead of one — the two part-time jobs and a pension from the Newspaper Guild, which I laughed off as “grocery money” when I was working full time. Soon, I know, it will come to feel essential.

These first few weeks of “gig work,” as my Millennial son calls it, were cushioned by a final, fat paycheck from my former employer that included an extra 40 hours of vacation pay. The reality of living on a smaller, less predictable income has yet to hit home, though I passed on ordering a $4 cup of coffee when I went out for Sunday breakfast (I’d just made coffee at home) and have given up membership in my pricey yoga studio because Medicare will pay for the unfortunately named Silver Sneakers classes at other gyms nearby.

Up to 40 percent of retired Americans live mainly on Social Security. I recognize the privilege in my easy choices and see the middle-class safety net strung securely beneath me. I was taught to save money, advised to take advantage of employer retirement plans, which I did starting at age 27, educated to understand the risks and rewards of buying stocks.

I talk with friends who are farther down the road on this journey, loping toward what we all hope will be a fulfilling and financially solvent old age:

  • “When I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” says Diane, who rebounded from a company downsizing with a consulting contract that calls on her accrued wisdom and expertise. Lately, however, elder-care duties have pulled her out of state.
  • “You have to get used to taking money out rather than putting money in,” says Mary, a former colleague who retired at 60 and is living on her husband’s Social Security draw and full-time paycheck — and doing significant volunteer work at her church.
  • “I had to learn to look at income from a monthly point of view,” says another friend whose post-career consulting allowed him to hold off drawing Social Security until he turned 70, the age at which benefits max out. “Give yourself time to adjust.”

Patience is not my strong suit. Moments of panic wash over me as my Health Savings Account dwindles, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average freefalls with Putin’s torturous and ego-driven war, as my sleep grows increasingly fitful. What have I given away?

When we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.

Poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry

One thing I miss already about full-time employment is having an office, a place to go to every morning, a space where I knew my purpose and who I am. Or who I was. I changed my profile on LinkedIn a few days after leaving the career position and realized I would be lost without a title. That’s what the two part-time jobs afford me, in addition to the ability to delay Social Security for at least a year.

A 22-item “Checklist for Retirement” — the type of document I’ve been filing away for the past few years — asks predictable questions about how I’ll spend my time once I quit work altogether, whether I have an emergency fund and a strong network of friends, whether I am comfortable with the level of risk in my investments.

The final question, framed as a statement, is the one that stumps me: “I am ready for this next chapter of my life.” Despite months of planning and preparation, I think I’m not. I watch the retirements, or semi-retirements, that I admire: people who stay physically active and civically engaged, who volunteer in both minor and meaningful ways, who consciously keep up their relationships, who hold jobs more for satisfaction than identity.

None of that fits the Barcalounger stereotype of retirement, the all-or-nothing notion that you’re either working, or you’re not. An article in the AARP Bulletin last June, “Why You Should Keep Working After Retirement,” argues for the very life that I am trying to construct and craft. Among its eight reasons, “a sense of purpose” and “a cushion for your savings” appeal to me most.

But there’s a ninth reason, which AARP does not address: I want work that allows me more space in my life — for my husband and sons, for the friends I have neglected, for the causes I yearn to support and for myself.

Financial journalist Chris Farrell coined the term “unretirement” in a book of the same name published in 2016. In one of those coincidences that seems meant to be, I stumbled upon a “Retire with Purpose” podcast episode the other day featuring another financial journalist discussing the same “unretirement” concept.

“I’m still in the game,” explained Richard Eisenberg, 66, who recently left a full-time job as managing editor at Next Avenue to teach, write and podcast. “I’m just not doing it all day, every day.” Instead, Eisenberg has time to “volunteer, mentor, travel, see my kids.”

Sam Studer (left) and Nate Studer and their proud parents on Thanksgiving 2021

One week before my last day at the office, I texted my two sons about establishing a tradition of monthly homecooked family meals. “Your dad and I acknowledge your busy lives and would like to be more intentional about finding time with you,” I said. To my delight, they responded immediately and affirmatively.

My breadwinning career took me away from my family. A lot. I can’t change that, but I can make different decisions now. Unretirement — working less, living more, cherishing time as well as money — grants me that freedom and opportunity. That second chance.

The ABCs (and Ds) of Medicare: Back to the Basics

Why do so few people in Medicare brochures wear glasses? (Sometimes the men do.) Why do so many of us aging Americans view 65 — the age at which we qualify for government-sponsored healthcare (thank you, LBJ) — as a natural end to our full-time working years? Who could have predicted that learning the ABCs would be a task not only for toddlers but for those of us toddling toward retirement, too?

“Don’t let the alphabet confuse you,” a BlueCross BlueShield Minnesota rep told me last January during the first of my phone calls to learn more about Medicare. Back then, I thought understanding the multi-pronged program would be child’s play.

“Parts A and B are original Medicare,” he explained patiently, while I pictured him holding up colored wooden blocks. “Part C is an advantage plan. Part D is prescription drugs.”

D is for drugs, I told myself: I can remember that!

The ABCs of old age

Turns out, there’s so much more. I have learned that the weightiest decisions about Medicare — whether to enroll in a Medigap or an Advantage plan, when to enroll in Parts B and D without facing a lifetime penalty, which private insurer to use — can all be delayed since I plan to keep working full time, with employer-provided healthcare, after I turn 65 in July.

Still, my months of research have changed my perception of where I am in life. Wrinkles flank my mouth and crease the bridge between my eyes. My right hip hurts from over-exercise. I feel the beginning twinges of arthritis in my hands. Or am I finally just acknowledging the obvious?

“I’m officially old,” I texted my lifelong friend, who turns 65 in May, six weeks ahead of me. “Just enrolled in Medicare Part A.” (That’s the part that covers most hospitalization expenses and is free at 65, provided you’ve worked long enough to qualify.)

“If I didn’t tell you today, I LOVE YOU!” she replied, reassuring me that I am really only “young-old.” Age reveals the importance of family and friends, the relationships we nurture because we need one another as we feel our way forward, toward the inevitable end time.

Marketing Madness

An unmarked white envelope fell out of my newspaper the other morning, an ad to join AARP. Did all subscribers get these, or is generational marketing that sophisticated? My mailbox hasn’t been so stuffed with ads —invitations to Medicare 101 classes, appeals from insurance companies whose chief executives earn multiple millions of dollars a year — since I aged out of the desirable demographic of 18 to 54 years old.

The first piece of Medicare mail has proven the most useful. A tall, laminated, two-sided flyer from UCare, it looks and functions like a large bookmark and has sat atop the growing pile of brochures for months. One side declares in oversized, old people–friendly type what steps to take six, four and three months before you turn 65; the other side urges you toward the research you should do anyway if you plan to keep working past age 65 and are fully insured.

Three key points that months of research has taught me:

First: Other than Part A (the standard hospitalization coverage), Medicare, contrary to assumptions, is not free. Nor is it the Bernie Sanders vision of a single-payer, government-sponsored program. A former colleague of mine retired nine months before turning 65. Despite careful budgeting and the blessing of her financial advisor to walk away from a six-figure salary before she qualified for Medicare, she said the monthly cost of post-retirement healthcare coverage surprised her: “It’s expensive!”

Second: If you have healthcare through your employer, and plan to keep working past 65, determine whether the prescription drug coverage is “creditable,” meaning it at least equals Medicare Part D; that’s the only way to delay Part D enrollment without a penalty once you have turned 65. (Given that a trusted neighbor contradicted the advice from a BlueCross salesman, I have fact-checked this several times.)

Third: “Original Medicare” — Parts A and B — covers only 80 percent of your expenses. That means you have to figure out the distinction between a Medigap supplemental plan and the relatively new (since 1997) Advantage plans, which are cheaper, more bound to a network of providers and recently have been in the news for denying claims. Heavily marketed, they appeal to healthy, young-old people like me because of their emphasis on fitness programs and coverage for fashionable eyewear.

We ego-driven Baby Boomers don’t feature ourselves ever sliding into decrepitude or suffering the indignities that a more expensive Medigap plan would cover.

Medicare’s Promise and Potential

Just as I started saving for retirement at age 27 and have counseled my grown sons to do the same, I have spent months now researching how Medicare works and what health coverage I may need heading into these years when the uncertainty of life has never looked more certain.

Key to keeping the fear at bay has been talking to people who have crossed the bridge:

  • My politically conservative confidant who favors UCare because he won’t buy health insurance from a for-profit company like United HealthCare.
  • My friend who thinks Advantage plans are overrated and overmarketed; she uses a more expensive Medigap supplemental plan because it serves her wherever she travels, including overseas.
  • My buddy who swears that the free services of a broker — who, of course, is getting compensated by insurance companies — bring clarity to the head-spinning confusion of Medicare options. He laughed at my insistence on doing my own research (“that’s so like you, Amy”).

For those of us who have earned enough and had the discipline to save throughout our working years, Medicare opens a door to the final active stage of life. However much I may mock the glossy brochures — color photos of women walking in the woods, a laughing couple out on bikes, a man lingering in a bookstore, two women talking over coffee — I have to concede that the calmer life they portray looks good.

Nothing in the stack of marketing materials tells me how to decide when to leave full-time employment. How I’ll fill my time or discover a new identity. How my husband and I will belt-tighten once a tidy sum of money no longer drops into our checking account every other Friday.

Most of us know that retirement requires a baseline of financial planning; but emotional and spiritual planning are just as important.

Connie Zweig, Ph.D.

What I do know — and what one of my older sisters predicted — is that my view of work is shifting, almost without bidding, as I edge closer to the time when healthcare coverage no longer ties me to a demanding full-time job. Allowing others to control my schedule, always carrying the worries with me, rarely getting a full night’s sleep: It’s all less appealing and less physically possible as I age.

“How we retire, and how we imagine retirement, may be more important than when we retire,” says Connie Zweig, Ph.D. in her 2021 book The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul. “All this emphasis on working and doing . . . stresses that purpose comes through productivity and doesn’t appear to include more service-oriented doing or more contemplative, spiritual development,” she writes.

Maybe the Medicare brochures with all their bicycles and coffee breaks are marketing more than overpriced health insurance, after all. Maybe it’s time to listen, to see the end of work-as-identity as a new beginning. As a time when I finally will be free.