Tag Archives: retirement

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.

How will you know when it is time to retire?

I am thinking about retirement. I am not yet ready to retire. As a committed careerist and the longtime breadwinner for my family, I never expected to find myself stuck in this state of limbo.

Ads for retirement planning now pop up routinely on my digital feeds, as though Mark Zuckerberg is reading my mind or listening in on my private conversations. Some web Wizard of Oz behind the curtain knows I am only 15 months from the magic age of 65.

Recent online ads include:

  • “Women’s Retirement Roadmap,” sponsored by an insurance agency
  • “The New Reality in Our Retirement,” put on by Retirement Wealth Academy
  • The provocative clickbait Take This Quiz to See if You Can Retire Comfortably.

A year ago, I bit. I took a two-part “Retirement Planning Today” workshop with a colleague only nine months older than me who is now happily three months into her retirement — assuring me that the pricey, self-funded health insurance prior to turning 65 is worth being done with the pains and politics of work.

Shortly after the workshop, I queried my recently retired friends: What had to be in place financially for you to leave full-time employment? What financial decisions or sacrifices did you have to make?

Many months after gathering their responses — and a year into a pandemic that made planning all but impossible — I find that my questions about retirement are less practical than existential.

  • Who will I be when I no longer am working?
  • How will I know when the time is right?
  • How much notice would be fair to my employer without putting me in a position where I have to leave before I’m ready?
Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Turns out, I fit the mold of late-stage middle-agers, almost to the point of cliché. “Pre-retirement” leads the five stages of retirement, the years when your focus shifts from career growth to financial security. “For many, this stage is a time of excitement and anticipation. But it can also be a time for worry and doubt, especially in the year or two before retirement,” writes Eric Paquette, a blogger whose helpful insights appear on the website for a Canadian retirement community.

Here are some takeaways from what I suspect will be ongoing conversations with my friends and siblings who have crossed this bridge.

What I love best is never having to be anywhere at any time with anyone I don’t choose.

Former journalist and communications director

Money changes everything

“It’s a real privilege to be able to afford to retire and have your health,” says my oldest sister, Debbie, who retired at 65 — from a career that mattered — because an experimental cancer treatment had improbably saved her husband’s life. They wanted time together while they both had time.

Every other woman I interviewed likewise had the financial ability to retire, but not before meticulous planning with a financial advisor. Despite advice to the contrary from business websites that cater to the lifestyles of the professional class, these workaday women proved the ability to live on less once you leave a full-time job.

Prior to COVID, Peggy, now 70, was camping and taking road trips rather than traveling internationally, as she long had dreamed. A divorced woman who lives alone, she completed a budgeting worksheet with her financial planner six months before she retired.

Up for evaluation were her subscriptions and charitable donations, how often she could visit her hairdresser, the level of her internet and cable service, even whether she could afford another cat. “I was a bit flipped out when I discovered my expenses would take just about every dime of my Social Security,” says Peggy, a former journalist who also relies on a “small but critical” union pension.

Nan, now 67, is among several women I know whose employers retired them earlier than they otherwise would have left. She began drawing Social Security as soon as she qualified but is saving it in a high-interest money market account. “I was prepared to find a part-time job that I would not bring home with me,” she says. Ultimately she chose to spend time with her father in his final years and with her growing grandsons.

“My advice?” she says. “Take stock of what you want to do in this next chapter, and you can figure out how to make it work.”

When you leave, no one will remember who you are.

Tim, a happily retired insurance executive

Caring less need not equal apathy

I called a woman recently who turned 66 in February and is planning to retire in June. The work she does “seems to matter less,” both to her employer and to her. “I just don’t care as much anymore,” she said, and that’s a foreign feeling.

Similarly, a male insurance executive who earned a national profile in his field and whose income afforded him both a family home and a lakeside retreat says the shift to digital marketing in his company spelled the end of his career — but so did a gradual shift in his attitude, his ambition. “My heart wasn’t in it anymore,” he says.

Tim went through his LinkedIn account and broke ties with anyone he did not consider an actual friend, a person whose hand he would shake or with whom he’d share a meal. (That makes me wonder how many of my 1,918 LinkedIn connections I even know.)

Many retired people say they miss some things about working. I like having a purpose and a place to go, even as I recognize that I no longer care about climbing the career ladder (and struggle not to judge that as apathetic or disloyal).

My friend David, an attorney and human resources consultant who fully retired at 70, offered some advice last fall that continues to stick with me: “You’re going to be offended by this,” he said, “but I think you need to learn to coast. You don’t have anything to prove anymore.”

The time since leaving my day job has been richer, fuller and busier than my pre-realignment time.

Attorney who retired at 66

Retire is a fraught, misleading word

“I know you,” my older sister Penny likes to say. “You’re going to be busier than ever in retirement,” and I suspect she’s right. Upping my commitments to causes such as women’s healthcare and hunger relief, volunteering to dog walk at the Animal Humane Society, teaching fitness classes for older women, writing and editing more, working what I call a job-job to pay for extras and essentials. That is how I envision my post-professional years to be.

When my friend and former colleague Mary left our place of employment at age 60, back in 2017, she didn’t call it retirement. “I just said I was going to take time to figure out what came next,” she says. “I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be another full-time professional job, but who knew? These days, I’m comfortable using the word retirement.”

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Realignment is the word my friend Helene insists on using. It describes the life she has crafted, from deep engagement with progressive political and social justice causes to earning a second advanced degree. “My job was OK, and the benefits were good, but I also really wanted to leave with time to do work I care about,” she says. “I’ve watched too many folks my age or younger get sick or die to keep believing I had unlimited time for all this.”

Boredom and Barcaloungers, restlessness and rocking chairs, depression and the demise of useful days: Stereotypes about retirement are so inaccurate and outdated that it may be time to retire the word itself.