The first thing I learned about my new Medicare card is that it’s hard to fit in my wallet. Made of paper, not laminated, it’s a tad bigger than the slots perfectly-sized for a credit card, a driver’s license, or my Blue Cross-Blue Shield card, which until Sept. 1, the start of the month of my 65th birthday, had been my ticket to health care.
My mother’s card, in her wallet for 23 years, still looked starched and clean at her death at 88. I was too busy asking existential questions at the end of her life to inquire about more mundane things, like how she’d managed that (or, a more serious omission, get her recipes for stuffed cabbage, brisket and its accompanying carrot gravy). Now here I was, using the card for the very first time, and already it was wrinkled, smudged and almost torn.
I’d dropped my Medicare card, in its maiden outing, near the receptionist’s desk at my ophthalmologist’s office, didn’t notice it had gone missing, went to the ladies’ room, looked for it for no reason that compulsive nervousness and freaked when it wasn’t where it belonged. The receptionist had seen it fall to the ground and retrieved it. But if all of our blunders are expressions of the unconscious, as Freud would have it, this one was laughably simple to decode: My resistance to turning 65.
I hadn’t blinked at 30, back when all good girls were supposed to be married by then and I wasn’t. At 40, I heard the ticking of the biological clock, considered having a child alone, listed the pros and cons in columns on a legal pad, and concluded it was folly. Fifty, to my surprise, wasn’t the biggie it was cracked up to be. And 60 was actually fun: A grand celebration with friends who all agreed I didn’t look it.
Then came 65, a punch to the gut. This is the beginning of the age cohort the Census Bureau defines as “old.’’ Sixty-five to 84 is one big demographic clump – a dated notion, pun intended, that ought to be corrected to match the reality of our aging society. Still, describing myself as middle-aged is now lying.
One of the best parts of being old was supposed to be Medicare. You pay taxes throughout your working life and in exchange, not as a mulligan, you’re promised health care in your dotage. But my ophthalmologist said if I believed that these days, I probably believed in Tinker Bell. With the presidential election a few months hence, he said, my health insurance future depended on a few undecided voters in Colorado.
At the time, the doctor and I were considering a fifth procedure to fix a problem with one eye that had been sliced and diced in the operating room, sizzled until it smoked by a laser and still wasn’t right. While he pored over test reports, I distracted myself by making a mental list of the various expensive medications I’d used in recent months. Nevanac. Vigamox. Durezol. Even with good private insurance, those drops had cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars in co-pays. Now, private insurance had been replaced by the Rube Goldberg device called Medicare Part D, a public-private collaboration. Over the course of weeks, I’d carefully selected from dozens of private insurers that sell the plans, matching the medications I regularly took to the plan’s formulary. But eye surgery isn’t an ongoing health issue, like high cholesterol or osteoporosis. I realized I hadn’t a clue if I was still covered for Nevanac.
I made a mental note to call Aetna to find out, and also my pharmacist to ask about full retail cost if the drug was not covered. These were the sort of tasks I took care of for my mother, when she old, sick and scared. At the moment, I wanted someone to do for me what I’d done for her. I’m capable of figuring this all out for myself, but just because I can doesn’t mean I want to.
I know this reveals a glass-half-empty attitude toward aging. All the good science shows that happy old people do better than whiners, and I’m a whiner, hard-wired that way. My book shelves bulge with Age Smart: How to Age Well, Stay Fit and Be Happy and Don’t Retire, Rewire. I don’t want to rewire; I liked things fine the way they were. In my perfect world, that means a job, not a hobby or adult education, one of those euphemisms that make my teeth hurt. But 65-year-olds don’t get jobs in this economy. I have saving, a home not on the brink of foreclosure, long term care insurance. In today’s overall economy, I’m in the 99 percent trying to get by; in terms of security in my old age, I’m a lucky 1 percenter. A spoiled brat, you must be thinking.
When my friends and I go out these days, we talk about cataracts, basal cell carcinoma, joint replacements, lumpectomies, the difference between forgetting your keys and forgetting what keys are. It’s an “organ recital,’’ as my mother used to say. I work for myself but some days my job is going to the doctor, despite a blessedly short list of maladies. I’ve forgotten how people with a 9-to-5 job do what’s expected of them, keep all their body parts in working order, and also go to the dry cleaner or out to see a movie.
Did I miss the part of health class in junior high school – taught by a gym teacher with a pack of cigarettes in his T-shirt pocket – when they prepare you for this? I remember the part about adolescence, a life stage that includes acne, hormones, and thinking your parents are idiots. Maybe the shocks and indignities of turning 65 wasn’t part of the curriculum back then. I had no idea this was coming and I don’t like it a bit.
Jane Gross, 65, a retired correspondent for The New York Times and the founder of its blog, The New Old Age, is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Knopf 2011, Vintage 2012).