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Real voices, real stories

Thought for the day: If we believe what we've always believed, think what we've always thought, and do what we've always done, then we'll get what we've always gotten!

This month I want to tell you a bit about myself and to solicit your letters as the basis of future "Consumer Forum" columns. This is in the interest of generating a little more communication between us, readers and columnist.

It's not that I haven't heard from a good many of you. Over my past five years as a Seniority columnist, you have written often, to request information, to ask questions, to point out my errors and omissions, and to share your stories with me. Every letter has been precious. I scrutinize each one to learn more about you, by examining the handwriting, the stationery, the return addresses, the salutations and closings, and of course, the content of the letters. Occasionally I'll even post a letter over my desk because the nice things you say and your special way of saying them can cheer me on more difficult days.

I would like to publish some of your wonderful letters, just as you have written them, and respond to them in print. This could be fun and a good way to capture real voices, real stories, and telling details about the thorny consumer issues facing Seniority readers.

Writing a consumer column has been a bit of an irony for me, because, I must confess, I'm not a bargain-hunting type. Oh, I like to shop, mind you, but what I really am is a social worker who has spent the last 20 years living and breathing "gerontology." How did a nice baby boomer like me grow up to write a consumer column on aging topics?

It was my maternal grandmother. Something about her just got to me, from the time I was a child until I was a young adult weighing my career options. Perhaps it was the fact that she looked something like Spring Byington, if you can recall that actor, or perhaps it was because she would smile and kind of sigh when she gazed at me. It sounds corny and naive, but I wanted to make the world a better place for her.

Anyway, here I am, a professional gerontologist. I've planned senior services, managed social programs and counseled more than my fair share of elders and family members coping with the exigencies of aging. Along the way, I've acquired an alarming amount of information on gadgets, products, services and devices relevant to older people and their struggle to manage independently. I have checked my files and have come up with an extremely abbreviated listing by way of example of what I'm talking about:

Assisted living, adult day care, continuing care retirement communities, case management, emergency alert response systems, dental services, elder law, home care, hearing aids, long-term-care insurance, Medicare/Medicaid, memory clinics, pharmacy services, senior centers, senior dating services, support groups, vision services and Widowed Persons Service.

Writing this column, I try to convey basic consumer information to you on products and services such as these. I don't expect you to find these topics inherently fascinating, but I do want to expose you to your many marketplace options. Understanding is essential because it can spell success in navigating the shoals of life's "third third."

I don't envision "Consumer Forum" as a grievance-resolving vehicle for burdened consumers. Other columnists and broadcasters can trouble-shoot for you. What I'd really like is more of your letters, spelling out your consumer inquiries and concerns, somewhat in the vein of "Dear Abby" or even "Hints From Heloise." The idea is for you to share your insights and discoveries as well as questions and problems.

Here's an example of the kind of letters I would like to get from you:

Dear Ms. Susik,

I have a question on long-term-care policies. Are they really necessary? I am 71 and in good health. I have a long-term policy with a monthly premium of $88, amounting to more than $1,000 a year.

I am concerned that I am paying for something that I really do not need. I feel that I would be better off saving $88 each month in an interest-return account.

I need an opinion from someone who is not involved with insurance. If you can give me any advice or point me in the right direction, I would appreciate it.

Dear Senior Consumer,

Although only 5 percent of people older than 65 reside in a nursing home at any one time, an estimated 35 percent of us can count on spending some time in a nursing home during our lifetimes. So, you are wise to plan ahead.

I am also delighted to note that you are not among the multitudes who think that Medicare and/or supplemental policies will pay for a nursing home stay. Medicaid, a program restricted to low-income people, is the only public program designed to finance long-term care.

You are also correct to assume that a long-term-care insurance policy is a wise buy for only a small segment of the market. Wealthy families can afford to pay the $30,000 to $40,000 annual nursing home fee out of their investments; families with low incomes may well qualify for Medicaid.

According to Long Term Care: A Dollar and Sense Guide, (United Seniors Health Cooperative, 1991), "You should consider long-term-care insurance only if you have more than $50,000 in assets, not including your home and car, and your annual income is more than $15,000. Couples should have $100,000 in savings."

This is not to say that long-term-care insurance is without merit. I know elders who are receiving the finest in nursing home care, at little cost to them, their families or the government, because they had the foresight to purchase a long-term-care policy before becoming incapacitated.

The state insurance commissioner can provide publications to help you learn more. Call the consumer help line at (800) 342-2762. If you would like a copy of the financial guidelines for Medicaid eligibility, send a legal-size, self-addressed stamped envelope to me, c/o Seniority, at the address at the end of this column.

I hope you will keep the letters coming. I welcome questions and comments from people of all ages, because aging is a family affair, and I welcome letters on any consumer/elder care topic.

I hope I hear from you soon.

Helen Susik is a gerontologist with Suncoast Gerontology Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa. You can write to her c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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