Stop the Granny Bashing: Despite What You May Think, Our Seniors Are in Trouble
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“We lived very well,” said Norma Hair, 71, over a shaky table at the small pizzeria she runs in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with 68-year-old Carol Schmidt, her wife and partner of over 30 years. “In 1979, Carol was making $33,000 per year, which was a lot of money back then. Then I rose to the position of supervisor of accounting in a company. So, our combined income [in the early-1980s] was probably about $60,000.”
The two women are sharp, with bright, youthful eyes and a slightly wicked sense of humor. But their bodies betray their years. “The reason we have nothing,” says Hair, “is because we spent everything we could on medical to keep Carol alive when we were in the United States.” Both women suffer from chronic heart problems in addition to other ailments.
“Hospitals have to treat you for life-threatening illnesses,“ explains Hair. “[Carol] got two lifesaving surgeries for nothing. But it was getting harder and harder, so I decided that it was easier if we traveled to different cities.”
So they did. They sold their home, bought an RV and toured the nation's emergency rooms. “We were on the road for three and a half years,” says Schmidt, “just so we could go to a new ER each time and they wouldn't be suspicious -- oh, you're back again?"
The two have lived in Mexico since 2002, in part because of their love for the country, but also because they can live well on their combined income of $2,200 per month – Social Security, a little money from a self-published book and Schmidt's small pension. The health care is cheap, too – Schmidt had what she described as an “atrial fib situation” a few weeks before our interview, and an overnight stay at the hospital cost them $45. The ambulance ride required only a “donation,” and the women offered 200 pesos – about $18 dollars.
They've also got Medicare in the US to fall back on. “I had a serious operation in 2003, and I did go back,” says Schmidt. “My surgeon told me, 'I'm going to operate or you're going to die.'” Even inexpensive health care can add up when the procedures are complicated, and the two women couldn't afford to pay for the surgery out-of-pocket. In other words, Carol Schmidt owes her life to the relatively threadbare social safety-net that their country of birth provides.
They are two among millions of older American struggling to get by. “One out of three seniors in the United States is economically insecure,” Howard Bedlin of the National Council on Aging told journalist Paul Kleyman. “Yet the public perception is that seniors are doing fine and not struggling.”
The GOP may lose control of the House as a just reward for passing Paul Ryan's draconian budget – one that would replace the popular single-payer Medicare system with vouchers the elderly would then fork over to private insurance companies (assuming they'd cover them). It's somewhat of a political mystery why they'd touch that third rail given that the measure has no chances of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate, much less surviving Obama's veto pen. I've argued that it was the result of a party believing its own spin:
For years, the American Right has portrayed itself as representing “real America,” as Sarah Palin put it. They've long characterized the U.S. as a “center-right” nation full of people who hate “big government,” and they've portrayed popular social safety-net programs as somehow being foreign, if not unconstitutional signs of “creeping socialism.” Last year, when they swept into control of the House, they convinced themselves that the American public had enthusiastically handed them a mandate.