I used to think the worst thing about getting old was getting old. The gray hair, the wrinkles, the — gasp — dowager’s hump. Age spots. Bad knees. Everybody you know dying until you’re the only one left who remembers what she was doing when she heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

Well, I was wrong. The worst thing about reaching age 65 is enrolling in Medicare.

I’m not there yet. My husband Paul has this benchmark birthday coming up later this month. He’s spent the past month delving into the morass of Parts A, B, C and D.

Who comes up with these things? It used to be that the most mysterious aspect of medical care was a doctor’s scrawl on a prescription slip. Now, absolutely nothing is understandable.

For example, I question the minds that create unintelligible medical bills. Why can’t they just say, “You went to the gastroenterologist without a referral, so you owe us $500.”

Instead, a patient receives a bill that seems awfully high, considering she has health insurance. She has no idea why, and so has to spend an hour on the phone with a representative to learn what could have been stated in plain English on the bill. Who would go to the gastroenterologist on her own anyway? Nobody would go to the gastroenterologist unless her doctor made her. In other words, with a referral.

Somebody with the same kind of mindset — perhaps it was even the same person — designed Medicare. Really, should there have to be seminars on how to sign up for the darn thing?

I accompanied Paul to one of these. He insisted that I go along, even though he has a much more logical brain than I have, and, after a long career in journalism, has no problem asking a question until he gets the answer he wants to hear. I suspect he wanted the moral support, and I can’t blame him for that.

I knew, through our care of elderly parents, that having some sort of supplemental insurance was important, but I had not been paying much attention to this issue lately. Even though commercials for companies that provide this service air regularly during the nightly news, I guess they have flown right over my head. When I entered the workshop, I was clueless.

Actually, I hobbled in. My foot was still bandaged and in an orthopedic sandal following surgery. I was having bouts of feeling sorry for myself. But as I looked around, I immediately felt better. Everyone was older than me! And yet, we were all baby boomers, together. Somehow I felt at home, and not at all embarrassed to have to prop my sore paw up on a chair.

The basics of Medicare, I learned, are not all that difficult to understand. Part A covers inpatient hospital care and Part B, more routine medical services. A and B are known as Original Medicare. Needless to say, this coverage is limited, so the prudent thing to do is sign up with some private outfit that’s going to offer more. There’s Part C (Medicare Advantage), Part D (prescription drugs) and supplemental policies (Medigap).

Suddenly it seemed clear to me that Paul needed a private insurer that would cover the whole shebang. He has asthma, and inhalers are quite expensive. I thought he should just pick a Part C company that covers most things, including prescriptions.

I’m not sure when I reached this conclusion. For the rest of the time, I felt like I was just keeping my head above water, and swampy water at that. Why does it have to be presented as federally funded A and B and privately funded C and D, like puzzle pieces that don’t fit together? A private insurer can cover everything. But that same insurer can just pull out of the state, leaving subscribers scrambling to find new coverage. There are hucksters out there preying on vulnerable seniors, and if they are promising a simple answer to the Medicare conundrum, they might find a receptive audience.

Paul leaned over and whispered in my ear, “So the bottom line is, don’t get sick.”

At home, I Googled “Why is Medicare so complicated,” and got 1,540,000 hits in .39 seconds. Did I get a real answer? No.

Paul has kept his head above the muck and kept his eye on the prize. He is finally enrolled in a solid, highly rated, reasonably priced program, and this card will cover everything. Except what it doesn’t cover, of course.

All I can say is thank goodness we have almost six years to recover from this before I have to enroll. We’re going to need it.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]


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