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                            Retirement Talk for Boomers, Seniors, and Retirees

Episode 036 We Shall Overcome  

Life is often unfair but we can speak up and take action when injustice occurs. I felt a bit like Rosa Parks being asked to move to the rear of the bus. Was her refusal a conscious act on her part or an unconscious rebellion? Did she ask if it was worth it to struggle over such a minor annoyance? That was always the way it had been done in Montgomery, Alabama. Was she a troublemaker? Did she have an attitude?

Doctor’s offices are filled with older, retired people with many problems. We hobble into the appropriately named waiting room and begin to wait after being publicly quizzed about our ailments and other personal information by the clerk behind the glass. At least on the bus you don’t have to give name, date of birth and symptoms.

Then the moment I’ve been waiting for. “Richard” (pause) “Richard”. She starts to turn and I say, “I’m Mr. Smith”. She says, “I was only trying to be friendly”. I explained that old people used to be called by their last name as an indication of respect. A sour smile conveyed the sentiment, “Get over it”.

I have gotten over it. I moved to the back of the bus.  No one arrived to support my protest. The other old folks were grateful to be spared her smile. The offense is mine not hers. No Martin Luther King jr. came to my support but I have not given up. I am hoping to call attention to a common problem. The issue is human dignity and professionalism.

Individually I have great respect for each of my caregivers but the system seems unfriendly and inefficient. It appears to be organized to maximize the sale of the product and to collect the fees. The parts of this vast system are separate and privately owned, impenetrable to the old and sick.

I don’t mind being a client. My attorney treats me with respect, even deference. At church, I am a member and the minister is polite to me. The clerk at the store says, “Thank you Mr. Smith”. I am a customer or consumer. I wish I were so highly regarded at the hospital. I don’t know the origin of the word patient. I am growing more impatient with every treatment contact. No doubt, that is some kind of displacement of anger at the decline of my health but I don’t think I am alone in feeling disrespect.

Patients are usually advised to take an active part in treatment decisions.  I questioned why my social security number was written on a form readily available to all staff. I was told that Medicare required it. I asked what provision was made for privacy and was told, “You’ve got an attitude”.  I must admit that I do. I am aware of identity theft and don’t want to be a victim. I meekly withdrew but the resentment accumulated as it may have with Rosa Parks on that bus. I decided to find someone who would understand my discomfort.

There seems to be no centralized complaint department. Telephone calls are answered by asking me to press one for English language then on through a long menu of options. When I get through it is to an office that does not deal with complaints and does not know who does. When I did get a name, I left a message that was not returned. It took more than a dozen telephone calls, but I did finally speak with someone who promised to investigate and call me back.

I hope that others will speak up to protect our dignity when confronted by the power of the health care establishment. Retired people know that they are no longer an essential part of society. We consume a large part of health services only to become increasingly disabled. Still, we were once as vital as those who treat us, those who in turn will decline and eventually fail.

We are caught in a complex machine. You and I can create a dignified place for all citizens in this system. Infantilizing consumers serves no useful purpose. Customer satisfaction should be a priority of any business. Some assurance that privacy is a concern is not too much to ask.

  I'm Dick Smith