AARP Brings Main Stream America into Social Security Debate

            Published July 27, 2012, Pawtucket Times

            With Congressional and the Presidential elections looming, just a few months away, aging baby boomers and seniors might well consider the recently released Social Security Trustees’ annual report as “a canary in a mine.”  Like a dead canary that warns  miners that a deadly gas is seeping underground, the 242 page report details the fragile health of the nation’s Medicare and Social Security Trust Fund, giving early warning to drastically cut retirement benefits if the President and Congress takes no action. 

             While thousands of media outlets across the nation reported on the impending bankruptcy of these programs, the Social Security Trustees called for immediate  action.  Meanwhile, the upcoming November elections keeps Congressional Democrats and Republications along with the Obama Administration from working to find a viable bipartisan fix.   Fear of turning away older voters has truly derailed needed policy reforms for this year.  

             The Trustee’s reaffirm that the Social Security program can pay full benefits until 2033, however, they warned that probably only three-quarters of promised benefits could be paid out beyond that time.  If this observation is correct it will become more difficult for aging baby boomers to plan their retirement. 

Fixing Social Security Ranked High

            Fixing Social Security is a high priority for the nation’s growing older population and will most likely be a key domestic policy issue to be discussed by Congressional candidates looking for votes to put them into office in Washington, DC next November.  Congressional and Presidential candidates be warned… According to an AARP survey, released in January 2012, of respondents age 50 and over, Social Security and Medicare ranked three out of 13 issues, with job growth and rising health care costs being number one and two respectively. 

            AARP Rhode Island, the OceanState’s largest aging advocacy group, has geared up its “You’ve Earned a Say,” initiative to gather grassroots feedback from “Outside the Beltway” to bring to Congressional lawmakers as they continue their debates as to how to bolster the solvency of the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs.  AARP hopes that this initiative will create a national conversation to ensure that every worker, who has contributed into Medicare and Social Security, has a direct say in the future reforms of these programs.

             According to AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen S. Connell, AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say” initiative was created to bring balanced information to people — both the pros and the cons — about the policy options being debated during the upcoming Presidential and Congressional elections for both programs. 

            “You’ve Earned a Say’ is giving the American people a strong and visible voice in the Social Security and Medicare discussion,” says Connell. “We are reaching out to our 130,000 Rhode Island members and nationally to nearly 40 million members.  Television commercials are now playing in Rhode Island, raising the awareness of viewers to AARP’s initiative and its website,  The website provides both factual and straightforward information as to policies that are being considered and enables a person to share their ideas with Congress and those running against Congressional incumbents, as how to strengthen these programs.

            According to Connell, one million people have participated in the “You’ve Earned a Say” grassroots initiative nationwide that kicked off in early Spring.  Their opinions have been shared online.  Meanwhile, tens of thousands have participated in more than 1,400 community meetings throughout the nation, she said, noting that more than a dozen have been held in the Rhode Island.

No More Political Spins, Jargon

            Americans are just plain tired of the political spins, jargon and rhetoric surrounding fixing the Social Security and Medicare programs, says Connell, even the backroom deals to change these programs in smoke filled rooms.  Over the years policy debates in Washington, DC have focused too much on budgetary line items and numbers and not on the immediate concerns, and real needs, of older Americans, she says.  

          But there is a central theme that comes from AARP’s dialogue with mainstream America.  That is most people feel that Washington is out of touch and not listening “They’re not listening to the concerns of people or talking about the real health and retirement income needs of older Americans. They’re not talking about what’s fair or about the effects of proposed changes on real people, quips Connell.

 A Bleak Retirement…

            Connell says that in Rhode Island 200,202 residents depend on Social Security benefits to help pay the bills every month, and 181,264 count on Medicare to help them afford health care, including guaranteed coverage for doctors, hospitals and prescription drugs.  

            Yes, policy decisions impact people’s lives.  If the President and Congress next year don’t find a bipartisan solution with input from those outside the Washington, D.C., a significantnumber of older Rhode Islanders might just well find their retirement year’s bleak at best.

            AARP’s  “You’ve Earned a Say” grassroots initiative may be just the way to finally educate older American voters, those who might just begin to put intense pressure on both the Democrats and Republicans alike, to make a long-term policy fixes.  Band aide solutions will haunt the upcoming generations who will financially suffer in their twilight years.  Shame on Congress if this occurs.

           Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical care issues.  The article was published in the July 27th issue of the Pawtucket Times. He can be reached at

Hindu Spiritual Leader Heals with Hugs

         Published July 20, 2012, Pawtucket Times 

         Just shy of an hour’s drive from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, thousands of spiritual seekers and devotee’s of Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, simply known to her followers as Amma (or mother in Sanskrit), gathered at the huge conference and trade center at the Best Western Royal Plaza in Marlborough, Massachusetts, just to sit before the Indian Saint to experience her healing embrace, hugs, and to meditate.   

          Throughout the free public morning and evening programs held on July 14th, followed by a three-day retreat (costing $360 for adults that included room and board; less for children), organizers estimated that there would be over 10,000 hugs given to those attending this year’s New England gathering for her blessing.  The New England program was the last stop of her North American Tour, an annual tour that began in 1987.

 Sitting Before Amma

          Issac Amponsah, proprietor of Ama’s Variety on Main Street, attends Catholic services, mediates twice a day chanting his Transcendental Meditation (TM) mantra and along with following the teachings of Amma.

         Last year Amponsah’s car broke down on his way the see Amma.  Now, waits for hours in the 47,500 square foot conference and trade center with his brother, Paul, to see Amma and get her blessings.  The Pawtucket businessman, casually dressed wearing sandals, knelt before Amna, surrounding by swamis in orange robes, devotee volunteers and spiritual seekers, getting his brief embrace, lasting for less than a minute.  Amma slowly rocked the Woodlawn resident as she chanted a mantra in his ear. When finished he left carrying a spiritually-charged Hersey Kiss and a few flower petals.

        Over thirty four years ago, Amponsah says curiosity and a thirst for knowledge led him to Transcendental Meditation (TM), when he learned the art of meditation. In 1992, a fellow TM practitioner brought him to meet Amma in New York and where he got his first hug and listened to her Vedic philosophies.  Over the years he still travels to see her when she comes through New England.

        “Knowledge, inspiration and love are the things I take away from seeing Amma,” states Amponsah.  He believes that she is the true expression of Devine love, just like Jesus Christ, too.      

        “It was like soul connecting to soul,” noted Amponsah, trying to explain his brief spiritual encounter with Amma.  “She just radiates love.”

        Like Amponsah, other aging Rhode Island baby boomers came across the Massachusetts’s border to get Amma’s blessing, too.

        For the last couple of years, Elizabeth Johanson, 50, a Pawtucket resident and a practicing Catholic has also come for Amma’s hugs and blessings.  She considers this Hindu Saint to be the incarnation of the divine Mother.

       According to Johanson, “Amma’s the real deal,” who financially supports programs to promote nonviolence and social justice, and feeding and housing the poor.

       Johanson, wearing a white t-shirt sporting the word, “love” wears an Our Lady of Guadalupe medallion, strongly believes that her yearly encounters with Amma and studying her teachings only strengthens her traditional beliefs in Catholicism.

       “I try to take Amma’s love and unconditional compassion out into Pawtucket and Central Falls each day, notes the mental health worker. “As I become more spiritually nourished I am able to become more patient and tolerate in my every day world, she says.

        Fifty-seven year old Tommy Emmet, who grew up practicing the doctrine of the Church of England, now is spiritually eclectic.  Practicing Hindu and Buddhism, and an avid reader of tomes on the world’s religions he sees the thread of truth in all religious practices.

        Wearing blue jeans and a colorful Hawaiian shirt, the aging baby boomer proudly wears an Obama ’08 button, sporting a necklace showing his religious beliefs.  Dangling charms were of images of Hindu deities, others of Native American symbols, and one of  Amma.

         In 2007, his wife, Karen Lee, the owner of the Pawtucket-based Breathing Time Yoga Studio, introduced him to Amma. Emmet, an usher at National Amusement Theater at Providence mall, has continued to come each year for her healing hugs and blessings.

         Emmet claims that sitting before this Hindu Spiritual teacher enables him to more easily connect to his divine, higher power and allows him to be more loving with himself and others.  “Thinking about Amma just helps me get through the day,” he says.

.The Making of Spiritual Teacher

         Amma grew up in poverty in 1953 in a remote coastal village in Kerala, South India, her family trade — fishing.  As a young girl she spent many hours in deep mediation on the seashore where she began to compose devotional songs, many of these compositions revealed depth and wisdom.

         With an ailing mother, Amma left school to help with household tasks, taking care of her seven siblings. As she went door-to-door gathering food scraps from neighbors for her family’s cows, she saw intense poverty and suffering in her community.  She brought people food and clothing from her own home, to the dismay of her family.      

        With this begun the spontaneously hugging of people to comfort them, who responded by calling her Amma (Mother).  She found her path of serving others…

 Amma Recognized Around the Globe for her Charity Work

        In 1997, Amma toured the world, including the United States.  With her home ashram in Kerala, South India, her ashrams, teaching her philosophy that all religions are one, are now scattered around the world.  Her devotees say that Amma has never asked anyone to change their religion, only that they go deeper into their values or faith, and live by those essential principles. 

        One year later, one of her initiatives, “Embracing the World Program” (ETW), has funded humanitarian efforts throughout in India.  This program has provided more than $50 million in totally free medical care, built an 800-bed hospital, a medical school and health clinics.  Meanwhile, it has provided more than 40,000 homes for the homeless throughout India and given financial aid for 100,000 people unable to care for themselves.  ETW projects also fund vocational-training, literacy-training, open and operate orphanages, hospices, nursing homes, scholarship programs, and even the planting trees.

        Amma has received international praise.  She has delivered addresses at the United Nations several times and has spoken twice at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  She has also received the Gandhi-King Award for Non-violence in Geneva and the James Park Morton Interfaith Award in New York. Two years ago, the Hindu spiritual leader was presented an honorary doctorate in humane letters at the University at Buffalo North Campus.

       Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health and medical issues.  This article was published in the July 20, 2012 issue of the Pawtucket Times. He can be reached at

The Best of…AARP Report Sheds Light on the Needs of Older Disabled Persons

           Published May 26, 2012, Pawtucket Times   

           AARP, a Washington, DC-based aging advocacy group, generates a new report to provide direction to the nation’s policy makers as to how to keep America’s age 50 and over disabled population independent and in  control of their daily lives. 

           According to the latest AARP study, lack of affordable services, a fragmented delivery system and the caregiver’s limited knowledge of the delivery system, are barriers that keep age 50 and over Americans with disabilities from living active and independent lives. 

           The AARP report, “Beyond 50 2003: A Report to the Nation on Independent Living and Disability,” incorporates data obtained from the first ever national survey of Americans age 50+ with disabilities, documenting the gap between what they say, need, and what is available to them. 

           “Long-term independence for persons with disabilities is an increasingly achievable social goal, AARP Policy and Strategy Director John Rother says in a written statement released with this report.  “But it will require time and the collective creativity of the public and private sectors,” he added. 

           “Meanwhile, even minor changes can lead – at least in the short-term – to important life-style improvements for those with disabilities today,“ Rother said.  On the other hand, long-term improvements will require fundamental policy changes.

           “As the influx of Boomers enters their 50’s and 60’s, they will bring their attitudes of competitive consumerism to health care delivery, and will demand greater choice and control of available services,” explained Rother.   “The good news is that there is time to prepare for those demands, he said.  “Along with improvements in medicine and health, we are seeing some declines in disability.  New technologies are also extending Americans’ years of independence.”

           According to the AARP report, 46 percent of the over 50 respondents with disabilities (including nearly 60 percent of those between the ages of 50 and 64) believe that having more control over decisions about services and the help they need would bring a major improvement in the quality of their lives.   However, they report that their greatest fear is loss of independence and mobility.

           The AARP report, the third in a series of comprehensive studies on the status of Americans over age 50, found that 51percent of older persons with disabilities are managing independently; 49 percent are not receiving any regular help with daily activities, such as cooking, bathing and shopping.  More than half of those with disabilities (53 percent) tell researchers that they were unable to do something they needed or wanted to do in the past month – quite often basic tasks such as household chores or exercise.

           Most (88 percent) of the assistance the older disabled persons reported receiving is volunteer assistance from family or other informal caregivers.  Sixty one percent strongly prefer this type of assistance with everyday tasks, while only one out of three uses any community-based service. 

            The AARP report found that independence, for older disabled persons, can be easily enhanced by using assistive equipment (such as walkers and wheelchairs) and new technologies that are now more widely available.  However, caregiver assistance with daily activities will take more time and resources.   The researchers estimate that as many as three million persons over age 50 with disabilities (almost 25 percent) need more assistance than they receive now with daily activities. 

           Furthermore, the report said that persons 50 and older with disabilities place inadequate health insurance on the top of their list of issues that are not being adequately addressed. Specifically, Medicare coverage still does not pay for prescription drugs and assistive equipment is not covered by some health insurance.

           Adds Rhode Island AARP Director Kathleen Connell, many of the issues addressed in the newly released AARP report are not just about today’s persons with disabilities, but about all of us, who if we live long lives (and longevity is increasing) are likely to face disability.

           “This is about long-term independence and not long term care, which refers not just to what we need during the most vulnerable and frailest stages of our disability, as ‘long term care’ suggests, but to what we want during what, in most cases, is a longer, more functional stage of disability,” Connell tells All About Seniors.

           While minor fixes would make a difference, other improvements will require longer-term fundamental changes and more public dollars.  Based on the “Beyond 50” findings, AARP has outlined a number of policy changes for making critical long-term improvements:

  • Older persons with disabilities must be insured against the high costs of accessing long-term supportive services.  Ways must be found to share the risk of these unpredictable costs more widely among public and private sources. 
  • Public funding for long-term supportive services needs to be reoriented toward more options for home and community-based care. The nation also must provide more options for “consumer-direction” in publicly funded programs.
  •  Communities need to be made more physically accessible for more people with disabilities.
  •  Information and services need to be more navigable for those who are trying to learn more about available long-term services and whether or not they are eligible.
  •  America’s health care system must adjust its focus to enhance functioning and health-related quality of life, not just provide acute and curative care.

             The “Beyond 50” report found that people with disabilities 50 and older give their community poor grades (between C+ and B- in their efforts of making it possible for them to live independently. In many communities, the researchers say, that public transportation is oftentimes rated poorly.

          The researchers say that the troubling findings reveal that the nation is ill-prepared to meet the calls of age 50 and over persons with disabilities for more control and independence in the lives.    

           AARP’s report is a wake up call for state and national policy makers who will be charged with making sound policy decisions for a grayingAmericawith disabilities.  If policy makers heed the recommendations of AARP’s report, systemic changes may well give dignity to millions of older persons with disabilities who only want to remain independent and control of their daily lives.  Just like the rest of us.

           Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  The article was published in May 2003 in the Pawtucket Times.  His articles also appear in state and national publications. He can be reached at