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…Don’t Fall Flat on Your Face: Simple Tips to Keeping Standing

Published July 13, 2012, All Pawtucket All The Time

I  know how easy it is to fall.  On March 14th, leaving the War in Iraq Art Exhibit this writer, an aging baby boomer, fell down several steep steps, tripping after he walked through the huge wooden front door, falling down several slippery steps in front of the historic Pawtucket Armory onto the front sidewalk.   Thank God…No serious injury, only a bruised ego and shins, and scuffed up palms. .

Three months later, within weeks of each other, two of my older friends, in their seventies, unexpectedly fell.  One tripped on a rug in his kitchen breaking several ribs.  The other one fell down a flight of stairs outside his bedroom injuring his spine. Luckily, both are on the mend, slowly recuperating in their homes.

But for others who were not so lucky as my elderly friends, traumatic brain injuries due to falls caused nearly 8,000 deaths and 56,000 hospitalizations in 2005 among Americans age 65 and older, according to a new report released last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  .

The national report notes that traumatic brain injuries, (called TBIs), are caused by a bump or blow to the head; however, they maybe missed or misdiagnosed among older adults. TBI often results in long-term cognitive, emotional, and/or functional impairments. In 2005, TBIs accounted for 50 percent of unintentional fall deaths and 8 percent of nonfatal fall-related hospitalizations among older adults.

According to the CDC report, each year, one in three older Americans (65 and older) falls, and 30 percent of falls cause injuries requiring medical treatment. In 2005, nearly 16,000 older adults died from falls, 1.8 million older adults were treated in emergency departments, and 433,000 of these patients were hospitalized. Falls were the leading cause of injury deaths and nonfatal injuries for those 65 and over.

Falls are not an inevitable consequence of aging, the researchers say, but they do occur more often among older adults because risk factors for falls are usually associated with health and aging conditions.  These conditions include mobility problems due to muscle weakness or poor balance, loss of sensation in feet, chronic health conditions, vision changes or loss, medication side effects or drug interactions, and home and environmental hazards such as clutter or poor lighting.

“Most people think older adults may only break their hip when they fall, but our research shows that traumatic brain injuries can also be a serious consequence,” said Dr. Ileana Arias, director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, in her statement announcing the release of her agency’s report.  “These injuries can cause long-term problems and affect how someone thinks or functions.  They can also impact a person’s emotional well-being.”

Reducing falls can be a simple as removing obvious household hazards along with adding or improving simple safety features in the home, notes an AARP spokesperson in response to CDC’s released report.  The Washington, DC-based nonprofit group represents over 39 million members, age 50 plus, in the United States.

According to AARP, studies indicate that half of all falls happen at home and research suggests that one-third of home accidents can be prevented by easy home updates and preventative maintenance.

It’s easy to fall-proof your home, AARP says.  Aging baby boomers or the elderly parents can:  Install handrails on both sides of all steps (both in and outside);  Secure all carpets and area rugs with double-sided tape;  Install easy to grasp shaped handles for all drawers and cabinet doors; Use brighter bulbs in all lighting fixtures;  Install night lights in all areas of night activity;  Add reflective, non-slip tape on all non-carpeted stairs;  Install lever handles for all doors;  Place a bench near entrances for setting down purchases and resting;  Install closet lights, as well as adjustable rods and shelves; Install rocker light switches; and consider illuminated ones in select areas.

Finally, why not check out your local hardware stores, too, the businesses even carry many of the products to make simple updates to homes. For homeowners making more extensive renovations, AARP recommends that they consider hiring a contractor who is licensed, certified and bonded to do work in that particular location. A Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) is a professional designation signaling that contractors have had specified additional training, but homeowners should still ask for documentation that the contractor is licensed or certified and bonded.

Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers medical, aging and health care issues. The article was published in the July 11, 2008 issue of All Pawtucket All The Time.  He can be reached at