This year, I changed from my employer’s health insurance to Medicare. For most of my life, I paid Medicare taxes out of my salary. Now I receive Medicare health insurance until I die. I also pay for supplemental health insurance provided by my employer. Because of my retirement income, the government taxes me for Medicare. Strangely, in total, I now pay more for Medicare insurance than last year when I had my employer’s health insurance. Given that I was taxed by Medicare for more than 35 years, it seems to me that my Medicare lifetime payments would have paid off my retirement health expenses.
The truth is that my many years of Medicare taxes went towards the health expenses of my fellow citizens. Now, taxpayers are paying for my health expenses that exceed my Medicare payments. For about 20% of Americans, Social Security is 90% or more of their total income. Most likely, these low wage earners paid little into Medicare during their working years and can least afford to pay for health care when they cease to work. My Medicare payments are still affordable and given that it allows older Americans to receive adequate health care, I don’t mind the extra payments.
What is more bothersome to me is that going on Medicare means that I have reached the dreaded old age milestone: 65 years old. Most see this age as becoming a retired senior citizen, although I retired almost 9 years ago. My hair is gray, and my body does not move as quickly, nor bend as easily. My mind is not as quick, nor does it remember details as well. I require more rest and cannot travel as well, especially international travel. For example, last October’s travel to Egypt required more days to recover from the eight hour time difference. I am still fully functional, but my parts are more fragile and less dependable.
Last week, Christians celebrated Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Christians have started the journey to the Good Friday cross and Easter resurrection. Ash Wednesday is the day Christians recognize their mortality. Ashes from palm leaves are smeared onto foreheads to commemorate that we are mortal. God said to Adam after disobeying God: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19, NRSV) After the Fat Tuesday revelry, reality hits on Ash Wednesday; the clock is still ticking towards your death. Repent and believe in the Gospel message.
As my earthly life wanes, I do think about going back to dust, although not in a morbid or foreboding way. I dwell on what matters most during my remaining days. First, when do I turn over leadership roles to the next generation? I tend to favor leaving when people still want you to stay and are not considering pushing you out the door. I retired at the peak of my abilities, and I was asked to stay longer. I wanted to leave like Ted Williams who hit a home run at his final at-bat.
Second, I still want to learn and grow. I went to seminary to retrain my brain into more gray and complex arenas. Theological studies, like many engineering problems, are full of questions that can never be definitively solved. Old age allows a person to be more patient and reflective after having seen life’s recurring cycles. Anyone who is in their seventh decade has experienced several economic cycles and realize that this too will pass.
Third, I want to be more joyful during this period of declining abilities. I had coffee with a friend who asked me many difficult theological questions. She wanted to understand why I decided to be a Christian and what it took to have faith. She said that her husband was “grumpy” in his old age, something that greatly bothered her. I don’t want to be a grumpy old man and need to learn to trust the big picture and to relax regarding unimportant details.
Does life matter in your old age? It certainly does and can be the most meaningful phase of life. If you are still healthy, you can spend more time with people you love by taking walks, enjoying a meal, or traveling to interesting places. Perhaps working and raising children constrained these meaningful experiences. Become a better disciple by joining a Bible study or church class. Even after two years of seminary classes, I still study Scripture deeply each week in preparation for my Wednesday morning Bible study group. Our class is steeped in age, but the men are still eager to be better disciples of Christ.
Ash Wednesday is an important day because each year, it forces Christians to take the time to remember that life is short. We don’t know when our earthly life will end, but we can take the time to reflect upon the purpose of life. Are we focusing on what is important? Adjusting and realigning can lead to a more joyful and less regretful life. There is little that can be done about the past. However, there should be excitement during our older years if we understand that we are still able to grow, change, and live a life of meaning.