We Need a Universal 13th Grade. Just Not When You Think.

February 25, 2021

We have created an entirely new stage of life by expanding life expectancy thirty years. Although the quantity of years lived has greatly improved, the quality of those final years has not. Prior to this year, 43 percent of elders reported loneliness, which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. Alongside this loneliness, we force our elders to make decisions about healthcare and insurance without proper knowledge of their complexities.

Americans recognize the need to improve the health of our elders as seen through our continued funding of Medicare and the billion-dollar long-term care industry. If we know our older Americans are lonelier than ever, why can’t we seem to do anything about it?

The truth is that we created a new stage of life but never taught people to live it. We prepare toddlers to enter school by teaching them the alphabet. We prepare high schoolers for adulthood by teaching them civics, health, and science in high school. So why do we fail to teach our new retirees how to navigate life after work?

We need to provide a universal education program to adults 65 and older on the intricacies of Medicare and long-term care, elderly health practices, and a one-stop-shop for volunteer and community engagement opportunities.

There is a desperate need for education as over 70 percent of soon-to-be retirees lack an adequate understanding of retiree healthcare programs.

There is a desperate need for education as over 70 percent of soon-to-be retirees lack an adequate understanding of retiree healthcare programs. Over 50 percent of polled Americans believed that outpatient care was fully covered for free under Medicare Part B– which it is most definitely not. One report found, “More than a third of participants believed that once you’ve signed up for Medicare, you’re stuck with the plan you’ve selected.”

Clearly, the average elderly American cannot keep up with the complexities of our health insurance system. My grandfather recently had to navigate the intricacies of elderly care as he debated moving my grandmother to a long-term care facility. He had to hire a long-term care consultant who specializes in advising on how to pay for nursing homes and which insurance programs to use. This advisor cost thousands of dollars to offer their advice. At one point my parents said, “You shouldn’t have to take a class on Medicare to be able to understand it.”

They are absolutely right. You shouldn’t have to. But if we are stuck with this complex system of Medicare Parts A through D, Medigap, Medicare Advantage plans, long-term care insurance, and Medicaid, maybe making all seniors take a class is exactly what we should do.   

Anytime a new program is started, people are concerned about government overreach and spending. Fortunately, educating future beneficiaries on Medicare will reduce spending as individuals will better understand what is covered and reduce unneeded expenses. Universal 13th grade could be administered under the already existing Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Most crucially, we would not need to pay or hire a significant number of educators for this universal program. Elderly graduates of the program who are interested in volunteering would teach next year’s entering participants.

Elderly people consistently report that in old age they want health, connection, engagement for purpose, and to leave a lasting legacy. Through a meaningful volunteer program like this, elders stay healthy, connected, and engaged while improving the lives of future retirees, leaving a legacy for generations to come. Not very often does a program have the potential to improve the lives of its beneficiaries while also reducing costs.

This 13th grade program would be run by elderly community members and be specifically tailored to the policies of its state and community. The teaching environment would be age-appropriate accommodating the unique needs of adult learners. New infrastructure would not be needed as education would occur in trusted, existing community centers like local schools and places of worship.

Many financial firms are beginning to host Medicare education seminars, showing that the private market already has a demand for a system like this. The elderly population is historically hard to reach, so we need a program that can meet the needs of the elders in each locale, factoring in demographics and existing resources. We should create a one-stop-shop for all Medicare information for seniors.

As COVID-19 continues, spending on healthcare and social isolation among elders will increase. We need a universal education program to assist in the transition to elderly and retiree life where we teach our seniors about Medicare options, elderly health and loneliness, and available volunteering positions in their community. Community leaders do not need to wait for the next crisis to begin the process.

We have built a new stage of life. Now we have the opportunity to actually enjoy that new stage.

Jack Seifarth is an MPH student in the Department of Epidemiology.