'Doctor Marion' Takes Elder Care Message on Tour

Marion Somers
Marion Somers

Sometimes, you have to take matters into your own hands.

So at 71, elder advocate Marion Somers, Ph.D., is hitting the road for the fourth year in a row, crisscrossing the country in a souped up 1967 Greyhound bus to spread her message: "This country is going to be hit with a geriatric tsunami and we are not prepared."

With more than 8,000 Baby Boomers turning 60 each day, she's no Chicken Little. At least 70% of people over age 65 will require long-term care services at some point. "People think the government will rescue them," says Somers, author of Elder Care Made Easier: Doctor Marion's 10 Steps to Help You Care for an Aging Loved One. She rattles off the numbers -- with the average cost of a room in a nursing home more than $80,000 a year, home care aides averaging $21 an hour, and people typically retiring with some $40,000 in savings, that's a miscalculation of epic proportions. Simply put, the health care coverage you have is not going to be enough.

"I've seen what happens when families are not prepared," says Somers, who has over 40 years experience as a geriatric care manager and elder care expert. "This trip is about waking people up. All it takes is for one incident to change everything for a family," she says. "People don't realize until it's too late what Medicare is not going to cover."

So on June 27 she left New York City on a nearly 10,000 mile tour, sponsored by LifeSecure, MedAmerica, One Reverse Mortgage, 3in4 Association Advisory Board, and others. Somers' stops include New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, and as many others as she can fit in before the road trip ends Aug. 26 in Los Angeles.

She has been meeting with caregivers, conducting seminars, and talking with local legislators and others to discuss the importance of long-term care planning and sharing her wisdom.

It's after her seminars are finished, though, that she knows she's reaching people. That's when those who were too shy to ask questions during the public forums come up to her for advice. "Just this morning," says Somers, "someone came over to me after my lecture and told me that she didn't really understand how reverse mortgages work, but how it now seems like a viable option, instead of having her parents move in with them, which her husband wouldn't have put up with for too long." Somers espouses the benefits of reverse mortgages, as well as the urgency of getting long-term care insurance -- the younger the better, as it's far less expensive to buy in your 40s than in your 60s and older.

She simplifies her message with the acronym C.A.R.E.:

Attacking the Problem from All Angles

Though she's spent the last 40 years helping seniors and their families, her affection for the elderly goes back to when she was 9 years old. Somers grew up in a New York City tenement and was so poor that in winter, she would look for cardboard or linoleum to serve as makeshift soles for her shoes. Most of the people in her building were elderly, many without families. Somers would check in on them and shop for groceries for them. They'd give her 5 cents for each bundle, money she'd give to her parents. Says Somers, "I learned very early that the elderly love when someone listens to them. They want to share their stories."

She never stopped listening and continues to look for ways to help. She recently launched two iPhone apps -- Elder411 and Elder 911 -- to help caregivers gain instant access to critical advice.

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Somers, a grandmother and the mother of three grown children, is spry, needs no medication, is big on a diet of fruits, vegetables and yoga, and practices what she preaches. She got her own long-term care policy a decade ago. "When I die, all my papers, my wishes are up to date. I review them every three years."

She wants others to get their affairs in order, so she soldiers on from town to town in her retrofitted bus. Ever the trouper, she doesn't mind the succession of hotel rooms and she even took driving lessons so that in case of an emergency she could take the wheel. She's a get involved, not afraid to deal with the tough stuff kind of lady. "I'm a big picture person. I like attacking problems from as many ways as possible," says Somers.

High on her agenda is rallying the masses to write to their legislators and push Congress to provide additional tax deductions or rebates to help people better afford long-term care insurance. "We know the government isn't going to be able to provide all the help that's needed, so help the people help themselves. It's a win-win," says Somers.

Somers has spent a lifetime listening. She's wondering though, who's really listening to her, "Our system wasn't built for people to live beyond 65. Nobody was thinking that Social Security would need to be there for people in their 80s or even 100. Are they going to wait until the whole system fails?"

With that possibility in mind, she's already planning road trip No. 5.