Diane Lange marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Strengthening the retirement and health safety nets is a cause she'd march for today, she said.
See also: Understanding what's at stake.
She was among about 50 people who attended the Michigan launch of You've Earned a Say in Grand Rapids in March.
The sessions aim to give a voice to those with a direct interest in any changes to Social Security and Medicare.
AARP will collect suggestions and concerns from the public and deliver the results to candidates and elected officials. At least four more sessions will be held in Michigan through September.
Both programs have long-term financial issues. Social Security trustees say the program can pay promised benefits through 2033 with no changes to the system. After that, about three-quarters of benefits can be paid. Medicare trustees say the program's hospital insurance trust fund will be exhausted in 2024.
To deal with the situation, some members of Congress and others have suggested increasing the amount of income subject to payroll taxes; enrolling new state and local government employees in the Social Security system; changing the cost-of-living adjustment; reducing benefits for the wealthy; and raising the age of eligibility for full Social Security benefits.
It's unlikely Congress will make any changes this year, but the programs are likely to be an issue for the president and members of Congress elected in November.
"Politicians in Washington have been meeting behind closed doors talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare to reduce the federal deficit," said A. Barry Rand, AARP chief executive officer.
Now, he said, it's time for people to have their chance.
Fred Lane, 69, a retired substance abuse counselor who lives in Grand Rapids, said he never worked anywhere long enough to earn a pension. He supplements his monthly Social Security check of about $1,000 with the $150 he earns each week coordinating activities for seniors at the United Methodist Community House, a social services organization in his city.
Without his part-time job, Lane said, he would have a difficult time making ends meet. "I never have anything left over" from each month's Social Security check.
Saves some from poverty
About 1.3 million Michigan residents age 65 or older receive Social Security benefits. About 42 percent of the state's 65-plus population would have incomes below the poverty level without Social Security. About 28 percent rely on it as their only source of income.
About 1.6 million Michigan residents have health insurance through Medicare.
Lisa D. Cooper, manager of advocacy for AARP Michigan, said the You've Earned a Say sessions solicit "all sorts of different opinions — a mix of information and personal experience and emotion. We had people speaking from their hearts."
If not for her daughter's help with her rent and utilities payments, Alma Dolly, 93, of Kentwood, said she wouldn't be able to get by on her $800 monthly check from Social Security.
"You've got so much to take care of out of that," Dolly said.
You've Earned a Say sessions are June 7 in Jackson at the Ella Sharp Museum; July 12 in Lansing at the Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ; Aug. 2 in Traverse City at the Holiday Inn West Bay; and Sept. 13 in Flint at the Sarvis Conference Center. All are 10 a.m. to noon.
In addition, AARP volunteers are conducting small gatherings at civic clubs, churches and homes.
Visit the AARP Michigan website for the schedule of sessions. If you're unable to attend a session, fill out the You've Earned a Say questionnaire online.
You may also like: Take the Medicare quiz.
James Prichard is a writer living in Park Township, Mich.
AARP is bringing the debate about Medicare and Social Security out from behind closed doors in Washington.