As Gayle Deadwyler listened to people discuss Social Security during a congressional constituent conference call last year, a question shot straight to her heart.
"A couple asked, 'Would Social Security still be there until the end of their lives?' " said Deadwyler, a retired teacher in Bedford Heights. "And they were in their 80s."
See also: Understanding what's at stake.
After working hard for decades, paying taxes and contributing to the Social Security system, many seniors are now saddled with anxiety about their benefits, said Deadwyler, an AARP volunteer.
Social Security and Medicare are critical issues for most of AARP's 1.5 million members in Ohio, said Michael Barnhart, AARP Ohio state president. Roughly nine out of 10 Ohio residents 65 and older receive Social Security benefits.
To gather ideas on how to strengthen the nation's retirement and health security systems, AARP Ohio is conducting at least 60 You've Earned a Say community conversations through August.
Medicare's hospital trust fund is expected to be exhausted in 2024.
Social Security can pay promised benefits through 2036 with no changes to the system. After that, 75 percent of benefits can be paid.
"We need to do something — the sooner the better — to extend its life for generations to come," said A. Barry Rand, AARP chief executive officer.
Focus is on listening
Presidential and congressional candidates have suggested a variety of changes, including increasing the amount of income that's 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 wealthy people; and raising the full-benefit retirement age.
Washington is not expected to seriously consider any changes until after this year's presidential and congressional elections.
The goal of You've Earned a Say is to gather a wide cross section of opinions, said Virgil Reed, state leader of the meetings.
"Our entire focus is on listening," said Deadwyler, who is leading volunteer efforts for the northeast Ohio stops. "We don't want to assume that we already know what our members are thinking."
The concerns and suggestions from Ohio residents will be shared with the AARP national office and with elected officials.
"There's a tremendous amount of misinformation out there on these two programs, and some of the campaign rhetoric on either side doesn't make the situation any easier to understand," said Reed, 67, of Anderson Township.
Reed expects the sessions to generate many unsettling personal stories. He has some of his own.
Reed's parents, ages 88 and 92, got a letter from their doctor of more than 15 years saying he would no longer take Medicare patients. If they wanted to continue to see him, they'd have to pay a large out-of-pocket fee each month.
And when Reed retired as a cable TV executive, moving to Medicare came with unexpected obstacles. His wife and two children, who had relied on coverage from his work insurance, were denied private insurance based on pre-existing conditions.
His former employer eventually offered an insurance continuation, Reed said, but he had to pay the total premium — about $25,000 a year.
"It was either that or pay [medical bills] out of pocket. That's not a risk we wanted to take."
Many others question whether Social Security will be enough of a safety net for those who have saved little on their own. While 30 percent of those 55 and older polled last year by the Employee Benefit Research Institute were "very confident" they'd have enough money for basic expenses during retirement, only 15 percent expected to have enough to live comfortably.
Visit the AARP Ohio Facebook page for You've Earned a Say meeting times and locations.
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Sarah Hollander is a writer living in Cleveland.