by Kay Rock
Clutching my ancient bottle of aspirin, my eyes skip over the drugstore shelves. I need a replacement for the tired-looking specimen in my hand, which is of similar vintage to the cream of tartar on my spice rack, but apparently, plain old aspirin doesn’t exist anymore. The shelves are filled with a plethora of options: Low Dose, Advanced, Advanced Extra Strength, Safety Coated, Extra Coated, tablets, gel caps, lozenges, mini size, mega size —and on and on, ad nauseam. I feel a headache coming on. All I want is a bottle of plain old-fashioned no-frills aspirin. I leave the store in frustration, with no idea which of the available choices would provide the simple relief I seek.
A few days later, my husband goes to the supermarket for a few things, and I ask that he pick up a box of my old standby, Kellogg’s Special K with Protein. The phone rings. “They have Special K Original, Special K with Red Berries, Special K with Oats and Honey, Special K Multigrain, Special K with Vanilla Almond, Special K with Cinnamon Pecan, Special K with Fruit and Yogurt, Special K with Low Fat Granola, Special K with Blueberry and Special K with Chocolate Pieces.”
He finishes this litany with a deep sigh and the wrong question, “Which one do you want?” I reminded him I’d asked for Special K with Protein. He reminds me that isn’t one of the options offered. “Then you’ll have to try a different supermarket,” I say. Silence.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less,” posits that while autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, too many choices can paralyze rather than liberate. Schwartz’s research indicates that when faced with an overwhelming number of choices, a vast majority of people will either end up unhappy with their choice or make no choice at all.
One of the key rites of passage in becoming 65 is selecting our Medicare plans. Before I begin my rant, let me be clear: I truly value this earned benefit, and I would be remiss not to emphasize that the government options (Part A and Part B) are very straightforward and simple. Where the headache begins is with all the options offered by private insurers: Part C (Medicare Advantage, which combines Part A, B and sometimes D — unless, of course, it doesn’t), Part D (drug coverage of differing premiums and coverage) and the Medicare Supplements (for “gaps” not covered by original Medicare).
Trying to keep it simple, I opt for Original Medicare and a Med Supplement. For a Med Supplement, I get to choose from Plans A, B, C, D, F, F Select, G, K, L, M and N, some of which may not be available in Pennsylvania. As for which ones aren’t available, it appears to be anybody’s guess. Mercifully, Plans E, H, I and J are no longer available for sale. However, if one selects Part C, a Medicare Supplement policy (aka Medigap) isn’t needed and can’t be sold to you. Raise your hands if you’re still with me? (Ah, always the same old hands.)
Remember Henry Ford’s philosophy? We could have any color car we wanted, as long as it was black. It seemed the ultimate arrogance once, but these days it seems almost soothing. Granted, some choice is nice, but have things gone too far? From consumer products to insurance plans, travel options, financial options, cable channels and more, Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety (not to mention endless hours of Internet research trying to get enough information to make the “right” choice).
Oxymoron aside, do we really need customized off-the-shelf products? So what’s a consumer to do? Schwartz’s book offers some suggestions, but of course each one comes with its own list of choices. I close the book. Now my head really hurts. Maybe I’ll take a walk and get a cup of coffee.
I enter the shop, and a perky barista asks: “Small, medium or large? Whole milk, skim or soy? One shot or two? Hot or cold? Cinnamon or nutmeg?” I pause, awaiting my chance to enter the circling jump rope of options. She breathes. I pounce. “Would you by any chance have a plain old aspirin?”
This article is a chapter from the book, “Over the Hill and Gaining Speed: Reflections in Retirement,” by Kay G. Rock, who lived in the Chestnut Hill area from 1973 to 2005 under her maiden name, Kay Steinkirchner. In 2005 she married Steve Rock and moved to Doylestown. For more information, visit kaygrock.com.