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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane women crusade for universal health care

Kelly Hunt, Jill Williams and Mary Huntington began their universal health care activism two years ago at a book club. (Colin Mulvany)

They could have chosen an easier cause to embrace, these three Spokane women. Perhaps ending world hunger or stopping nuclear-weapon proliferation.

Instead, Kelly Hunt, Mary Huntington and Jill Williams chose as their cause universal health care for every United States citizen. Their hopes go way beyond Obamacare. So it’s no surprise they’ve been called socialists.

“That’s not going to move anything forward,” Huntington said of labels. “You have to make a stand and say, ‘This is what I think.’ ”

The women have been energized by their cause. They’re discovering how activism in your 50s, 60s – and beyond – is a sort of cosmic vitamin.

As Karl Pillemer, founder of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, explained: “Not only does involvement in a cause promote a sense of purpose, it also promotes social integration with others and often physical activity, both of which lead to health and longer life.”

Birth of a cause

The three women, who range in age from 54 to 62, are all college-educated. They married men whose jobs provide good medical benefits and middle to upper-middle class lifestyles. The women worked outside the home at various points – and Hunt, a real estate broker – still does.

But they were able to channel a lot of energy and time into raising their children, now all grown, and into the community through volunteer work.

The women’s universal health care activism began two years ago in their “Power of One” book club. On Feb. 15, 2011, the book club discussed T.R Reid’s book “The Healing of America” – an analysis of how industrialized nations provide health care to all its citizens while the United States does not.

“My sister recommended this book, and I brought it to book club,” Williams, 62, said. “Everyone there had a (bad) story that had happened to them – or family members – because of the health care system.”

Huntington, 60, said: “It was one of the most interesting and lively conversations we ever had as a book club. At the end of it, I said, ‘Why don’t we do something?’ And we did.”

Hunt, 54, shot off an email to Reid, inviting him to Spokane. He said yes. The three women, along with book club member Judy Page, then partnered with Providence Health Care and Eastern Washington University. Reid’s free talk took place at the Spokane Convention Center on Oct. 4, 2011.

“I arrived early for the event so the convention room was not very crowded at that point and there were plenty of seats available,” Huntington said. “Kelly sat next to me, and we shared our thoughts, hopes, anxieties. We had no idea how many would show up.  Needless to say we were overwhelmed at the numbers. Standing room only!”

Fountain of youth

It’s easy to succumb to bitterness and regret as you reach your 60s, the boarding-gate decade on the journey to older age.

As spiritual writers Richard Rohr and Paula D’Arcy once said in a workshop: “At some point, everyone and everything will disappoint you.”

Chronic health conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, arthritis and heart issues, settle in by the 60s for 1 in 5 men and women, according to the recent “Older Americans 2012” federal health report.

Boomers in their 60s can find their “sandwich generation” responsibilities exhausting. Elderly parents are living longer, and boomers’ grown children, and young grandchildren, often need more emotional and financial help than anticipated.

Energy levels – no matter how fit you are in your 60s – sag, along with your bodies.

Folks in their 60s often ponder questions similar to the ones they pondered in their 20s.

“It made me think about life and what is important,” Huntington said of the universal health care discussion at book club two years ago. “What are we here for? What is the meaning?”

Williams said: “I reached a point where my kids were grown and on their own, and I was looking for things I might be able to do.”

Hunt pointed out: “When you become empty-nesters, your purpose in life shifts.”

Embracing a cause in your 60s won’t necessarily protect you against chronic illness or erase all bitterness, but it can provide a healthier focus.

In a recent interview, Karl Pillemer, author of “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans,” said: “The famous psychologist Erik Erikson got it right: As we enter the later phase of life, we need to embrace generativity – a life stage in which we move toward contributions to future generations that we ourselves may not be around to enjoy.

“There is no question that elders who engage in generative activity feel more integrated, satisfied with life, and experience greater well-being. In my studies of over 1,200 older people, many noted that they became more compassionate as they grew older, and they see later life as a time to look beyond their immediate needs toward improving the human condition.”

Next steps

The group the women formed – “Why Not U.S.?” – has about 10 active members. The women met with author Reid again in November 2012 when he returned to Spokane for a second talk. Dan Schaffer, a retired doctor, incorporated Reid’s book and a documentary on Canada’s health care system into a presentation, which he shows at gatherings around Spokane.

The women figure their universal health care message has reached about 2,500 Inland Northwest people. They are focusing now on getting universal health care passed statewide, and they hope to collaborate with other Inland Northwest groups working on this same cause.

In their personal lives, they question some tests suggested for them in doctor visits, and they almost always question the billing system. Unnecessary tests and paperwork drive up health care costs.

When discouraged, the women look back in history to the men and women who championed history’s other seemingly impossible causes – emancipation from slavery, voting rights for women, equal rights for all.

Most champions were ridiculed and jailed. Some were called socialists – and worse. Some died for their causes, and many died before seeing their hard work change society.

“We try to imagine what it would be like to be in a nation with access to health care and how different our country would look with citizens who are free to be productive because they don’t have to worry about health care,” Williams said. “How much happier we would be as a country.”