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Volunteer Takes Her Own Path to Adventurous Life


The word feminist wasn't in the everyday vocabulary when Johanne Hanser started out. But looking back, she now realizes that the label fits.

Retired from a career in nursing and public health, Hanser, 79, keeps a busy schedule as a volunteer. A trustee of Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center, she still puts on her whites to work on the orthopedic floor.

Her other principal cause is the Medicare Advocacy Project, organized by the Los Angeles-based Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program. As a counselor, she helps senior citizens deal with the complex task of managing their health insurance claims.

Adventure, advocacy and independence have long been part of Hanser's life. She was born in Germany shortly before World War I. Her father died when she was 6, and she was sent alone to the United States at age 11 to stay with relatives in New York.

"We had no food in Germany after World War I, like what's happening in Russia today, so I came here to work on a dairy farm," she said. "I was put into school not knowing a word of English. When I graduated from high school I was prepared like other women in those days to work as a secretary."

After 14 years of taking shorthand, she decided to become a nurse. "It was a way to get an education and see the world," she said.

After graduation, she decided to go as far away from New York as possible and took an assignment at San Francisco's St. Francis Hospital.

For years, she and the man she would eventually marry, Charles Hanser, were a bi-coastal couple--a rarity in the years before jet travel.

"He was teaching at Columbia University in New York, and for 10 years he visited in the summers," Johanne Hanser said. "But I was a professional earning a living and I wanted more education, not children. Today I would be called a feminist, but in those days women like me didn't have a platform for our views. I was always driven by the thought of wider horizons."

She moved to Los Angeles to enroll in a master's degree program for public health nursing at UCLA. By then, Charles Hanser realized she would never come back to New York, so he moved to California and they married when Johanne was 41. She dedicated her professional life to public health until she retired. Then the Hansers sold their house in Pacific Palisades and went off to Europe for a year to see more of the world.

When they returned, she taught at the UCLA School of Nursing for a few years and then became a full-time volunteer.

The Medicare Advisory Project, she said, fills an urgent need for seniors.

"Medicare is not enough, so 40% of seniors need to have a supplemental plan and the paperwork is overwhelming. Some of my clients are partially blind so I fill out their forms," she said.

But Hanser thinks that health care coverage is more of a problem for younger people than the old. That's why she believes that cost containment, in the form of doctors cutting back their fees, is needed.

"They'll be mad but they'll get used to it," she said. As for the clients she counsels, Hanser said it's especially scary for those who are alone.

"I know a former teacher in her 80s who is running out of money to live on because she doesn't file for reimbursements. She brings in shopping bags filled with bills. And that's the point of (the advisory project)--because knowing how Medicare works before filing a claim can save both time and money," she said.

Johanne Hanser also travels. She went back to Germany after the Berlin Wall came down. She toured China because she had never been to that part of the world and didn't want to miss it. Her next adventure is attending Santa Monica College's Emeritus College autobiography class. She wants to write her life story.

The Medicare Advocacy Project helps disabled and senior Medicare beneficiaries with their Medicare and related health insurance problems. There are 56 volunteer counselors such as Johanne Hanser working in the community. For general information, call (800) 824-0780. On the Westside, Hanser works at WISE Senior Services in Santa Monica, (310) 394-9871; Ray Mirick counsels at the Felicia Mahood Center in West Los Angeles (310) 479-4119 and Fran Stein is the counselor at the Pico-Robertson Center: (310) 271-3306.

Bulletin Board

Emeritus College--The Santa Monica Emeritus College will offer a variety of courses; for classes, registration and information: (310) 452-9306 (free).

National Council--The Westside chapter of the National Council of Senior Citizens will present "Renewable Energy is Ready" by Warren Leon, educational director of the Union of Scientists; Claude Pepper Senior Center, 1762 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; 1 to 3 p.m. Friday; information: (213) 935-6442 (free).

Mature Driver--Santa Monica College will sponsor a mature driver improvement course for licensed drivers 55 and older; Santa Monica College, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; information: (310) 452-9214 ($21).

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