Marion Somers (Jonah Light Photography)

New York – Marion Somers is a woman with a cute bus and a gentle demeanor who has had a tough life.

Somers — the famous Dr. Marion — is trying to tell Americans, in the nicest possible way, that, if they fail to plan for long-term care (LTC) expenses, many of them may end up with lives that are as tough as hers was.

She began driving a refurbished 1966 Greyhound bus around the country four years ago, on her own, before she got involved with the 3in4 Association’s 3in4 Need More long-term care (LTC) planning awareness campaign, to learn about what was happening around the United States in the areas of LTC planning and actually providing LTC services.

She says that, in the course of her travels, she’s seen some things that are working. She saw communities trying to emphasize “universal design” — architectural choices, urban planning choices and other choices that can make houses, shops, offices and public spaces more usable by all residents, no matter what age those residents are or what abilities they have or don’t have.

When she visited Scandinavia, she liked the fact that communities there build homes for elders near schools, to help people of different ages mix.

But “I found more that wasn’t working,” Somers said today at a club in New York during an interview at her latest stop on the second bus tour she’s been doing with the support of the 3in4 Association.

Somers sat down for an interview about what long-term care insurance (LTCI) producers should tell their clients with LifeHealthPro when she drove through New York in 2011.

This year, we talked to her again and tried to capture more of what she has to say about LTC services, LTC planning and the desperation of informal caregivers.

Somers would love to see the government do more to help care recipients and caregivers, but she does not think consumers should expect to see much new assistance coming from that direction.

Somers talked to all of the major Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa four years ago and all of the major Republican candidates in Iowa earlier this year.

Presidential candidates and other policymakers may make vague statements about knowing someone who knows someone who’s been a caregiver, and they may say they understand the importance of the issue, but they rarely give enough details to indicate that they really do understand the issue, let alone provide any possible answers for dealing with coming LTC tsunami, Somers said.

The only realistic message for consumers, Somers said, is that, “You have to take care of you.”

Despite Somers’ encounters with the presidential candidates, she tries to stay away from talking about politics. But, whatever government agencies want to do or even promise to do, the need for LTC services clearly will outstrip any plans the government has made for providing it, and people have to do everything they can to take care of their own health, buy private long-term care insurance (LTCI), and take any other steps they can think of to take responsibility for their own LTC needs, Somers said.

Somers said she bought her own LTCI coverage 15 years ago, as soon as she knew it was available, because she saw LTCI as a way to protect her children from facing the same pressure she’d faced as a family caregiver.

“I grabbed it like a thirsty person,” Somers said.

Somers was born in 1940. She grew up without ever knowing any living grandparents in an apartment building in East Harlem in New York City. Most of the other residents in the building were elderly, and Somers soon made them her honorary grandparents.

Her father was a struggling laborer, and her mother suffered from health problems that left her unable to function.

By the time Somers was 9, she was serving as a caregiver for her mother and as an unofficial foster mother for a sister who was 2 years younger and baby twin sisters. Money was tight, and she found she could earn a nickel by escorting an older building resident to church or fetching a bag of groceries.

A few years later, she started giving home permanents for 50 cents each. She discovered that she could get $1 for cleaning an older neighbor’s apartment, and that she could collect 25 cents of the payment if she sent a friend to do the cleaning. By the time she was 14, she was employed 10 friends in an apartment cleaning business.

But she was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s and had never heard of the word “entrepreneur.” She married young, had two babies, and found herself divorced, with two children, when she was 22.

She worked helping older people, traded babysitting with another mother, and went to college to try to be an art therapist. She later went in for a master’s in play therapy and ended up with a doctorate in what she’d been doing all along, gerontology.

She became a well-known caregiver and expert on care issues. She was looking for ways to amplify her voice and help more people understand what will happen when large numbers of members of the Silent Generation and even larger numbers of older baby boomers start to start to need help with the activities of daily living.

She thought her campaign through carefully.

Take the bus.

Somers is not a bus fan, a bus collector or the daughter of a Greyhound executive. She said she chose the bus as her vehicle because she knew that just about everyone in her target audience would have spent at least a little time in a Greyhound bus.

“I want the population that I’m going to be talking to to relate to me instantly,” Somers said.

She used the 1966 bus for two years, then replaced it with a 1967 bus equipped with a video editing studio when she joined forces with the 3in4 Association.

She said some have called her the “Paul Reverse of long-term care,” going through the villages of America crying that the “tsunami is coming.”

Somers herself likes the slogan, “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.”