Lucy Mirigian

111-Year-Old San Francisco Woman Had to Prove to US Government She Was Still Alive


By Steve Rubenstein

SAN FRANCISCO (San Francisco Chronicle) — Lucy Mirigian is 111 and very much alive, no matter what the U.S. government says.

She was working a jigsaw puzzle in her San Francisco home this week and said that you really do need to be alive in order to solve one.

“I’m old but I’m not stupid,” she said, seated at her kitchen table and connecting two puzzle pieces to make a picture of a dog. “People expect old people to be stupid. That’s not me.”

Mirigian likes solving jigsaw puzzles almost as much as she dislikes people telling her she’s dead.

In November, the government agency that administers her federal pension decided that Mirigian was dead because she had not returned a form letter saying she wasn’t. Mirigian said the letter never arrived. The result: the government stopped sending Mirigian her monthly pension of $377.26. Her health insurance was about to be cut off, too.

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It was a nightmare, according to Mirigian and her daughter, Sonia, and son-in-law, Jack Koujakian, who share the house near Balboa Park that Mirigian bought in 1950. Being alive is one thing. Persuading the US government that you are alive when it disagrees is something else.

The Koujakians wrote letters. They made calls. They left messages. Nothing worked. Once the government thinks you’re dead, it’s not easy to change its mind.

In desperation, the family walked into the San Mateo office of Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier. The office staff took one look at Mirigian and concluded that she was still very much in a condition to keep collecting the pension she was entitled to as a retired clerk at the US Mint on Market Street.

Speier’s staff made some calls. Calls from a congresswoman’s aide, unlike calls from a congresswoman’s constituent, tend to get things straightened out lickety split. The pension was restored this week and the past-due benefits were paid. That’s a good thing, Mirigian said, because her family has booked a vacation in Calistoga next month and the hotel isn’t free.

Mirigian retired from her job at the Mint about 60 years ago and says she doesn’t remember exactly what she did there.

“I did what the person in charge told me to do,” she said. “That’s what you do when you work in an office.”

In any event, she said, proving you’re alive is inconvenient. Ten years ago, she related, the Social Security folks sent someone to her home to make sure she was still entitled to her monthly check. The visitor was a nice lady and stayed for coffee.

It’s one thing when the feds assume you’re alive, and they come by for coffee just to make sure. It’s another thing when the feds assume you’re dead, and then leave it up to you to disabuse them of the notion.

But, she said, the trip to Speier’s office did get her out of the house.

“My whole life, I’ve never sat still,” she said. “You see old ladies sitting on a bench, waiting to die. Not me.”

As a 4-year-old, Mirigian left her home in Armenia on the back of a donkey in 1910. She crossed the Atlantic on a boat, made her way to Fresno and attended Fresno State University. In San Francisco, she raised a family, taught Sunday school, served as a PTA president and had a second career making elegant, elaborate sculptures from beads and wire. Her husband of 40 years, Ashod, died in 1998.

Being old is plenty interesting, the family says. The three of them like to take ocean cruises, and it’s hard to prove your identity aboard ship, too. Some years ago, at the age of 101, Mirigian entered her stateroom and found a crib. The cruise line computer, it turned out, had dropped two digits and assumed she was 1. On the next cruise, a cocktail waitress asked to check her ID, because her computer said that Mirigian was a newborn, too.

Aboard ship, Mirigian said, she was able to prove she was older than 1 without a congresswoman’s help. Life at sea is easy compared to life ashore. She’s taken 43 cruises, she said, and has only been carded that one time.

“I like ships and I like to go places,” she said. “It’s a big world.”

Lindsay Haake, a spokeswoman for the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that administers government pensions for civilian employees, said the agency could not comment on Mirigian’s case due to privacy rules. Asked whether Mirigian had been asked to prove she wasn’t dead, Haake said she couldn’t say.

According to the OPM website, the survivor of a benefit recipient is “required to notify OPM in the event of death” but it doesn’t say anything about Mirigian herself being required to notify the OPM in the event of her non-death.

Speier said the OPM “probably should have made a phone call” to Mirigian’s house before cutting her off.

“People are living a lot longer now,” she said. “But there’s a lot of fraud going on, and you want (the OPM) to do their due diligence, too.”

Mirigian seemed to have already put her dustup with the feds behind her. She said she was looking forward to her next puzzle, her next trip and her next pension check. Her only concession to her advancing years, she said, was to switch not long ago from 500-piece jigsaw puzzles to 60-piece puzzles.

“I’ve had a very exciting life,” she said with a big smile, “and it’s not over.”

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