As AARP’s CEO, I’m fortunate to be following in the footsteps of one of our nation’s great social innovators, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, a retired high school teacher and the first female high school principal in California who founded AARP in 1958. After retiring as the principal of Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, Dr. Andrus began serving as a volunteer with the California Retired Teachers Association. She went to look up a former Spanish teacher whom she had been told needed some help. When she went to the address she had been given and knocked on the door, she was told that the woman she was looking for lived out back—in an old chicken coop. That was all the woman could afford after her food and medicine expenses were deducted from her $40 a month pension.
Dr. Andrus was appalled and decided to do something about it. She was able to help the woman with glasses, dentures and some additional money to buy food. Then, with like-minded retired educators, she began a campaign to get affordable medical insurance for retired teachers. At that time, most insurance companies assumed it was not financially sound to offer health insurance to older persons. When policyholders turned 65, they often found that their health and accident insurance was canceled, or that the premiums skyrocketed and were no longer affordable. But Dr. Andrus kept up the crusade.
In 1947, Dr. Andrus formed the National Retired Teachers Association, the forerunner to AARP. She began calling on insurance companies, urging them to develop a group health insurance plan for retired teachers. Over seven years she was turned down 42 times. But, her determination and diligence paid off. In 1955, Dr. Andrus finally found a company that would offer a plan to her members—creating the first group health insurance plan for people 65 and older in this country, a full decade before Medicare. The demand was enormous, and by 1957, NRTA’s health insurance program was an overwhelming success. It became so successful that the NRTA became inundated with requests from seniors across the country wanting to know how they could get health insurance for themselves. So, in 1958, Dr. Andrus founded AARP to make affordable group health insurance available to all older Americans.
Times have changed since Dr. Andrus began her crusade, but the role of women as leaders, innovators and role models for future generations has not; nor has the need to help and empower women to age successfully. Women today tend to live longer than men, are more likely to be primary caregivers to aging family members and friends, are more likely to need care and support as they age, are more likely to live alone, and generally have less in retirement savings and receive less in Social Security benefits.
And, yet, thanks to women leaders like Dr. Andrus, women today are living and aging better than ever before. They are disrupting aging; demonstrating that our later years can be a time of growth. They are living proof that aging is about continuing to contribute to society and that women are not sitting on the sidelines, but are actively engaged in making life better for all members of society. By disrupting aging, they are changing the conversation in this country about what it means to grow older and, by the way they live, they are teaching younger women a new way to age.
About once a month, I have lunch with a group of girlfriends who range in age from their early 50s to mid-70s. As we sit and chat about what is going on in our lives, it always occurs to me that no one passing by our table would ever guess these women’s ages. They all look fabulous, dressed to the nines in stylish outfits that reflect their exuberance for life.
It seems like every conversation is about plans for the future—upcoming trips, home renovations, adventures two years hence. We also share stories of struggles. But even then, a tone of optimism comes through that illustrates their clear sense that experience has value. Each one of them owns her age, not trying to be younger, but simply trying to be the best lawyer, doctor, teacher, business owner, lobbyist, grandmother, caregiver, or homemaker that she can be.
These women are realistic. They dish out straight talk and help each other face what’s next. They know their needs are changing, and while they may not always like it, they face up to it. They are open to change and find strength in one another as they ponder downsizing, retirement and the unpredictable future.
Everyone in the group understands the rigors of family caregiving and recognize that they may need help in providing care for a loved one. They also wonder who will provide care if and when they need it.
They love the idea of being up on the latest smart-phone or tablet, even though they may need help in figuring it out—but it’s a learning experience they seek, not shun.
They are aware that as they get older, they will become more of a target for a scam or for identity theft, and they want to know how to protect themselves. And, they worry about increasing medical costs and how to meet them.
My girlfriends and I share these outlooks and attitudes with millions of women our age. Like most people, we’re busy living our lives, curious about what the future will bring and doing our best to make the most of it. We’re involved with our families, our friends, people in our communities. We don’t stop and withdraw from society because we become a certain age. We understand that some aspects of life get a little tougher and some get a little easier as we get older, but it’s all part of living, and we’re determined to make the most of it.
Yes, times have changed since Dr. Andrus found that retired teacher living in a chicken coop, and thanks to her and others like her, women today have more opportunities to age successfully. At AARP, we are still on that journey that she began 57 years ago to fight for and equip people 50+ to live their best lives. I am proud to carry on Dr. Andrus’ legacy. As more women take on roles as leaders, innovators, catalysts for change and role models for future generations, we will disrupt aging and empower more women to choose how they want to live and age in the future. •
about the author
Jo Ann Jenkins is chief executive officer (CEO) of AARP. Prior to her appointment as CEO, she was the chief operating officer. Ms. Jenkins joined AARP in 2010 as president of AARP Foundation, AARP’s affiliated charity. She previously served on and chaired the board of directors of AARP Services, Inc. Before coming to AARP, she was chief operating officer at the Library of Congress.