Antonina DiPaolo_cmpIf one person could represent resilience against adversity, a take-charge attitude during times of struggle, and a humorous, virtually-ageless demeanor, it might well be Antonina DiPaolo of Duxbury.

“Lena,” as she prefers, is the former president of the AARP Marshfield Chapter, and a longtime volunteer. Being in charge and stepping up when needed is nothing new for Lena; she’s done so countless times over the years for various organizations—as well as for her family and herself. Before her AARP chapter presidency, Lena served as president of the Sons of Italy chapter in Marshfield—an office her late husband, Peter, held for the two years prior—and president of the local TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) chapter (today she’s a co-leader).

Lena and Peter raised four children in Mattapan, and also lived in Marshfield, which is where Lena became involved with AARP. After her husband’s death when Lena was just 60, she went back to work full-time. Six months later, Lena’s mother, who’d lived with her for 10 years, was diagnosed with dementia. In 1996, after her mother had died, Lena sold her home and settled in Duxbury.

While her volunteering has slowed down a bit these days, Lena, who is 87, keeps busy as the proud grandmother of 10 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.

We spoke with Lena recently about her time as a volunteer and an AARP chapter president.

How did you become involved with AARP Massachusetts?

I had attended AARP luncheons and other events, but had never attended a meeting. The first time I did so, in 2000, I became president of the Marshfield Chapter #3091! Why? Because no one else stepped forward. The woman running the chapter was the treasurer; she remained treasurer for one year for me, and I served as president for 12 years. They wouldn’t run against me.

 You’ve mentioned growing up during Great Depression. Please tell us what that was like.

I was born in 1927, two years before the historic stock market crash of 1929. I was one of three children (her brother died three years ago, and her sister suffers from Alzheimer’s), and after losing his job, my father remained unemployed for three years. My mother had to go to work full-time, while my uncle’s sister cared for me. Our family all depended on one another during that time.

I remember the hunger. Poverty was everywhere. You could see it in people’s clothes. Nonetheless, my mother would share some of our Sunday meals; she’d have me take food covered with a napkin to those who needed it.

How has that experience parlayed into your work with AARP?

I’ve lived through four recessions [and the Great Depression]. I understand what seniors today are going through. Three-quarters of seniors today are trying to get by on Social Security alone. I know a lot of my seniors [when she was AARP chapter president] didn’t eat three meals a day. The cost of staples—milk, bread, rice, and pasta—has gone sky high.

And now they’re trying to lower the COLA (the Cost of Living Adjustment).

What did you do to increase membership during your tenure as AARP Marshfield Chapter president?

I opened the meetings to all—veterans, etc. Once they attended a meeting, they‘d join the chapter. Moving to the Council on Aging building was good; it was where all the seniors were coming and going. I also worked at local festivals and fair, including the annual Marshfield Fair, to provide education about AARP and gain members.

What eventually happened with the chapter?

At one time, membership was close to 70 people. But today, so many people in their 60s are babysitting and helping raise their grandchildren—this cuts into time they might otherwise have for volunteering.

So, after 35 years, the chapter closed. I held a ceremony to close down the chapter. It was heartbreaking.

What’s motivated you to volunteer so much of your time over the years?  

It has always given me great satisfaction to know I was helping someone or that I was educating people about all that AARP offers.

Here’s an example: One day, at the end of an AARP chapter meeting, a man approached me. He told me that he was a veteran and that he was struggling to pay a lot of money for his wife’s medicines, and wasn’t sure what to do. I told him to visit the SHINE person in town, and that SHINE (Serving Health Insurance Needs of the Elderly) could help him. (Note: SHINE is administered by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs in partnership with elder service agencies, social service and community based agencies and Councils on Aging.) He did so, and the next time he saw me, he ran over to hug me and said, ‘You have no idea what you’ve done for me!’”

To volunteer locally for AARP, visit our AARP Chapter Locator or call us at 866-448-3621 or email us at ma@aarp.org.