AARP Texas President John Vasquez recently reflected on the legacy of AARP's founder in remarks to the Executive Council of volunteer leaders.
Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus was, by training and background, an educator. Her achievements, however, went far beyond the classroom. Her journey toward founding AARP started with her volunteer work for the California Retired Teachers Association.
As part of her volunteer work Dr. Andrus visited a retired teacher reportedly living in a difficult situation. The retiree was a widow surviving on a $40 monthly pension residing in a converted chicken coup. After meeting with the retiree Dr. Andrus found that, despite the adversity the retiree faced, the retiree did not view herself as a victim, but as meeting the challenges of life’s hardships. This meeting proved to be a transformational influence on Dr. Andrus, instilling a belief that emphasized the power of individuals to improve their own lives and to lead social change.
Initially, Dr. Andrus was focused on improving the circumstances of teachers through the founding of the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA). Her early efforts included the enactment of a federal law exempting from federal taxes the first $1,200 of income received by persons not covered by Social Security, mostly retired teachers.
With Medicare still years in the future, Dr. Andrus recognized the impact that the lack of affordable medical insurance was having on retirees. After struggling to find an insurance company willing to offer affordable insurance to retirees, NRTA struck a deal to offer affordable health insurance plan to its members going nationwide in 1956. In 1958, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) formed and offered older persons who did not qualify for the NRTA membership to gain access to affordable health insurance.
By 1959, AARP was more than a platform for obtaining health insurance as it advocated for federal legislation to create a health program for Social Security retirees – a program eventually dubbed Medicare. Although this early effort for Medicare legislation failed, AARP’s continuous advocacy efforts paired with President Lyndon Johnson’s reelection resulted in Medicare finally becoming law in 1965. Before Medicare’s final passage, AARP played a major influence on the shape of the legislation by insisting that Medicare be available to all persons, not just Social Security beneficiaries.
AARP also pushed for the passage of the Older Americans Act (OAA) during this same period. Mounting its first grass roots advocacy campaign, AARP saw the OAA passed in 1965 with near unanimous support in the House and Senate. The Act is now best known for its support for nutrition programs, including Meals on Wheels.
In the employment arena, it was not unusual to see advertisements that discouraged applicants over age 55. In 1967, with strong support from AARP, President Johnson signed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) into law banning age-based discrimination against persons age 45 to 65.
When Dr. Andrus passed away in 1967, she left a legacy of service that AARP volunteers continue to honor today through their work in the community and advocacy. And it all started with a visit to a chicken coop.