AARP Volunteer Jane King Spearheads Alexandria’s Plan for ‘Age-Friendly Community’
AARP volunteer Jane King was recently honored by the City of Alexandria, Virginia, as one of seven “2019 Living Legends” who have improved the quality of life in the community. Jane was recognized for leading the development and creation of the Alexandria Strategic Plan on Aging, which addresses the need for affordable housing, accessible transportation, and workforce development for those over 50 years of age. Her leadership roles with At Home in Alexandria and AARP Virginia were also noted as very important. I spoke with Jane on a weekday morning at Peet’s Coffee in Springfield, Virginia; our conversation has been edited for length.
First, tell me a bit about yourself.
I was born in Memphis, but my father changed jobs several times so my family moved a number of times. In grade school I lived in Pennsylvania and Michigan, in high school I lived in Connecticut, and there were several other places as well. I graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
My professional career included teaching at the middle school level; working for the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators, the National Consumers League, and the Fairfax County Office of Consumer Affairs; and starting MCI’s consumer affairs department. That was a wild job. It was the era of “slamming” – when people would be switched to a different phone carrier without requesting or authorizing the switch. A lot of that was accidental; the arrangements for switching had to go through the local companies and the chance for mistakes was high. It was a fun job, although some consumers got very angry at me!
From MCI, I went to work at AARP for eight years. I started out managing AARP’s consumer affairs programs and then began working more specifically with the group that was developing AARP’s involvement in livable communities. I ended up managing AARP’s housing programs for two or three years, so it became natural for me to become involved in Alexandria’s livable community planning when I retired. It was almost an ideal situation, in fact, because working with strategic planning at a national level is rather abstract and in Alexandria we are able to get down to cases and develop and implement plans to directly benefit the city’s residents.
What is the Alexandria age-friendly plan and what was your role as an AARP volunteer?
AARP is an affiliate of the World Health Organization, which has created worldwide an approach to developing communities that are livable for all age groups. The World Health Organization identifies eight domains and makes recommendations for how a community should be structured in each domain. These domains are housing, transportation, community and health services, outdoor spaces and buildings, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, and communication and information.
In Alexandria, the Commission on Aging took on the responsibility for developing the livability plan. As a volunteer, I worked with committees created by the commission to consider the various domains and develop the plan. Most importantly, I worked with the committees to assess what was actually needed in Alexandria. The city already provides a pretty generous support system, especially for low-income Alexandrians, but there were many concerns around such issues as affordable housing, access to transportation, and, importantly, the needs of our very diverse population. For example, the commission’s plan includes the establishment of a senior ambassador program, which offers training to those willing to keep their communities – like neighborhoods, faith-based groups, condominium associations, and so forth – informed about services available to them and to refer those who need help to the appropriate providers.
My role now is to oversee the plan’s execution. The committees are responsible for making sure that our three-year plan is moving along. Each committee reports quarterly on its particular domain – housing, transportation, and so on. And so I’ll be able to oversee that process.
Do you volunteer for other organizations as well as for AARP?
Yes, I’ve been a Master Gardener and I’m on the Arlington-Alexandria Extension Leadership Council, which is the arm of the Virginia Cooperative Extension System. I’m also the chair of At Home in Alexandria, which is Alexandria’s “village,” if you’re familiar with the village movement. Villages are formed by volunteers to provide services to those who are aging in the community. Services might include transportation, help with technology, help with decluttering the home, doing light housework, gardening – helping people stay in their homes longer than they might be able to without this kind of assistance. Some villages require an annual membership fee, which also provides access to social events. In fact, I think the social events are what many village members find most important – the capacity to stay engaged with other members.
Are you living differently than your parents did when they were your age?
I’m much more engaged in the community than my parents were. My mother had always volunteered, but my parents moved so often that she didn’t have the chance to become as involved in the community. My parents ended up moving to Fairfax County and I became the main caregiver as they aged. They were interested in movies and theater, and they traveled, but they were still much more homebound than I am.
I also think they approached aging without sufficient planning. I don’t know if that was more common then or if I’m so aware of it because I worked for AARP. The preparation for aging just wasn’t there.
In contrast, there’s something expected of us – and we expect more of ourselves – in terms of staying engaged as we get older. Certainly, the people I’ve met through volunteering feel that way. In fact, one of the great things I have found, one of the pleasures of being engaged, is that you develop friendships you wouldn’t expect to find later in life.
What’s your philosophy of aging?
That is an interesting question. I think basically it’s to accept it, for one thing, and then to make the best of it. And that means to keep yourself as healthy as possible, and to realize how lucky many of us are that we have greater longevity, greater opportunity to stay healthy, and so many opportunities to stay involved in life. It can be a great time of life. There are sad elements of aging because of course we’re going to lose people, by now we’ve certainly lost our parents, but the world can be our oyster if that’s the way we approach it.
What do you do for fun, besides volunteering for AARP?
I’m still interested in gardening, although I’m no longer a Master Gardener because I was so busy that I wasn’t even paying enough attention to my own garden. I like to read and I’m in two book groups. One is a more conventional group interested in several literary genres and the other is a mystery book group sponsored by At Home in Alexandria, which is great fun. Another pleasure for me is traveling with my friends – a group of people with whom I graduated from college. And, of course, I’m lucky that my daughter lives in Arlington, so I get to see her and my two granddaughters and follow the many activities in their lives.
Is there any aspect of your AARP volunteering that is particularly rewarding?
One thing I can say is that I love the city of Alexandria. It has a small-town atmosphere, so one of the things I’ve really enjoyed is getting to know the leadership of Alexandria, some of the city departments and the people who work there, working with some of the nonprofits, and also working directly with many of our residents. I have found that to be a real pleasure – to feel that involved in my community, one that I loved even before I started it all.