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Champions of Aging

Ethel Percy Andrus

AARP founder proved that there’s strength in numbers

In 1944, Andrus, who never married and was childless, retired so that she could care for her mother, who was in poor health. Despite her decades of service, Andrus was entitled to a pension of just $60 a month (the equivalent of $735.50 in 2010 dollars). She had enough money of her own to get by, but once again, she realized that many of her colleagues were not so fortunate. For Andrus, the galvanizing moment apparently came when she discovered a former colleague living in a chicken coop in a small town outside Los Angeles. Rather than merely bemoaning the injustice, she did something about it. She became active in the California Retired Teachers Association and in 1947 founded the National Retired Teachers Association (now part of AARP) to provide help to them.

But Andrus didn’t confine her efforts to health insurance and pensions. One of her first undertakings at AARP was to organize a dozen tours to Europe for older people, in which they could travel in small groups at a leisurely pace. Under her supervision, “Freedom Home” — a full-scale prototype house that adapted traditional architectural details to better meet the needs of older people — was built in Washington, D.C, for the 1961 White House Conference on Aging. And long before the term “ageism” was coined, she was among the first to argue that older workers should not be shunted aside or forced into retirement.

Just as important, Andrus sought to change Americans’ perception of aging. As she once explained, “Old age is not a defeat, but a victory, not a punishment, but a privilege.”

She urged retirees to be as active as possible — to pursue new passions, to travel and see the world, and, most of all, to continue to use the skills and experience developed over a lifetime to serve their communities.

She herself lived in Grey Gables, a retirement community for teachers in Ojai, Calif., that she financed with her own money. The 1959 New York Times profile of Andrus noted that residents “tutor children, work with the deaf, take up posts in the church or on the city planning board, and direct amateur shows.”

Andrus continued to work long hours and travel to promote AARP until her death from a heart attack at age 83 in 1967, the same year that membership in AARP reached 1 million. Nearly 1,000 of her former students gathered at Lincoln High to pay tribute to her. They included the actor Robert Preston, who pointed out the sign above the school’s gate, which was emblazoned with the word “Opportunity,” and remarked: “Isn’t it amazing that we didn’t know until we walked out [that] opportunity had red hair?”

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