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The Chicken Coop Story That Led to AARP

Ethel Percy Andrus finds a former teacher living in poverty, the rest is history

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Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus set out on a mission to improve the quality of life for all as they age.

| It all began one Saturday, when Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus received a telephone call from a shopkeeper 30 miles outside of Los Angeles. He had read in the newspaper that Dr. Andrus had been appointed to the California Retired Teachers Association’s committee on retired teachers’ welfare, and asked if she could check up on an old woman in his neighborhood who needed food, eyeglasses and teeth. He provided the woman’s address.

Here is the rest of the story, as told later by Dr. Andrus herself.

“It was a cold, drizzly day, such as sometimes comes to Southern California, and so I was the more surprised and dismayed — and a bit curious — to learn that the ‘lady of the house’ was away on an outing, and that the house itself was a bungalow of ample proportions. As I sloshed back to my car, I was puzzled. The man who had phoned, at some expense to himself, didn’t seem like a likely one to play a practical joke on a stranger, and so I crawled back from under the wheel and again interrupted the television program of the man next door.

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“In shocked surprise he assured me that the lady was not elderly and certainly not in need. Then, just as he was dismissing me, he recalled that there was an old woman who lived next door, ‘in back ,’ in the chicken house. Perhaps she was the one I sought.

“I knocked on the sagging door of the windowless shed and assured the answering voice that I had come to say ‘Howdy’ — one teacher to another — and I asked if I might not come in. I waited for the door to open and when it did, my hostess slipped through and closed the door behind her. Stockily built, with short grey hair, in an old coat much the worse for both age and wear, a woman withered of skin, with sunken cheeks but with the bluest and merriest of eyes, she looked me over — smiling at me, putting me at my ease, while she inquired of my errand.

“‘Just a friendly visit,’ I said, and I told her my name. Curiously enough, she knew it, and more curiously, I recognized hers when she told me it and recalled her reputation as a Spanish teacher of some distinction.

“When I asked if we might chat under cover out of the drizzle, she waved me to my car, and there she told me her story. Thriftily she had saved money enough to buy on installments some scenic acreage in Montrose, a charming section above Glendale. This she planned to subdivide and so, accepting her $40-a-month teacher retirement, she started out on her second career. But alas, the Depression took away all opportunity for sale and a devastating flood washed away the approaches to the property.

“She saw her high hopes disappear with it. There was no chance of re-employment. When the installments came due, she lost the property. She still had her $40 a month to live on, and courageously she decided to make that do. She dropped from her friends’ sight and memory.”

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Old Age Needs Care — and Something More

“[My mother, in her 90s] said to me one day, quite seriously, ‘I have been thinking a great deal lately about old age. Old age, Ethel, needs care as youth needs care, but it needs something more. It needs the desire to live, to continue planning, and striving hopefully, to keep working at something worthwhile, and then when at last old age becomes dependent, it needs someone to still care or, if there is no one to care, there should be community care which can make it easy to help those who now cannot help themselves to keep their dignity and their self-respect.’

“I listened. I wondered what until then I really knew about aging.

“From my father I had learned that one can see beauty even in darkness.... As my mother suggested, security and comfort need preparation with imaginative care.

“From my friend of the chicken shed I learned that the inner strength with which she met hardship can make even penury bearable, that there may be great wealth in spirit with little in the purse. Even though we judged her case ‘pitiful,’ she did not feel a victim.

A Mission Takes Shape

“The problem to us who wish to help was how to encourage others [to] attain for themselves the enrichment that happily adjusted folk had created for themselves. We found that the most insistent factor ... was the financial one. It crisscrossed and modified both the attitudes, circumstances and even the health of our people. This need for a regular income to make it possible not to alter and lower too dramatically one’s manner of living was one we could attack.

“Aside from attaining the goal itself — a decent retirement income consistent with the time and degree of duty rendered in active service — there would automatically accrue in the campaigning for it many of the desirables we sought: a feeling of the individual’s being still an active part of a large group, sharing the warmth of fellowship in a worthy crusade, and above all, meeting the challenge of faith in one’s own endeavors and in the righteousness of one’s cause.”

To achieve this goal — to help older Americans lead lives of independence, dignity and purpose — Dr. Andrus founded first the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA) in 1947 and later AARP in 1958.

Today, AARP continues to be a champion for older Americans, fighting for and equipping each individual to live their best life. We remain dedicated to ensuring proper housing, health care and financial security for all.

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