One of the recommendations of the 1961 White House Conference on Aging concerned improving programs to assist older Americans. Federal, state and local assistance programs were limited, and they spanned the jurisdictions of many departments, agencies and offices with no central focus or direction and coordination. The conference report minced no words: Efforts to remedy the situation had been “sporadic, spasmodic, piecemeal, hesitant, and futile.”
There had been an Office on Aging in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). Since it was within the office of the Commissioner of Welfare, federal programs for older adults were stigmatized as “welfare.”
The Older Americans Act was introduced by Congressman John Fogarty of Rhode Island and Senator Patrick McNamara of Michigan in 1963 to “help older people maintain maximum independence in their homes and communities and to promote a continuum of care for the vulnerable elderly.” The act would establish the U.S. Administration on Aging (AoA) and facilitate the creation of state and area agencies on aging to address the social service needs of older people at the community level.
Building support for the Older Americans Act was AARP’s number one legislative priority in the years 1961 to 1965 and AARP’s first major successful grassroots advocacy campaign. Ernest Giddings, AARP's legislative representative, said, “The bill meets the major organizational recommendations of the White House Conference on Aging and overcomes the present welfare stigma on aging.” Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, the founder of AARP, was the campaign’s leader, but AARP Executive Director William C. “Bill” Fitch played a prominent behind-the-scenes role in developing and drafting the legislation.
Bill Fitch had the background and experience. His strong working relationship with Congressman Fogarty predated his time with AARP. In 1958, while serving at the Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare, Fitch helped the congressman draft legislation that created the 1961 White House Conference on Aging.
Throughout the legislative process AARP was in full swing. Testimony was presented before Congressional committees when appropriate. Supporting data and arguments were provided to members of Congress as needed. Thousands of letters were written to individual senators and congressmen by AARP and National Retired Teachers Association members.