Blazing a Path to Real Possibilities
60 years later, we’re following our founder’s example for purposeful living
En español | As AARP celebrates its 60th anniversary this summer, many of its most popular and enduring programs and activities can be traced directly back to the experiences of our founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus. Born in the 19th century, she changed the way America viewed aging in the latter half of the 20th century, opening a path to real possibilities for purposeful living in our later years that still guides us today. Dr. Andrus’ life was a series of firsts achieved and frontiers crossed.
When she was named principal of Lincoln High School in Los Angeles in 1916, Dr. Andrus became the first woman to lead a major urban high school in California. She pioneered programs in vocational education and in adult learning through night classes. Today’s AARP continues that emphasis on lifelong learning. AARP offers in-person workshops and online courses at aarp.org/learnat50plus.
After 28 years as Lincoln High’s principal, Dr. Andrus retired to take care of her ailing mother. When her mother regained her health, Dr. Andrus later wrote, she “urged my doing for older folks what I had with great good fortune been able to do for her.” Today’s AARP provides a wide menu of caregiving resources (aarp.org/caregiving) and advocates in every state and nationally to support family caregivers.
Checking on a former teacher, Dr. Andrus was startled to find the woman living in a chicken coop because her $40 monthly pension was not enough to cover adequate housing or health care. Her plight left an indelible impression on Dr. Andrus. She began an extraordinary second act as a tireless champion, first of retired educators and then of all older adults.
In 1947, she established the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA) to give retired teachers a voice for pension reform, better housing and health insurance coverage, as well as to support education. That quest for retiree health coverage was a testament to Dr. Andrus’ persistence. She was turned down 42 times in her search. Then, in 1956, nine years before the birth of Medicare, NRTA made available to members the first nationwide, budget-minded group health insurance program for older Americans.
Dr. Andrus’ passion for innovation lives on today in new projects such as the mobile AARP Now app, which provides daily news feeds, and an AARP Foundation pilot program that employs voice-activated technology to combat loneliness.
Health coverage for retired educators was a great boost for NRTA. It also raised a question: What about other retirees? Dr. Andrus responded in 1958, when she created AARP. She made AARP a strong force for opportunity and fairness for older Americans. She was a passionate advocate for health and economic security, for livable communities that meet the needs of older adults and all residents, and for housing that helps seniors live safely and independently at home. One of her favorite sayings was, “To serve, not be served.”
When Dr. Andrus died in 1967 at age 85, President Lyndon Johnson wrote: “In Ethel Percy Andrus, humanity had a trusted and untiring friend. ... By her enduring accomplishment, she has enriched not only us, but all succeeding generations of Americans.
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