March 3, 1996 in Nation/World

Advocacy Group For Senior Citizens Is Out Of Touch

By The Spokesman-Review

Is the American Association of Retired Persons effectively addressing the foremost issues facing older Americans?

Is the 32-million-member special interest group doing a good job of informing and communicating with its membership? With the media? The American people? Politicians?

Is the largest lobby in America making proper use of its political clout?

A dozen of the lobby’s most politically active participants in the 5th Congressional District - members of the district voter-education team, AARP/ VOTE - asked themselves these questions at a recent meeting in Spokane. Nobody kept score, but the clear consensus was AARP is falling down on the job.

For evidence of that, the AARP/VOTE team needed to look no further than its own committee reports. Among distress signals, reports showed:

Declining or stagnating participation in the activities of local AARP chapters.

AARP membership apathy toward issues.

A perception that the AARP is out of touch and irrelevant.

Inability of the senior lobby to promulgate - given the constraints of its non-partisan charter - clear and unequivocal positions on issues that have become highly politicized along party lines.

A continuing shift by older, as well as younger, Americans from print media to electronic “imagery” as a primary source of news and information, making it harder to explain complex issues.

Jim Osman, newly elected president of the Spokane Valley chapter, lamented a more than 50 percent plunge in chapter membership. “We must bring baby boomers into the AARP,” he said.

Organizers discussed ways of making chapter functions more enticing, entertaining, rewarding, by developing special interest activities such as dancing, bird watching, exercising and the like.

That’s what the most successful chapters do, said state AARP/VOTE coordinator Bill Iulo of Bainbridge Island. Even so, only about 10 percent, or 3 million, of AARP’s 30-million-plus members belong to local chapters. Of those who do, just 10 percent, or 300,000, are active in volunteer programs that provide needed services. The rest just socialize. Conceded Iulo, “That’s pretty sad.”

Frank Yuse of Spokane, district coordinator of AARP/VOTE, said the slumbering giant “had better wake” up and lobby more effectively for older Americans, or it can’t hope to remain vital and viable.

“Why are we so ineffective politically?” Yuse asked other members of the 5th district team.

Some sought to lay the blame on “apathy.” They said older people aren’t really all that worried about Medicare or Social Security.

But that doesn’t square with what all the polls say.

Judith Ross, of Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington, said the ramifications of health care issues and others can be so difficult to follow that “it’s almost impossible to get this out to people.”

Exacerbating the problem is the ascendancy of electronic imagery, resulting in fewer readers of the printed word, shortened attention spans and oversimplification.

Osman, who also is editor/publisher of the Senior Times monthly newspaper, said only 36 percent of Americans over 60 take a daily newspaper. Instead, they depend on TV or the AARP.

As to AARP publications, Osman said, “I don’t think they are attuned to anything.” Others who voiced opinions both before and after the session echoed those sentiments - AARP is out of touch.

Even more frustrating to the voter-education team members is that AARP can’t take sides politically.

“We can’t get a message across,” Yuse complained. “AARP is paralyzed by its non-partisan posture.”

Should AARP become partisan? All seemed to agree that would make AARP much more interesting and effective. But none advocated the change.

“The membership,” reminded state coordinator Iulo, “wants AARP to be non-partisan. In the past, there has been two-to-one negative support for being a voluntary PAC (political action committee).

“That is why this AARP/VOTE program was started in the first place - to educate people,” said Iulo. “We don’t say vote for A or B.”

Ho hum.

, DataTimes MEMO: Associate Editor Frank Bartel writes on retirement issues each Sunday. He can be reached with ideas for future columns at 459-5467 or fax 459-5482.

Associate Editor Frank Bartel writes on retirement issues each Sunday. He can be reached with ideas for future columns at 459-5467 or fax 459-5482.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email