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Aarp Tries To Rekindle Old Spirit

Frank Bartel The Spokesman-Revie

‘AARP excels as a dynamic presence in every community, shaping and enriching the experience of aging for each member and for society.”

So reads the new mission statement adopted a year ago this month by the nation’s largest special interest group. Officials of the American Association of Retired Persons say the mission is working in other places.

That is not what you hear, however, at AARP meetings in the Spokane district, where participation is declining and the largest chapter recently dissolved.

But John Peterson, AARP manager in Seattle for the state of Washington, says a transformation is under way to bring the association much closer to its members.

In the meantime, however, the career AARP executive concedes, “The association is a lot like the Queen Mary - it takes a long time to turn around.”

In Washington, D.C., as well, there is recognition of the need to regroup. “As chapters get older and older, the traditional membership is dying,” says Tom Nelson, AARP’s national director of field services.

“It’s terribly hard,” says the executive in charge of state and regional offices that support local chapters, “to get people to enter or stay in chapters, and to accept volunteer leadership responsibilities.

“The traditional pattern of joining and volunteering just isn’t playing today,” he told me. “It’s history.”

The Eagles, the Elks, the Moose, the Kiwanis, all are in a fight to survive, says Stan Cooper, the association’s regional communications coordinator in Seattle. “We know from research,” he says, “that people aren’t volunteering like they used to for long-term projects. They are more inclined to take on episodic commitments of shorter duration.”

Informed of the situation in Spokane, Nelson sees the outcry as a positive sign. “I certainly understand where folks are coming from, given the circumstances,” said the chief of chapter support services. “They want to know what’s happening to them. There is a lot of uncertainty. Change is hard.

“But your folks there are talking, and I think that’s on the right track. There’s a real need to question and to talk, to look for solutions and to seek help,” he said. “And there’s a lot more we can do to promote chapters than we did before.

“In some places we make direct mailings by ZIP Code to our AARP members in communities, telling them about chapters, where and when they meet, and inviting them to join.”

Another way to recruit is to print chapter information right on the mailing sticker of AARP’s national magazine, Modern Maturity. “In addition to ZIP Code, we can target recipients by age with a special appeal to say, younger members,” Nelson said.

“But even when you get younger members to turn out for a chapter meeting, very often they won’t come back.” said Nelson. “Research tells us that younger retirees feel the chapters don’t speak to their interests. They say, ‘Well, maybe I’ll come back in 10 years. Meantime, maybe there’s something in this for my parents.’

“We are trying to do some pilot programs for those who have a special interest, for example computers. There are groups that meet just on computers. We are experimenting with so-called alternative programs.”

Such programs, says Washington state’s Peterson, include satellite investment clubs, care-givers who help older folks maintain independent lifestyles, walking the beat with a cop - “substantive stuff,” says Peterson.

It doesn’t pay to be a social club, he said, unless you are going to be the best in town and open to everyone. “The trick is to be inclusive, not exclusive,” he advised.

In order to survive, Peterson says, chapters must have a purpose. Service provides a purpose.

“But somehow, the spirit of service and volunteerism has faded,” he says. “We need to rekindle the spirit. We’re working on it. But are we there yet? Clearly, no. There are a lot of things to go through to get where we are going.

“Will we be there in 10 years?” he asked, then replied, “We’ll be a lot closer.”

, 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.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Frank Bartel The Spokesman-Review

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.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Frank Bartel The Spokesman-Review

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