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Empire of the Old : Old Age, Says the American Assn. of Retired Persons, Is a Privilege, Not a Punishment. And AARP Has the Money, the Members and the Clout to Prove It.

February 12, 1989|DAVID DEVOSS | David DeVoss is a staff writer for this magazine.

THE WEST COAST HEADQUARTERS of the American Assn. of Retired Persons is a three-story, matte-white complex in Lakewood. Its discreet corner logo and its giant parking lot blend into the surrounding business-park, suburban landscape. Like the interest group it represents, AARP at first glance is, well, retiring.

Inside, however, the organization's real dimensions take shape. On the ground floor, a busy discount drugstore is linked to the nation's second-largest mail-order pharmaceutical network, which fills 5 million prescriptions a year. In the penthouse are the offices of AARP's glossy bimonthly magazine, Modern Maturity, which recently surpassed TV Guide to become the magazine with the largest circulation in America; it reaches 18 million households. On the second floor, sandwiched between the magazine and the drugstore, is the heart and soul of the organization: a massive IBM-3090 computer that contains the 28 million names and addresses--one out of every five registered voters--that make up the membership roll of AARP. Across the parking lot, in a warehouse larger than a football field, the busiest of AARP's two national mailing centers churns out more than 4 million pieces of mail a month--a volume large enough to give the facility its own ZIP code, 90847.

The activities in Lakewood are vital signs of one of the largest and most powerful organizations in the country. They prove that AARP is doing very well indeed. In part, the rise of AARP is the result of demographic trends: The U.S. population is aging. In 1996, the first of America's 76 million baby boomers will turn 50, crossing the threshold of AARP eligibility. It is also the result of the goals and strategies of AARP, which have made the $5 per couple or individual annual membership fee an offer that almost half of those over 50 can't refuse. AARP is a service empire of the old, providing members with everything from political clout to health insurance, protection of rights to travel discounts, a positive image of aging to driver education.

AARP is built on three essential elements--selling an image, serving members and ensuring political influence--carried out by separate divisions. Image is the responsibility of the publications division in Lakewood, which produces Modern Maturity and more than 60 free brochures and pamphlets. Program and field services, the association's largest division, administers 15 member-related programs. Politicking is handled by the legislative, research and public policy division, which is at the AARP national headquarters in Washington. AARP also runs the National Gerontology Resource Center and the Public Policy Institute, AARP's think tank. And research grants to scholars from the AARP Andrus Foundation extend the association's influence to the academic world. More than 400,000 volunteers provide most of the association's manpower. But if they are the bricks from which AARP is built, the paid staff of 1,200 is the mortar that holds it together. Hired by Executive Director Horace Deets, The staff, based largely in Washington, provides administrative and technical support to the association's 10 regional offices in addition to the Lakewood headquarters, where 450 staffers work.

"To watch AARP in action is to see great genius at work," says Ken Dychtwald, a Berkeley gerontologist whose recent book, "Age Wave," explores the demographics of a graying America. "AARP's leaders are not a bunch of duffers sitting around the Moose Hall. They have a brilliantly sculpted image and strategy that is reinforced by a multidecade-long commitment."

EVA SKINNER is 5 foot 4 with silvery hair, piercing gray eyes and amazing stamina. Carrying only a suit bag, Skinner, 74, spends a third of her time on the road, often giving as many as three speeches a week as the national point person for AARP's top political priority: long-term health care for the elderly. As a member of AARP's board of directors--all volunteers--she not only makes the organization's policy but also executes it and even exemplifies it. "You could say my job is networking," she says. "I don't do badly when it comes to frequent flier mileage."

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