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AARP is getting younger as time goes by

August 11, 2004|Michael Ordona | Times Staff Writer

AARP may be middle-aged (it was founded in 1958), but some of its oldest members are complaining it's getting too big for its britches.

The primary lobbying organization of senior citizens, AARP (formerly the American Assn. of Retired Persons) is one of the most influential in Washington. Seniors have long been acknowledged as one of the nation's most powerful voting blocs, with those older than 65 composing 12% of the population, according to the 2000 census. That number is expected to reach 21% by 2050.

Recently, though, signs of a schism within AARP have started to show.

Thousands of sexagenarians (and older) have become frustrated with AARP, both for some of its political stances as well as for a shift in the way the organization operates.

Particularly upsetting to many members was AARP's support of the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, which, among other things, prohibits Medicare from negotiating bulk purchasing prices with drug companies -- making it cheaper to acquire U.S.-made drugs in Canada. Seniors also complain that it has lost touch with its older members, throwing too much attention to the baby boomers.

Healthcare consultant Bernard Weintraub, 80, simply says, "I don't look at them as my spokesperson anymore."

AARP spokesman Mark Beach says that the group is aware of its constituents' objections, but believes it made the right call on the drug law: "It's no secret we lost about 60,000 members as a result, but we saw it as an important first step toward affordability. It was never a perfect bill. We still support it, but we want changes. And while 60,000 is a significant number, we currently have over 35 million members. For 2003, we actually had a net gain in membership."

Natalie Ambrose, 74, is critical of what she calls AARP's failure to involve its older membership in decision-making: "They've taken a middle-aged attitude to aging issues. Their way of communication is not in sync with their constituents."

For years, the organization has been actively courting baby boomers, the oldest of whom are now turning 60. One of the most visible signs of this makeover was the change of the organization's magazine's name from Modern Maturity to AARP the Magazine, with a regular sex and romance column, photos with models in their 30s or 40s and interviews with celebrities not quite of AARP age. (The current issue's cover boy, 45-year-old actor Kevin Spacey, is practically jailbait, relatively speaking.)

Beach, 33, acknowledges the organization's intentions toward the next generation but points out that it represents those 50 and older, not just seniors. He also notes that its volunteer board is all over 50: "There's no attempt to ensure that a certain number are over 65, although our president is in her 70s and our CEO is 63. It would sort of be age discrimination to take that into account in hiring."

Local activist John Glass, 68, also sees a distinction in how the older and younger members approach activism. He says that the boomers often don't share the concerns of the older members and tend to be less politically active.

"I think that they may be more apolitical. I don't think they realize what's going to happen when there's no Medicare or Social Security for them," he says.

Beach, however, sees the boomers as "an activist generation."

"They've caused a lot of positive social change -- equality for women, the civil rights movement," he says. "We're finding that the boomers who are joining us want to be active volunteers."

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