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AARP: COVID-19 and Equity – A Test of Organizational Character

AARP has been working to promote the health and well-being of older Americans for more than sixty years. And, last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic invaded our lives and threatened the health and financial security of millions of Americans, we faced unprecedented challenges.

Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, looks to camera. She is wearing a red blouse with a great broach.
Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO, AARP. Photo credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

The facts are devastating, especially for people 50 and over.

  • More than a half million American lives now have been lost due to COVID.
  • Nearly 95 percent of those who have died were age 50 or over.
  • About 40 percent have been residents and staff in nursing homes, though nursing home residents are less than 1 percent of the American population.
  • And, three times as many people have died in nursing homes with mostly Black and Hispanic patients.

Meeting these challenges was a test of our Organizational Character. I told our staff that if there is one thing the upheaval of the pandemic made clear, it’s that people need AARP more than ever. We stepped up to meet the challenges by drawing on our Organizational Character to be a wise friend and fierce defender for our members and people 50-plus and their families.

AARP’s Organizational Character

AARP’s Organizational Character encapsulates our identity as an organization and as individuals. It consists of three elements:

  1. Our Purpose defines why AARP exists: We empower people to choose how they live as they age.
  2. Our collective Role as everyday innovators in aging describes who we are, no matter which part of the organization we work in or what our title is.
  3. Our Values express what we stand for and what we believe.
  • Impact – AARP creates real value for people in their day, their life, and the wider world.
  • Innovation – AARP evolves and invents to meet the new realities of aging.
  • Humanity – AARP cares about people and serves them with compassion.
  • Empowerment – AARP uses its influence and resources to remove barriers and open possibilities.
  • Honesty – AARP acts and speaks with integrity in every action.

These values also reflect how we treat each other as well as those we serve. They are also our internal compass guiding how we show up, what we deliver, how we make decisions, and how we communicate.

At AARP, we envision a society in which all people live with dignity and purpose and fulfill their goals and dreams. We strive to empower them to fulfill their real possibilities over the course of an ever-longer lifetime while living healthier, more financially secure, and more fulfilling lives. Our Organizational Character combines with the external landscape in which we operate to directly shape and inform our Enterprise Strategy for achieving that vision.

Additionally, we draw upon our strategic advantages and core competencies. These include unparalleled knowledge of people 50 and older; an influential federal, state and local advocacy infrastructure; and a wide array of programs, member benefits, products and services—all designed to empower people to choose how they live as they age.

We also have extensive publications and communications channels—including the most widely-read magazine and newspaper in the country, a robust website, and extensive social media presence. And, we have built an extensive state office network and community presence that makes us a vital nationwide organization.

COVID-19 Advocacy and Communication

All of this came to the forefront when COVID-19 hit. Older Americans and those with underlying health conditions were especially at risk. Our staff transitioned to a virtual work environment without missing a beat. Guided by our Organizational Character, we’ve been there for our members and people 50-plus, providing information, advocacy, and resources to help them and those caring for them protect themselves from the virus, prevent it from spreading to others, and cope with the health problems and financial disruptions caused by the virus.

  • We were there with the latest unbiased information from the experts through our publications, newsletters, our website, tele-town halls, and other virtual events.
  • We were there advocating for their best interests as Congress and the Administration debated each relief bill.
  • We were there to make sure they got their stimulus checks.
  • We were there to make sure Medicare would cover their telehealth visits to their doctors.
  • We were there to help them stay in touch remotely with family members and friends.
  • We were there to help them deal with a wide array of nursing home issues.

At the same time, we have continued innovating. As part of our significant response to COVID-19, we built and launched AARP Community Connections. This online platform has helped over 600,000 people organize and find mutual aid groups, and access support from trained volunteers in communities nationwide.

We’re now focused on making sure that everyone who wants a vaccination will get one. We do this by being a wise friend and fierce defender of our members’ and all older adults’ interests.

As a wise friend, we use our role as an organization representing our 38 million members across the country to be a trusted voice for all older adults; to bring them timely and trustworthy information on the issues they confront due to the pandemic; and to advocate for policies on the issues that matter most them such as health care, hunger and economic security. As it relates to vaccines and treatments, we use our communications channels to help bring the experts to our members through weekly tele-town halls.

As a fierce defender, we engage policymakers at all levels about the priorities of older adults in the pandemic, including vaccines. We also fight for federal investments to support the development of vaccines and treatments. And we have fought to ensure that treatments and vaccines are available at no-cost and accessible to all.

And, we are fighting for the health and safety of long-term care residents and staff.  The nursing home situation is a national tragedy. AARP is urging federal and state officials to take immediate action to keep residents and staff safe.

Fighting for Vaccine Equity

We’re also addressing the issue of inequity in distributing the vaccines. Black and Hispanic populations have been hard hit by the pandemic. Three times as many people died in nursing homes with mostly Black and Hispanic patients.

Yet, the initial vaccine outreach and distribution have not reflected equity as a priority. Available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that only 6.5 percent of the limited supplies of vaccines so far have gone to Black Americans. And nearly half of vaccination records are missing race and ethnicity data, which further hampers attempts to address disparities that may widen as demand grows.

AARP believes we have to do better in reaching these communities. As part of this effort, we have joined with five of the nation’s largest nongovernmental, nonprofit membership organizations—which, combined, reach more than 60 million Americans—to launch a COVID vaccine equity and education initiative. The effort includes the American Diabetes Association, the American Psychological Association, the International City/County Management Association, the National League of Cities and the YMCA.

It aims to ensure that accurate and transparent information about the COVID-19 vaccine is available to Black Americans to help them make informed personal decisions about vaccination.

I am extremely proud of our response to COVID. It is helping millions of older Americans and their families cope with the pandemic and gives them hope. Our Organizational Character has guided us and continues to guide us in our response as we work to empower people to choose how to live as they age.

About the Expert:

As CEO of AARP, Jo Ann Jenkins leads one of the world’s largest non-profit, nonpartisan membership organizations, serving 38 million AARP members and their families. She joined AARP in 2010 as president of AARP Foundation following a distinguished career in the federal government which culminated in her serving as the chief operating officer at the Library of Congress.

Since being named CEO in 2014, she has transformed AARP into a leader in social change, dedicated to empowering people to choose how they live and age. A fearless champion for innovation and impact, Jenkins has led AARP to be recognized as one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies® (3 years), a Washington Post Top Workplace (3 years), and one of Fast Company’s Best Workplaces for Innovators. In 2020, AARP received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

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