Q&A | Jeff Johnson

New Florida AARP state director tackles needs of growing older

Jeff Johnson stands squarely in front of the palm trees, his body turned slightly toward the sun as the photographer had told him to do for a portrait shot.

He sticks his hands in his pants pockets and continues to carry on a conversation, being careful not to move anything but his mouth as the photographer crouches and trains his camera on him.

"Maybe get your hands out of your pockets," the photographer suggests.

Johnson pulls his hands out but then it's as if he doesn't know what to do with them. His arms hang awkwardly at his sides. Appendages without a purpose.

"Cross your arms over your chest," the photographer says.

Johnson once again does as told but even though his arms now have a duty to fulfill, he still seems uncomfortable in the stance — or perhaps it's being the center of attention.

Nonetheless, he holds the pose and keeps smiling and talking in that body-still, mouth-moving way that makes one think of a kid trying to sit still in the barber chair. This boyish effervescence should perhaps belie the job h e holds — but, on the contrary, it works in his favor.

A youthful age 43, Jeff Johnson works with old people. Well, older people.

He's the new state director for Florida AARP and his office is in St. Petersburg — as is his home.

And, even though he's seven years younger than the age required to join AARP, his age is irrelevant to him in several ways:

• His predecessor was younger than he is.

• Many other state directors are not of AARP-joining age.

• He has lived the aging experience — his parents, who adopted him later in life, are in their 90s and his four older sisters are in their late 50s and 60s.

• And, most importantly, he said, aging is an issue we all should be thinking about — with optimism and a sense of humor.

"When I started out, I thought the advantage of being 43 is we are going to figure out how to fix the long-term care situation for baby boomers.

"Everything you worked for your whole life gets sucked up by nursing homes. People want to spend the end of their lives at home," he said.

But, to do that, they need help to get things such as health care and meals brought to their homes, governmental programs for which the waiting lists are growing exponentially faster than the funding for them.

"We remain concerned every year that they will cut that budget," he said.

And so they lobby — 2.7 million members in Florida and some 36 million across the United States —to keep the issues of the aging at the top of politicians' lists, regardless of their party affiliation.

And all those millions of members are led by people like Johnson.

People who say the most important thing college gives you is the maturity to see others' views.

People who define AARP success as overhearing people in McDonald's — not just at AARP meetings — talking about Social Security and Medicare.

People who want to tell Americans that we're all in the same boat, rowing to the finish line of life.

And, people who say they are working to make the waters as calm as possible for the journey.

Jeff Johnson answers questions about AARP

What has been the most surprising thing you have found out while working with AARP?

Two things: I had always thought of AARP as this enormous lobbying giant, so it surprised me to find out how small we are in some ways. We have 22 paid staff positions in a state with 2.7 million members. I know staff members in all 53 state offices (50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands) and many of the people in our national office, and they are talented, dedicated people, but our strength is really in our members, especially those who volunteer. (The 2.7 million members in Florida represent 40 percent of the over-50 population.)

The other thing is about Florida. I grew up in Jacksonville and lived in St. Pete and thought I knew the state but I continue to discover just how big and how diverse and how important a state this is. We are ground zero for just about anything – age, diversity, politics, economic issues, you name it.

Is there anything you are not allowed to talk about? Are there subjects that call for political correctness on your part?

I don't know if I'd call it political correctness, but as a spokesperson for AARP I do have to think about what I say. We refer a lot to 50-plus Floridians because I know a lot of people in their 50s, 60s and beyond who wouldn't appreciate being called "senior" or "elderly." I do try not to talk about issues that AARP doesn't work on. I represent AARP, so it would be misleading for me to talk about issues that aren't AARP issues.

Who are the big champions — celebrity and politician — of the aged/aging?

We could always use some more champions! Politically, I think most people would say we are still searching for the successor to the late Claude Pepper as the preeminent champion for older people. The true champions I've known are not household names: AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus; Bentley Lipscomb, who championed aging issues his whole career even before becoming one of my predecessors; Tess Canja, who was AARP's national president and remains very active locally; and the late Lyn Bodiford, who was our associate state director for advocacy in Tallahassee when I started here.

As far as celebrities, of course, I have to start with NASCAR's Jeff Gordon and the work he has done to address elder hunger through the Drive to End Hunger. But, I think in many ways the best champions for aging are any celebrities who are 50-plus making a difference with their platform. I'm impressed by what Rays manager Joe Maddon has been doing with his HIP (Hazleton Integration Project) in his hometown of Hazleton, Pa., as well as with his Thanksmas here; and what Dick Vitale has done to promote cancer research, to name two local ones. I had high hopes for Shaquille O'Neal when he changed his nickname to "The Big AARP" (as he retired from basketball). I'm still waiting for him to respond to our offer for him to volunteer.

If you could tell people one thing to remember as they get older, what would it be?

Your attitude toward life is by far the most dominant factor in determining what growing older will be like for you. I've known people in their 60s who had resigned themselves to being "old" and I've known people in their 80s and 90s who still think the operative word in "growing older" is "growing." If you embrace each moment of life, you will continue to feel young even when your body says otherwise, and if you shrink from the challenges of aging, you will feel older than your years.

What have people told you is their biggest regret in life? Their biggest accomplishment?

I don't hear many people tell me about regrets. I don't think that's accidental; the people who volunteer with AARP, the people who come out to community forums or events, they aren't driven by regret. I've been fortunate to work with people who have accomplished a lot, but what I remember are the people who accomplish things volunteering with AARP that they never got to do in their work. We have had so many volunteers who think they could never present to a member of Congress about Medicare or speak to a large group about fighting fraud or help someone file their taxes when they first volunteer with AARP, and it's gratifying to see them not only do those things but truly enjoy them!

And, finally, how about a funny story?

About the Donald Rumsfeld story in the Top 10 list: The story goes that the former defense secretary was conducting a press briefing and was asked if he was worried that Osama bin Laden was still at large. "I'm not worried at all," he allegedly said, "because our intelligence says he's about to turn 50, so we know AARP will find him for us."

The other isn't really funny but it's a favorite AARP memory.

Last year, as we were starting to work on the issue of elder hunger, we learned about a low-income senior housing high-rise on Miami Beach, tucked in with all the glitz, where the residents bought these discounted boxes of groceries from a local ministry. Our staff person in the area got the idea of teaching the residents how to make some healthy and tasty meals with the ingredients they got in the boxes, so she recruited a volunteer who happened to be a chef (he used to run the catering for the suites at Dolphins Stadium).

About half the residents there had immigrated from Cuba or other Spanish-speaking countries, and the other half had immigrated from Russia, so to make it all work, we used a set of headsets like the ones you see at the United Nations. The chef presented mostly in Spanish with some English, and the activities director at the building translated from Spanish to Russian. That scene, a volunteer teaching fixed-income seniors how to make healthy, inexpensive meals in Spanish and Russian in the middle of Miami Beach, says a lot about Florida and AARP.

Patti Ewald can be reached at pewald@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8746.

Jeff Johnson fast facts

• Although he now is officially the state director, he actually has held the position in an "acting" capacity for 16 months.

• He was raised in Jacksonville, where his parents still live.

• He majored in religion and minored in politics at Wake Forest, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

• He has a master of divinity degree from Emory University's Candler School of Theology. (He originally planned to get his Ph.D. and teach religion.)

• Raised a Methodist, he converted to Catholicism so he and his wife, April, could worship together. They have an 8-year-old daughter, Betsy.

• He worked in the sports information department at Emory.

• He so desperately wanted to move back to Florida, he took a job doing telemarketing for the Tampa Bay Rays. (The job later grew into sales and marketing.)

• You can follow him on Twitter @ AARPJeff.

10 Things you might not know about AARP
(according to Jeff Johnson)

1 It is four syllables,
A-A-R-P, not "Arp" like a seal's bark.

2 To qualify for AARP membership, you have to be 50, but you don't have to be mature, much less "old."

3 AARP is nonpartisan, does not endorse candidates, and does not operate a PAC or contribute to campaigns.

4 AARP has had a presence in St. Petersburg since 1959 — first a welcome center on Central Avenue, then our mail-order pharmacy, and now our state office.

5 AARP's charitable arm, the AARP Foundation, operates the volunteer-run Tax-Aide program as well as the Senior Community Service Employment Program, both of which serve the Tampa Bay area at various locations.

6 AARP no longer stands for "American Association of Retired Persons" as more than half the members are still in the workforce. (The word "retired" got retired but nothing took its place.)

7 AARP has the largest-readership (47-million) lifestyle magazine in the country.

8 The conference center in AARP's national office is named for Cy Brickfield, to whom Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield is related.

9 Rumors to the contrary, Donald Rumsfeld wasn't waiting for Osama bin Laden to turn 50 so AARP would find him.

10 AARP cares about future generations. Not only do we work to protect and strengthen Social Security and Medicare for all generations, we have a program to help young adults plan for their financial future called LifeTuner (lifetuner.org).

New Florida AARP state director tackles needs of growing older 03/27/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 30, 2012 12:00pm]

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