Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP, transforms life for boomers

by Jerry Waxler

I drove down to attend a Town Meeting in Philadelphia. The meeting was called “Coming of Age, Ignite the Revolution” for the over 50 crowd. I loved the meeting’s slogan, so appropriate here a few blocks from Independence Hall. Igniting revolution seems the right thing to do, in these times when the status quo seems to be sliding in the wrong direction. I wanted to be reminded that people really do change the world. The meeting was hosted by Philadelphia community organizer Dick Goldberg, a Director of Coming of Age. His guest was the CEO of AARP, Bill Novelli, author of “50+ Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America.”

I found Novelli to be charismatic, speaking with enthusiasm and conviction about how AARP was founded 49 years ago by Ethel Percy Andrus, an individual who wanted to help older people, and at the same time saw them as an army of social activists, using their experience to make the world a better place. He had my attention, because I’m hoping that I can direct my own energy towards changing the world, and looking for ways to join with others to do it. Even though  it’s so much easier to meet people online, it was great to be face to face with people who are interested in making the most of life after 50.

The meeting was held at the convention center across the street from the studio of public television station, WHYY, and was being recorded for televising in the fall. I’ve never been to a televised meeting before, so that was a new experience. And when it came time to ask questions, I walked over to the microphone, an amazing feat for me, considering I would have been too shy to ask a question in public before I went through the Toastmasters program. So I really am getting better as I grow older. Thank God for Toastmasters, and the life long development of new skills.

I said to a room full of strangers, “I just celebrated my 60th birthday last week.” This was funny because in that room being 60 was a credential, and so I was actually bragging about it. I continued, “But when I think about what defines me as a boomer, I don’t think about my age now. I think about trying to stop a war in 1967 by sitting in a university building. I’m not interested now in protest, but am interested more than ever in making the world a better place. I came here tonight looking for institutions that can help. I always thought of AARP as an instrument of social self-defense. It sounds like you’re saying that AARP can also be an institution of social development. Is that true?”

In Novelli’s opening remarks he had talked about AARP as such an institution, but he kept coming back to individuals doing it on their own. I want institutions that can pull people together and create change, and wasn’t sure how much he was assigning to me alone, and how much his institution can help people work collectively. At least now I know the intention is there, and want to learn more about how it is helping.

After the meeting I met a couple of people involved in the Center for Intergenerational Learning, based at Temple University, and learned about their programs. Robert Tietze, Executive Director of Experience Corps, a program in which senior volunteers mentor school kids, including a branch at my old elementary school, Pennypacker, in West Oak Lane. And Aviva Perlo, Peer Counseling Coordinator of Intercommunity Action, Inc, a program in which seniors coach other seniors

My original goal was to learn something that I could write about in my blog about memoirs, and I thought the evening was wrapping up a little skimpy in that area. Then a woman asked me what school I had been protesting at in 1967. I told her it was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She said, “I was there, too.” I studied her face, trying to imagine if I ever saw her pass me on the campus. Every once in while, the wind blows and the veil of time flutters. Forty years ago, 1,000 miles away, I was hoping to change the world, and now, here in Philadelphia is a woman from that same time and place, trying to work towards social change, at Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning. Ahh.. There was the lesson I was looking for. This coincidence reminded me that life is one unified flow. But I don’t need to passively wait for coincidences. I can do it myself. Memoir writing is a form of personal activism, that links together the past and present, and makes the journey of life more whole.

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