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Jo Ann Jenkins, AARP CEO, On Modern Grands’ Real Possibilities


On behalf of GRAND Magazine, Amy Goyer recently sat down with AARP CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins to discuss the programs and services they offer modern grands.

GRAND: GRAND magazine is, of course, all about grandparenting so we’d love to hear about your personal experience. Were you influenced by your grandparents? Did you grow up near them? Tell us about them and the role(s) they played in your life?

Jo Ann: First let me say how excited I am to have the opportunity to do this. As I was thinking about this conversation today, I was thinking that actually two of my grandparents were deceased before I was born and the others died very early. But I have eight aunts and uncles on each of my father’s and mother’s sides, and we have always been very integrated, regardless of age or what we were doing, and they really added a tremendous amount of value and knowledge and “parenting,” in a very close knit neighborhood where we lived. So I see grandparenting and having older adults in your life as really vital to the person you actually turn out to be.

GRAND: Did all those aunts and uncles kind of take on grandparent roles? So you don’t have to be biological grandparents to play that role?

Jo Ann: No you don’t, and we lived in a small community and everyone had responsibility for helping you grow up (or chastising you!) or helping you do something. I remember fondly my grandfather who was my mother’s father.

Jo Ann’s grandfather

He never owned a car—he had a horse and buggy. And we lived out in the country but it was quite a treat for us to be able to ride with him with his horse and his buggy and we would always beg him not to go on the main highway so that anyone would see us in this cart! But really he was someone that we all looked up to and I remember having fun and experiencing new and different things in the way my grandfather lived.

GRAND: it sounds like he gave you a tie to the past and a different way of life. Where did you grow up?

Jo Ann: In a little town, really in the country outside Mobile, Alabama, in a place called Mon Lewis Island, Alabama – it’s as far south as you can go in the state of Alabama. [Jo Ann’s great-great-great grandfather owned the property so up until the late 1980’s everyone in that whole area was a part of her family. See more about Jo Ann’s hometown and family in the video “Jo Ann Jenkins: A Woman of Vision”.]

GRAND: Some people still think of grandparents as grandma and grandpa on the porch with grey hair in rocking chairs. But you are passionate about releasing old stereotypes and re-imagining what it means to get older. How does AARP plan to “Disrupt Aging” and change the conversation in this country around what age means to us?

aarpJo Ann: I think it’s so important that we help the country to address this issue that being 50 and older, or grandparents, at this time is so different than it was for our parents’ generations. I often say 50 is not the new 30; 50 is the new 50—and it looks good and feels okay! So we try to disrupt these stereotypes of what it means to grow older. We’re trying to help organizations, individuals, and companies address these outdated stereotypes, because they are really not in sync with the way people are aging today.

I think about my sister who is a grandmother. She has so much energy and excitement about what she does with her 3 grandkids (and they’d rather be with her than almost anybody else in the world), whether on vacation or just spending the afternoon at her house. And as I look around at my friends and associates it’s not even the idea of the traditional grandmother or granny or whatever, it’s this older person in their grandchild’s lives that’s helping them experience new things.

GRAND: We understand AARP believes it’s all about living life to the fullest. How do you see AARP’s role in helping to change attitudes so people will be identified by who they are and not just how old they are throughout the lifespan?

Jo Ann: I often say it’s no longer acceptable to judge people by their race or sex or gender, so why is it that we still allow people to pre-determine what we should or should not be doing at a certain age? We want to bring that to the forefront for all of us who either consciously or unconsciously make comments that put someone in a certain category because of how old they are.

So at AARP we are really trying to focus on three major areas: health security, financial resilience, and personal fulfillment. I like to call it “Health, Wealth, and Self”. We want to help people not only have access to health care and health insurance but also teach them how to live healthier lives and how to make sure that these 50-plus years that may come after you turn 50 are healthy years in which you’re able to physically and mentally do the things that you like to do.

Around financial resilience: not only making sure that Social Security is there for you, your kids, your grandkids, and those beyond, but how we can help you plan your finances so that you don’t outlive your money, or how do we protect you from fraud and scam episodes that are going on out there across the country.

And that last one around self or personal fulfillment: We try to use programs like Life Reimagined which is one of our signature programs, to help people go through these transitions. Over half of our members are not retired; they are still working either because they want to, or because they have to work. So we help people with their work transitions. Or maybe your kids have gone off to college and they’re coming back to live with you for a couple years, to get on their feet, or maybe you’re divorced and you’re getting back out there into the dating world, or you’re wanting to travel. We want to help you find that personal fulfillment so you focus on what it is you want to do in your life–regardless of what your age is.

GRAND: Share with GRAND readers about the R and P in AARP standing for “Real Possibilities.”  How does AARP help people over 50 realize the “Real Possibilities” in their lives?

Jo Ann: Some 14 years ago, AARP dropped the “American Association of Retired Persons” name as recognition that nearly half of our 38 million members are no longer retired. So, now we create “Real Possibilities” in their lives. How do we help them do whatever it is that they want to do. So it’s a different take from AARP saying “this is what you ought to be doing” to “tell us what you want to do.” We give you the resources or educational content or access to information so that you can decide how it is that you want to live.

GRAND: What are tools, services and resources that AARP offers to help people do those things?

Jo Ann: We have the AARP.org website that you can go to! For grandparents, we have the grandparenting site at AARP.org/grandparents. If you’re interested in work we have AARP.org/work with information on things like how to upload resumes (most people don’t even use paper resumes anymore). We help with technology training—perhaps you need an upgrade or a refresher in the use of technology as you’re going out into the workplace.

We obviously have our dating site, as well as our volunteer opportunities, whether it be with our program called Create the Good, where we ask people to help us volunteer and create good around the country. We have a program that we acquired a couple of years ago called Experience Corps, where we ask our members to volunteer in local schools around the country as a teacher’s assistant, focusing on kindergarten through third graders, helping them to learn to read, because we know that if you can’t read by the time you’re in the fourth grade, you’re less likely to be successful and find meaningful work in your life. So we have a whole host of opportunities.

GRAND: We at GRAND believe that one of the most personally fulfilling roles for those in your membership age range of 50 and older is entering the exciting life stage of being a grandparent. Would you agree?

Jo Ann: Oh I absolutely agree! I was actually talking with some of the folks out at the Stanford Center for Longevity a couple weeks ago, and they were sharing with me that someone born today may likely have four generations of grandparents living with them—so think about that—that you could live to be 80 to 100 years old, and you could have 8 to 10, or even 16 grandparents who are involved in your life, that are helping to nurture you as you grow up.

GRAND: We know AARP has all kinds of benefits and services and tools to help grandparents do some of those personally fulfilling things and spend time with grandkids. What is AARP doing around travel with grandparents?

Jo Ann: We know that many of our members are grandparents who love to travel with grandkids. Some 98% of multigenerational family travelers are highly satisfied and see this as a huge enjoyment in their lives. We just came from a family trip with our extended family of brothers and sisters, and in some cases grandparents, going with us. It’s a very different time in your life to have the opportunity to spend time with your kids and grandparents and share those experiences from years gone by and to also see how grandparenting has changed. AARPYou see that picture of what traditionally a grandmother or grandfather looked like and, oh absolutely, it’s changed so much—people who are in their late 40s, 50s, and 60s are as active as someone in their 30s. AARP helps grandparents have these experiences, whether it’s going on a cruise or going to a park or other shared experiences like a sporting event or other activities.

GRAND: And I’m sure having those discounts helps grandparents be able to do more with their grandkids! How do you see the other AARP priorities of health security and financial resilience relating to grandparents?

Jo Ann: It really is ageless in many ways, particularly around health security. We know that caregiving is a huge issue, not only for older persons, but also for grandparents who may be caring for grandkids who may have some kind of disability, as well as having multiple generations in one household. We help grandparents to think about how they are going to have more time to spend with their grandkids, making a difference in their lives. We try to focus on that health security area, not only having simplified access to healthcare, but also living healthier and longer, good nutritional habits and exercise and getting engaged with your grandkids, whether it’s with a soccer ball or some other kind of physical activity like swimming. So I think it’s very important for people 50 and older to really stay engaged and stay healthy and really trying to transfer and translate those kinds of good habits down to their grandkids. 

GRAND: In terms of financial security what kinds of products and services does AARP have that grandparents might be interested in?

Jo Ann: We are certainly engaged in the education and information sharing around financial security. Obviously, we do a lot around Social Security and making sure it’s there for them and future generations, but also we work on helping people protect the money they do have, regardless of how small or large it is; for example, how do they make good investments so that they’re thinking about how much money they might need in the future?

We’re seeing a lot more grandparents playing an active role in paying for grandkids’ college education, so we have come up with some tools and information like 529 plans. We’re thinking about what you might need in the future too, about what happens if there is some kind of catastrophic health emergency in your life, how to plan for and not outlive your income.

GRAND: How can grandparents act as role models to show grandkids this is the way you can live—live your life to the fullest – how do you see them passing that value down to their grandkids?

aarpJo Ann: I think that many grandparents are doing that actively every day, in the way they live, the way they eat and exercise, how they talk to their grandkids about the importance of saving and preparing for the future, and also around doing something that gives them great satisfaction and passion in their lives.

I often talk about the idea that previous generations may have two or three jobs but stay in one career. I think the workforce of the future may have two or three different careers! So grandparents are role models in terms of how do you start thinking about what your passion is and how are you going to spend your time and how are you going to give back to others; I think so many in the Gen X and Gen Y generation are really looking for meaning and purpose. Grandparents can play a very influential role in trying to help their grandkids sort through what it is they really want to do with their lives, and how they can share those passions and gifts with others.

GRAND: We know there are 2 ½ million grandparents in the U.S. taking on responsibility for raising grandchildren, certainly the AARP priorities we’ve discussed are of great importance to these unsung heroes. Can you share some of the other tools, resources, tools, and services that AARP offers that can be helpful to grandparents raising grandchildren?

Jo Ann: We certainly have an enormous amount of educational content on our website at AARP.org/grandparents, We also try to provide information about how to manage that relationship between the young and the older, about caregiving, helping your grandkids with their schoolwork, and developing relationships in the school and the community. We often talk about “livable communities” and what’s good for the old is also good for the young.

GRAND: I know that the AARP Foundation has a number of initiatives that are helpful to grandparents as well in terms of benefits outreach—what else?

Jo Ann: One of the programs we started in the Foundation is called Mentor Up. We have matched college kids with older adults, who may be in their homes or in care facilities, and they are paired together to come up with solutions whether it’s around hunger, housing, income, or isolation. We also have them working with technology; we have a younger generation training older adults on the use of smart phones, iPads, finding content on the website, how you play games, how to use Skype and download photos and upgrade pictures. Most recently, we collaborated with the Kennedy Center where we had about 70 grandkids come with their grandparents and help us create interactive games that grandparents and grandchildren can enjoy together. And we know, from our website usage, that older adults are very interested in the brain game activities or just fun games.

GRAND: We also know that these grandparent caregivers are often caring for their aging parents, spouses or siblings, and sometimes their adult children as well – the club-sandwich generation! Does AARP have resources for those who are caregiving for elders also?

Jo Ann: We know that one of the most serious issues we will all face is either being a caregiver or needing caregiving. So AARP has been engaged, not only at the national level, but also at the state level, around the country, bringing this issue of caregiving to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, to recognize that there are those who need caring for, but that the caregiver also has to take care of themselves. Whether it’s the grandparent being cared for, or the grandparent actually providing the care, we need to make sure that we’re looking out for them, as well. We are very engaged in trying to help that caregiver see that they’re not in this alone, that we’re here to help them. And they also have other family members and local resources at the community level that are helping them get through these difficult times.

When you talk to caregivers you hear that it is both a period of great enjoyment to spend with that particular loved one that they’re helping, but also that it’s a tremendous amount of stress. AARP has a number of resources on the website’s Caregiving Resource Center about how to get help, and how to form support groups so that you connect with others who may be going through a similar situation and can help you through this period. If you go to AARP.org/Caregiving, we have a whole continuum of caregiving resources, whether you need care, or you need some additional information about how you do a particular caregiving activity.

GRAND: Any last bit of advice you have for America’s grandparents or anything else you’d like America’s grandparents to know about AARP?

Jo Ann: AARP is here for you, and we really want to create those Real Possibilities in your life. We ask you to join us as we continue to disrupt the outdated thinking about what aging and growing older and grandparenting are all about. If you just look around in your own family and your own neighborhoods, you can see that grandparents offer tremendous value and an asset, not just to immediate families, but also to the whole community. So we certainly celebrate grandparents…and I look forward to it! Hopefully I’ll be a grandparent some day also!


Amy Goyer
Amy Goyer

Amy Goyer, an aging and family’s expert, specializes in grandparenting, caregiving, and multigenerational issues. Her books include Things to Do Now That You’re a Grandparent and Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving.

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Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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