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Before Founding AARP: How a Retiree in a Chicken Coop Inspired Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus

Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus was a formidable woman for her time: a college student in 1900, an educator from 1903 to 1915, a high school principal from 1916 to 1944, the creator of the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA) in 1947, and the founder of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in 1958.

Her path to pioneering assisted living and continuing care for seniors started in 1881. She was born the daughter of progressive parents who encouraged her to attain advanced education. She was one of the rare female college students at the University of Chicago and the Lewis School in 1900.

After earning her first degree in 1903, she taught language at the Lewis School for seven years and then taught at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, where she became the principal in 1916 and held the position for 28 years. During her tenure as a transformative high school principal, Dr. Andrus earned a master’s degree and a PhD from the University of Southern California. In 1944, she retired at the age of 62 when her mother became ill and needed care.

As she cared for her mother, who eventually recovered, Dr. Andrus was appointed to the California Retired Teachers Association. In that role, she saw firsthand that retired teachers did not have adequate funds to sustain them or allow them to live in dignity, as their pensions were about $40 a month.

What Her Mother Taught Her About Aging

“[My mother, in her 90s] said to me one day, quite seriously, ‘I have been thinking a great deal lately about old age. Old age, Ethel, needs care as youth needs care, but it needs something more. It needs the desire to live, to continue planning, and striving hopefully, to keep working at something worthwhile, and then when at last old age becomes dependent, it needs someone to still care or, if there is no one to care, there should be community care which can make it easy to help those who now cannot help themselves to keep their dignity and their self-respect.’

I listened. I wondered what until then I really knew about aging.”

-Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus , AARP Founder and Assisted Living Pioneer

 A Passion Project in Retirement

In the late 1940s, a now 60-something Andrus received a call from a shopkeeper on the outskirts of Los Angeles who requested a welfare check of a retired teacher in his town. She was unable to afford decent food, housing or healthcare. This despite the fact that she had saved enough money to make payments on land in Montrose, California, that she planned to subdivide and make a better income for her retirement years.  The Depression and terrible flooding of the property had dashed her plans and her nest egg.

Andrus later described the visit and the effect it had on her, as recounted in a biography of the AARP founder:

I knocked on the sagging door of the windowless shed and assured the answering voice that I had come to say ‘Howdy’—one teacher to another—and I asked if I might not come in. I waited for the door to open and when it did, my hostess slipped through and closed the door behind her. Stockily built, with short grey hair, in an old coat much the worse for both age and wear, a woman withered of skin, with sunken cheeks but with the bluest and merriest of eyes, she looked me over — smiling at me, putting me at my ease, while she inquired of my errand.

“‘Just a friendly visit,’ I said, and I told her my name. Curiously enough, she knew it, and more curiously, I recognized hers when she told me it and recalled her reputation as a Spanish teacher of some distinction.” 

The woman relayed her story.  Inspired by the circumstances of the retired teacher living in a chicken coop and angered by the lack of options for seniors, in 1952, Dr. Andrus decided to build NRTA’s experimental retirement community.  The goal was for residents to share meals, live as a community, and find companionship, care, and fulfillment in their later years.

The Grey Gables

Dr. Andrus and her investors purchased the aptly named Grey Gables Inn in Ojai, California, and endeavored to create a new housing model where seniors could live with dignity and purpose while remaining as active and engaged as possible. The Grey Gables opened its independent living studios and apartments in 1954 and, with the addition of The Acacias, the home expanded to include skilled nursing beds in 1959. Then, assisted living personal care apartments were added in 1967. The personal care apartments were popular, and seniors tended to live in them for about five years before moving to the nursing home. While the home was not a financial success, the model of care certainly was. The residents—primarily females—often lived well into their 80s and 90s.

Assisted living and aging in place through continuous care levels are common today thanks to pioneers such as Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus.

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