Jim Wordelman has been the state director of AARP Idaho for more than five years. In a phone interview May 24, he answered questions about the top priorities of the 50-and-over population in the Gem State, as well as general questions about the organization that serves the interests of the older demographic in the state and the nation. Here’s what he had to say:
Q. What is the state AARP’s primary focus right now? A. Within the state AARP, we are working with our members and their top concerns: staying mentally sharp and physically healthy. Social Security is a top concern, keeping that strong now and for future generations. Social Security is not the only answer (for retirement) and that’s one of the top concerns of our members here, too, is maintenance of finances during retirement as they look at inflation, the cost of groceries, utilities, gasoline. What happens when we go to the store? That canned good goes up in price, down in size, or a combination of both. I recently went to get a half gallon of ice cream, and the container was so small and the price was so high.
Q. Has the primary focus of AARP shifted much over the years, in your opinion?
A. I’ve worked for AARP for 19 years and in a career of gerontology for 37 years. As the years have passed, our focus has stayed pretty much the same – health care, Social Security, maintenance of finances during retirement.
Most of us, a huge percentage of us, want to stay in our own homes and communities as we age. And we need to be preparing our homes for when we get older, looking at modifying our homes. I look at my own home and I’ve got a lot of stairs. I’m 64 now and in 20 to 25 years, I’m thinking I’m not going to be able to walk up those stairs.
Q. Do you think that issues facing older people in Idaho vary from older people in other parts of the U.S.?
A. They’re very common throughout the nation, and AARP members in Idaho pretty well reflect the nation as far as their top concerns. One thing that’s different in Idaho is our income level is lower than the national level, so the Social Security level is lower. On average, it’s $1,045 a month here.
One quarter of Idahoans depend on Social Security for all their retirement.
Q. How would you best define the work of AARP?
A. We do a tremendous amount of advocacy. We’re a nonpartisan organization for aging people. We want to enhance their quality of life, and we want to lead positive social change and deliver value to our members and provide information about retirement and health care.
Q. What do you think is the biggest advantage of being an AARP member?
A. The biggest advantage I think is AARP’s ability to take action on behalf of our members at the national and state level, and to motivate our members to take action for themselves.
Q. How many members do you have in Idaho?
A. Almost 180,000 members, or about 39 percent of older people in the state.
Q. What percentage of the population in Idaho is comprised of people 50 and over?
A. The 50+ demographic is 474,000 people, and overall the state has 1.5 million people, so it’s around a third of the population.
Q. Have older people – so-called “boomers” – changed the dynamic of the workplace, or are the younger people having the biggest sway?
A. In a number of ways I think boomers have changed the dynamic of the workplace and look at a work-life balance. They go to work, spend a lot of time at work, but they also want to balance their work time with family time and do things as a family unit.
I think that’s more predominate in Idaho and the West than in other parts of the country. I worked in Washington, D.C. for 11 ½ years, and the work ethic in the East is that they’re more workaholics, spend more time at work, and spend more time at home doing work-related activities.
Q. Since we are a business publication, let’s focus on the work-related issues for a minute. Such as, do you think there’s still a certain degree of age discrimination in the workplace?
A. I think there continues to be. For a person 50, 55 or over who becomes unemployed, that’s a big problem in Idaho – and unemployment here is higher, you know, than the national average. If you become unemployed, the potential (to find work) is much more difficult. Statistically, it takes people a lot longer to secure employment if they’re 50 or over.
Q. Are boomers holding their own in the technology realm?
A. Boomers are becoming much more technologically advanced, doing things with the computers, getting on Facebook and Twitter. They’re not afraid to embrace the technology.
Q. How much financial clout do older people have? More or less than younger people?
A. I think the boomers have more financial clout. And while they have the financial clout, the older person, the 50+ person, really has a lot of clout when it comes to voting and swaying votes. They’re the largest voting population across the nation and in Idaho. Fifty-six percent of people 50 and over are registered to vote. In 2008, 93 percent of those registered voters did get out and vote.
Q. How are older people coping with the economic downturn? Better or worse than their younger counterparts?
A. It’s more difficult to get a job once you lose it. A lot of times, if you have a job, the longtime earning power has become greater. If you have to go into an entry level position if you lose a job, in that aspect you’re worse off.
Looking at retirement, if you lose that job, you lose a lot of your earnings towards your retirement.
Q. What contribution do older people make in terms of volunteerism?
A. The boomers are changing that a little bit in the kind of volunteerism that they like to do and are willing to do – the short-term, episodic types of volunteer activities. The “call me when you have something, and I’ll let you know whether I want to do it or not” volunteerism.
We (AARP Idaho) have an army of dedicated volunteers. We have five full-time employees and over 400 volunteers.
Q. On a kind of lighter note, what is the best way you can think of for older people to stay mentally alert?
A. Exercise your brain. It’s a combination of things. When we did a recent survey of our members in Idaho, 80 percent of them said staying mentally sharp was of utmost importance to them. Exercise your brain through reading, doing crosswords, learning something new, physically exercising, eating the right kind of food. Some foods out there are better for your brain than others: blueberries, red delicious apples, good old Idaho potates, red beans. Eat correctly.
Q. What do you think is the most important thing older people can teach to younger ones right now?
A. How to better manage your finances and prepare for later life financially.