April 19, 2024
Icon: Jeff Johnson

Photo: AARP

"Everybody is either older or, God willing, is going to be," says Jeff Johnson, AARP's Florida Director.

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Icon: Jeff Johnson

Florida director, AARP, St. Petersburg; age 54

Art Levy | 7/11/2023

From a pretty early age, knowing I was adopted, I always felt like I needed to do something really big with my life. And so, when I went off to college, I really wanted to focus on studying the really big topics, so I studied religion and politics.

When you list the states that have the oldest populations, Florida is the only one that’s growing. We’re growing by bringing in more older people, as well as more younger people — versus a Maine or a Vermont, where the young people are moving out.

Mike Veeck became the head of marketing for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after the team’s first year and, on a whim, I sent him a baseball and said: ‘Can I play on your marketing team?’ I worked for the Rays as a telemarketer and worked in sales and marketing. One of my accounts was an AARP night at the ballpark — and that’s how I discovered AARP.

An AARP predecessor of mine once said we were neurotically nonpartisan. We work really hard not to endorse. We don’t have a PAC. We don’t rely on giving campaign contributions to politicians. We rely on the fact that people 50 and over vote.

My parents were proud of the fact that when my dad started his dental practice — he retired from the U.S. Navy out of Jacksonville and started his general practice there — that he was one of only a few dentists they knew of who had patients of all races.

Right now, there is a waiting list of 100,000 Floridians who need help with the activities of daily living — getting dressed, eating, moving around. That kind of stuff. They could all go in a nursing home now, but they don’t want to. They would love to stay at home, and we as a state are not prepared for that. Medicaid, which is the primary funder of long-term care for most people, has an institutional bias towards nursing homes. That is, if you need long-term care, you’re entitled to a nursing home bed, but that’s not what most people want. What I would love to see Florida do is flip it and say if we can provide what you need at home, we’re going to do that. Taking care of somebody at home is, in almost all cases, less expensive to the taxpayer than putting someone in a nursing home.

The things that help us thrive at pretty much any age are health, security, connection, purpose and play. The connection and purpose piece for so many people can be found in volunteering.

Being around AARP for as long as I have, I get to be the Florida whisperer. Florida is such a fascinating state in that most people outside of it don’t really understand it very well.

The range of issues that we work on covers most everything that’s important. You’re talking about people’s finances, their health, their family, their community. There’s Medicare, the cost of prescription drugs, health insurance for those who are not yet eligible for Medicare, long-term care. The challenge is that, as a society, we still tend to think of old people as somebody else.

I took about 25 years off from competitive swimming, but then I got into master swimming for a while. Since the pandemic, I’ve stepped back. I got used to sleeping in rather than getting up at 4:30 a.m. to go to practice, but I am getting back in the pool, and that’s fun.

For us as a society to really thrive, we need everybody to play. We need everybody to contribute, whether it’s working or volunteering or just caring for neighbors. We need to remember we’re not just a collection of self-interested individuals, but we’re actually a community that needs each other.

You can come to Florida and make a difference right away. There are a lot of places where if you are not third or fourth generation, you just can’t get in the door to get things done, but Florida is very much a place where you can be new here, and if you are bright and energetic and passionate, you can find a way.

During COVID, the more people realized that it was specifically older people, especially frail older people, who were dying, the less concerned some people seemed to get.

The thing that I would underscore is that Social Security has been the most successful anti-poverty program that I think America has ever had. There’s something like 40% of people 65 and over in Florida who would be below the federal poverty level were it not for Social Security.

My parents thought I would do something professional for a living, and for them that was either the medical profession — doctor or dentist — or an accountant or a lawyer. I think they learned pretty quickly that my math and science skills were such that lawyer was their best bet. Both passed away in their mid-90s, but even before they passed away, I had been state director of AARP for a little while and I was fairly settled, but my mom told me that if I ever wanted to go to law school, they could help me out with that. I was like: ‘Yeah, I think I’m OK, but thank you.’

Every now and then, an organization will reach out and say: ‘Hey, will you give us an AARP card because we’re turning 50?’ I’ll do it. I did it with the University of South Florida St. Petersburg when it turned 50. And we did it for a senior services organization in Sarasota a couple of weeks ago. But I don’t see too many organizations like FLORIDA TREND that are turning 65. TREND was founded in 1958, and I know of one other organization that was also founded in 1958. AARP also turned 65 this year.

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