How everyday innovators are helping older Americans navigate the pandemic – The Washington Post

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It’s no secret the covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected older people. And for AARP, a nonprofit with a mission to empower Americans aged 50 or older, this unprecedented crisis demanded an urgent response. With many of its nearly 38 million members falling inside the hardest-hit age bracket, the organization had to act fast to keep its members—and their families—informed, connected and safe.
Fortunately, AARP’s dedicated team of employees were more than ready for the challenge. From “Tele-Town Halls” that allowed members to hear all the latest advice directly from government experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci, to a Nursing Home Dashboard that reported on real-time situations in the nation’s long-term care facilities, staff members across the organization responded with remarkable agility to roll out new and critical services. And, while it’s true the pandemic has ushered in an exceptional era of innovation across all industries, perhaps AARP’s readiness to leap into action boils down to one simple systemic foundation: empowering all its employees to be everyday innovators.
Lisa Gameos, Senior Advisor for Marketing, AARP Programs, agrees it’s this entrenched culture that enabled instant performance under pressure. “We never want to just be okay with the way things are,” Gameos says. “We’re always trying to improve, to do better. It’s just ingrained in us: ‘Let’s try something else.’ It’s very much a part of our culture.”
AARP’s nationwide network provides a broad spectrum of advocacy and support services: everything from connecting members with local caregiving resources, to live fitness events and informational seminars. As the world moved online, these resources needed to follow suit. AARP wasted no time in introducing engaging new content and initiatives for members, hosting more than 5,000 virtual events in 2020, including yoga and strength-training classes, Facebook movie nights, museum tours and academic lectures.
For Ari Houser, a senior advisor at AARP’s Public Policy Institute, the dissemination of crucial and accurate information represented an early challenge. At the beginning of the pandemic, AARP fought for public reporting of nursing home covid-19 cases and deaths and challenged states that would not share this data with the public.
Responding to the need for more transparency, AARP Public Policy Institute created the AARP Nursing Home Dashboard to provide four-week snapshots of the virus’s infiltration into nursing homes and the impact on nursing home residents and staff. Houser explains the dashboard sought to make sense of hundreds of data points for 15,000 nursing homes across the country.
Turning that mass of information into a valuable and critical resource for lawmakers, news media, staff, residents and their families meant whittling it down into easily digestible categories and sorting the data state-by-state. “The point of the dashboard is to communicate in a way that can be understood,” Houser adds.
By way of example, Houser points to data for the state of Colorado for the four weeks ending Dec. 20. “There were about 2,400 new cases and 500 deaths in nursing homes that month: Is that a lot? Is that a little?”
Once he’d contextualized the data, he discovered nearly one in five nursing home residents had been diagnosed with covid-19 in the previous month—and one out of every 27 had died, among the worst rates in the country. The statistics were dire, making it even more necessary for older adults to not just receive the data, but fully comprehend it.
In her own department, Gameos found herself similarly positioned between AARP members and informed experts and set out to bridge the gap. The organization launched a series of live national and state Tele-Town Halls, giving the public the opportunity to hear from the likes of Dr. Fauci and CDC leaders, and to ask their own questions.
“Because this impacted our older members, we used the phone; a lot of these folks don’t have access to the internet,” Gameos explains. “These Tele-Town Halls gave us the opportunity to dial out to our members and allow them to join an audio call.”
Older adults took advantage in droves. Over the course of 2020, AARP held 383 Tele-Town Halls and hosted over 100,000 listeners each week. Content addressed timely topics including confusion over masks, nursing home issues and isolation. During screening for the Tele-Town Halls, Gameos’s department was even able to identify listeners in crisis, escalating high-risk callers to resources that could help.
AARP also produced content tailored to one of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic and its resulting societal impacts: Black women and their families. The Sisters From AARP newsletter picked up on the story and delivered hope and humor to 275,000 readers every Tuesday. Popular articles ranged from skincare tips to address “maskne,” to bereavement, wills, advanced directives, emergency financial moves and many other critical topics.
The organization turned its gaze inward, too. “To keep up with our world’s rapidly changing digital pace, our CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said organizations need to digitally reinvent themselves,” says Briana Drayton, AARP’s Social Media Response Analyst. “She shared a vision in which AARP members got what they want, when they want it and on the devices they wanted.”
The organization now responds to an average of 280,000 member requests per month.  In particular, AARPBot, an automated chatbot that fields the most common questions so members don’t need to spend time on hold, has made it easier for them to get the help they need.
“The stereotype that people over the age of 50 don’t know how to use technology definitely isn’t true for our members and the broader demographic,” explains Drayton. Noting a significant percentage of users who engage with the chat function are aged 75 and older, she adds: “Some people may have started off not really tech-savvy at the beginning of the pandemic. But realizing it was the only way to stay connected, they had to adapt and embrace technology.” Another division of AARP, Older Adults Technology Services, offers courses, resources and events to help older adults with this process.
AARP’s blend of social mission, compassion and innovation seems to be what resonates most with staff. “The pay is competitive, and the benefits are good, but a lot of places have that,” says Houser. (Although it’s worth noting AARP’s benefits, like its 80-hour Caregiving Leave Program, 200-hour Bright Horizons Emergency Back-Up Care Program, and four-week paid Renewal Program—the AARP spin on a sabbatical—are industry standouts.)
“What I really feel is the support,” Houser continues. “I’ve always been really empowered to take the lead. I think we hear a lot about leadership and culture coming from the top, but at AARP, I really feel it’s encouraged to come from the ground up.”
“I love my job,” Gameos agrees. “Our CEO is all about testing, learning, not being afraid to fail—because frankly, when you fail, that’s when you learn the most.”
This is a concept that Kim Cameron, Professor Emeritus of Management and Organizations at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, refers to as “psychological safety.” He’s noted it in workplaces that best foster innovation: “People feel like they’re able to try out things, stretch the boundaries. Maybe go beyond what the job design suggests.”
In his own research, Cameron has also noted a connection between innovative workplaces and “an emphasis on contribution in addition to recognition. Most organizations, when you do well, they give you stuff,” says Cameron. “But the best provide an opportunity to contribute.”
And that’s exactly what makes AARP a leader in innovation: the opportunity to make a difference, an empowering environment, and a shared commitment from both your peers and your employer to see the mission through come hell, high water or a global pandemic.
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