FEATURE — Summer 2006
   

 
Robin Talbert, J.D. '80, is the executive director of the AARP Foundation, the charitable arm of the AARP.

Enriching the Lives of Older People

As executive director of the AARP Foundation, alumna Robin Talbert leads the nationwide effort to assist seniors with financial, legal, and healthy lifestyle issues.

By Candace O'Connor

Robin Talbert, new executive director of the AARP Foundation, traveled recently to the Gulf Coast to see the hurricane devastation and take a firsthand look at relief efforts that her organization had funded. The charitable arm of the AARP, the AARP Foundation had worked quickly to bring hope to older victims in that area, dispensing some $300,000 in emergency aid. Further, they chose 17 agencies, out of 65 applicants, to receive $1.3 million in grants for longer-term health, housing, and legal assistance.

In New Orleans, Talbert, J.D. '80, toured a vacant senior citizen high-rise where the foundation was supporting the Volunteers of America in their work with displaced residents. Downstairs, she was horrified by "the vastness of the destruction," she says; even in the upstairs apartments—still fully furnished—she could see just how suddenly residents had left. "It was as if time had stood still," she adds, marveling.

Next, in Baton Rouge, she met a husband and wife, retired schoolteachers, who had fled New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, thinking they would be away only a few days. Unable to go home for months, and finding they could not afford the steep cost of their medications*, they were grateful for the free pharmacy program supported by AARP Foundation funds. (*Their health insurance premiums had become unaffordable because of the near obliteration of the New Orleans school system.)



The foundation's many programs address a range of issues faced by older Americans: their need to re-enter the job market, make sense of complex benefit programs, stay in their own homes, deal with grief and loss, make healthy lifestyle decisions, and find affordable legal help, for example. (iStockphoto)

"They were so relieved to be getting that support," says Talbert. "Everyone we talked with had a veneer of normalcy, but underneath there was emotional despair. You could see it in their faces, hear it in their voices. One of the most rewarding things I've ever done was to have some impact on the enormous need in that area, which will be there for years to come."

Although the AARP Foundation does not usually focus on disaster relief, it got involved particularly because of this "enormous need." Otherwise, its many programs address a range of issues faced by older Americans: their need to re-enter the job market, make sense of complex benefit programs, stay in their own homes, deal with grief and loss, find affordable legal help. Altogether, the foundation serves some two million people annually with a staff of 200 and an annual budget of more than $140 million, funded by the AARP, grants, and private contributions.

"A lot of our work falls into the category of financial security, helping older people—particularly those at social or economic risk—acquire and maintain the assets they need for a secure second half of life," says Talbert, who has spent nearly 18 years with AARP in a series of leading roles. "We have, for example, a free tax preparation program that has returned well over $100 million annually to folks who qualify for earned income tax credits."

The foundation also plays a major role in litigating on behalf of older adults, especially in the sophisticated and growing area of consumer fraud. In her job, Talbert's own law degree has come in handy, as she grapples with legal and accounting issues that arise in delineating the respective roles of the foundation, established in 1961, and the 36-million-member AARP. [The AARP Foundation, as a 501(c)(3) organization, can receive federal funds and tax-deductible contributions, while AARP is a 501(c)(4) that serves its members through information, education, and advocacy.]

She grew up far from her current Washington, D.C., office in the hills of North Carolina and the small town of Cliffside, where her mother was a schoolteacher and her father worked in a cotton mill. A graduate of the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, she worked as a research analyst at a nearby think tank before deciding to become a lawyer. When she asked a UNC faculty member to recommend a law school outside the state, he mentioned Washington University.

While a student here, Talbert did an independent study with Professor Karen Tokarz on equal pay issues for women, and she spent a semester in D.C. working with then-U.S. Congressman James Jeffords. "I loved the law school, the rigor of it, and the people I met," Talbert says. Among those people was her husband, Bruce Goldstein, J.D. '80, who shared her passion for public interest law; today, he is the executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund in Washington, D.C., and their two sons are students at Purdue and Denison universities.

After law school, she became a Legal Aid lawyer in Alton, Illinois, often working with an older clientele. That experience prepared Talbert well for her new job at the AARP, where she began by tackling consumer issues that affect older adults. Three years ago, she moved over to the AARP Foundation, becoming its managing director, its interim director, and finally, this past February, its new executive director.

"A lot of our work falls into the category of financial security, helping older people—particularly those at social or economic risk—acquire and maintain the assets they need for a secure second half of life."

Many challenges lie ahead, she says. In partnership with other organizations, the foundation will soon launch a major initiative aimed at helping women become more financially secure and encouraging healthy lifestyles. The foundation also is working with a cohort of other aging-related groups to provide training for elder law advocates. As part of their interest in asset development for low-income people, they have funded research by Washington University faculty member Michael Sherraden, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development, on Individual Development Accounts for older adults.

Talbert herself is years away from retirement, though she does daydream occasionally about returning to a rural retreat. Still, she has had plenty of opportunity to think about the mistakes that other baby boomers make in planning for their older years—and she has a key piece of advice: Plan ahead. Do research, just as you did in deciding where to go to college.

"Plan financially and think about how you want to live, what gives you pleasure," she says. "Today, it is not unusual for people to live into their 90s, and few of us think about that. How will you finance your life? What do you want to do with it? There are opportunities for this period to be very rewarding."

In her own immediate future, she plans to further the mission of the AARP—"to serve, and not to be served"—as she works with her own staff and a cadre of 35,000 volunteers to continue enriching the lives of older people.

"This is such an opportunity to make a difference," she says. "It really is a dream job for me. I told one of my sons recently not to expect to get his dream job right away after college—but I certainly have mine now."

Candace O'Connor is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.