My generation

East Calhoun baby boomer joins AARP national board

Joanne Disch says she is getting better with age. "I am a far more thoughtful and secure person than I used to be," Disch said. "The ability to sort out what is important and what isn't important gets better as you get older. I am 55, and I was thinking this week that this is a great year. I am just approaching middle age."

Her attitude about aging will be instrumental in her new role as a director of AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons). She began her six-year term on April 28th; she is one of only 21 board members from across the country.

AARP is a nonprofit organization serving 35 million members age 50 and older. Its efforts are focused on four main areas: health and wellness; economic security and work; long-term care and independent living; and personal enrichment. AARP provides its members with information and education, legislative and consumer advocacy, and products and services.

The AARP board oversees a $500-million budget and sets policy on everything from affordable prescription drugs and long-term care in nursing homes to campaign finance reform and use of the federal budget surplus.

"I really credit AARP," Disch said. "They deliberately want to accommodate people with different careers, different backgrounds and of different cultures."

Disch, an East Calhoun resident, is one of three baby boomers on the board--helping to represent the millions of Americans who will turn 50 in the next decade. "Once every 7.5 seconds, a baby boomer turns 50," she said. "Some would say it is a very big tsunami wave that is coming. And baby boomers have a real persistent voice--their concerns are going to be heard."

AARP has responded to those voices with a new magazine, "My Generation," just for baby boomers. The baby boomer presence on the board also changes the dynamics of the organization--"we are the test cases," said Disch, laughing. "When you've got full-time working people, it's a very different dynamic than full-time retired people."

She's not only the "ultimate baby boomer"--as she puts it--but she's also the ultimate caregiver. She started as a nursing assistant in high school and now works full-time as a nursing professor at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, and she is director of the university's Katharine J. Densford International Center for Nursing Leadership. She volunteers on numerous boards of directors, including the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses and the American Academy of Nursing. She has been an administrator at the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinic and Fairview-University Medical Center.

"I have worked with Joanne on some very exciting projects, and I've watched her clear leadership and devotion and passion at looking at health-care systems," said Patsy Riley, CEO and president of Stratis Health and one of Disch's nominators for the AARP board. "With a Midwest perspective, a clinician perspective, a leadership perspective -- all of those things plus a huge heart and the compassion for improving systems of care for people -- Joanne has all of the qualifications and more."

Disch's passion for nursing goes beyond her resume. She also surrounds herself with mementos of the profession: Her nursing degree and first-issue nursing stamps hang on the wall, wooden and ceramic nursing figurines decorate shelf tops, and photos of well-known nurses remind Disch of her life's work.

There is also something nurse-like in her mannerisms, and her interactions with other people. She sets people at ease, listens carefully to what they say and seems to have the energy and intensity of a gung-ho twenty-something.

"She is exceedingly positive," said Karen Schueller, who graduates from the nursing department in June. "She always says, 'Don't tell me you can't do something, tell me you don't know how to do it.' Some people when they have been in this career for a long time, they forget what it's like to be a novice. Joanne will take the time and listen to you. She is very calming."

Her nursing background has certainly defined some of her priorities while she is a board director -- she wants to help people stay independent for as long as possible, and she hopes to help the elderly get the tools and knowledge to be fully informed, active participants in their own life.

"I want to help all individuals, but especially the elderly, be informed, engaged and in control of their own lives instead of shuffling away to nursing homes," she said. "Healthcare is very paternalistic--it treats people like they are ignorant bumblers. I think it is so important for people to know enough to make decisions congruent with what they value. How we take care of our old people and our children says a lot about who we are as a society."

Her ability to envision what could be in the future is what makes her invaluable to AARP, said Donna Bliss, a faculty member in the University of Minnesota's nursing department.

"She is very much a visionary person," Bliss said. "She has maintained a link between practice and academia--between what could be and what exists. That's why her position on AARP will be especially beneficial to that organization and have a good reflection on nursing."