Orange County

Ann Johnson, pioneer in aging, dies at 94

Ann Johnson, seen by many who work in the aging field in North Carolina as a founding figure of the profession, died early Sunday at Carol Woods Retirement Community. She was 94.

Johnson died after an extended illness, said Mary Bethel, a state AARP lobbyist and a decadeslong friend and colleague of Johnson.

“Ann was the long-time director of the local aging agency in Durham County where she opened the first adult day care center in the Southeast,” Bethel said. “She served in leadership positions at both the national and state level and many of the programs in aging today have her footprint all over them.”

Senior centers were one of the causes closest to Johnson’s heart, and her achievements ranged from from helping to establish national standards for them to adamantly opposing the proposed closing of Raleigh’s Whitaker Mill Senior Center in 2004.

“We reach out to ask those who can revise the plans to do so,” she wrote the News & Observer on behalf of a group of opponents of the doomed proposal. “If the location needs to be changed, change it, but do not obliterate it from existence or scatter it at different locations.”

Johnson began her work in the field during the 1960s, early days for programs such as adult day care, a service that looks after older people during caregivers’ daytime obligations. She rose in the profession through unceasing work and advocacy, serving as chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Aging in several administrations.

Long before the baby boom’s demographic bulge brought aging to a much higher national profile, Johnson was advocating for providing dignity and control to older people as they entered vulnerable years.

“If there is anything that young people could do to show their respect for the older generation, it is to involve them in decisions as long as possible,” she said in a 2001 News & Observer profile. “Not only to involve them in decisions, but to respect their right to make decisions that may be different from what the young people think is best.”

Johnson was born outside of Philadelphia and earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Temple University, then a master’s in social work from Tulane University. Moving to Durham in 1960, she worked for 23 years as the executive director of the Coordinating Council for Senior Citizens.

In addition to starting the first senior center in public housing in North Carolina in 1968, Johnson served for eight years on the board of directors of the National Council on Aging. She was a state delegate to three White House Conferences on Aging – in 1971, 1981, and 1995 – meetings where significant national legislation involving older people was germinated.

In the 2001 N&O article, Betty Landsberger, who worked with Johnson through AARP, said Johnson considered a broad range of issues involving older people.

“She was just sort of born to be a leader,” Landsberger said.

A memorial service will be planned, Bethel said.