Maggie Kuhn, 72-year-old convener of the Gray Panthers, gave her candid and outspoken views on old age at a recent conference on "The Changing Images of Aging" in Los Angeles, and Plain Truth writer Carole Ritter was on hand to report. Some find Kuhn's exhortations and opinions unsettling, radical, and even outrageous, but she epitomizes the new spirit of the old — feisty, honest, and very much involved in the business of living.
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Maggie Kuhn looks like anybody's grandmother — all wispy gray hair and thin knotted hands; tiny, frail and vulnerable. But the minute she speaks the illusion is shattered: Her strong, sometimes salty language charges the air with a special electricity as she rattles off one quotable statement after another. With well-chosen words she builds an unanswerable case against the injustices perpetrated upon the elderly
I believe profoundly that our whole society is sick. If we are to heal this sick society and build a new one which puts people first, you and I have to be prepared for some extraordinary changes.
in our society, and calls for nothing less than radical change in response to their needs. Below, a random sampling of Maggie Kuhn on various topics relating to growing old in America.
Our Sick Society
I believe profoundly that our whole society is sick, and that our sickness is epitomized by the high priority we've given to profits and productivity and efficiency, to the utter waste of people.. If we are to heal this sick society and build a new one which puts people first, you and I have to be prepared for some extraordinary changes in our own value systems, in our life-styles, and in the way in which we conduct our common life together. Our society is racist, it's sexist, and it's ageist. Racism, sexism and ageism are built-in responses to a society that puts people in groups that it considers inferior. All deprive certain groups of status — the right to control their own destinies and to have access to power, with the end result of powerlessness. All result in social and economic discrimination and deprivation. All deprive American society of the contributions of many competent and creative persons who are needed to deal with our vast and complex problems. All result in individual alienation, despair, hostility, anomie. To be eliminated, all will require the mobilization and commitment of many of us to changing our present national priorities and political processes, public and private institutions, and social policies and theories. Ageism infects and pervades our whole Western society. It infects us, the aging, when we reject ourselves and our gray hairs, when we lie about our age, when we take elaborate precautions to keep from even recognizing that we are getting old.
On Being Called "Senior Citizens"
We old people take all kinds of what I consider very derogatory language. The euphemisms are really insults. We don't say [various racial epithets] anymore. If we do, all kinds of people correct us. And you're bleeped off the air if you do it on television or radio. But we are not "seniors"; we are old. I think we need some new language, and I think we need to guard ourselves against the kind of language used in our society and the media. I think we can redeem those words "old age." They ought to have new meaning and affirmation.
The Graying of the Universe
At the present time there are about 24 million people over 65 years of age and more than 31 million people over 60, and it's conservatively estimated that by the year 2020 the old will outnumber the young and that we will have perhaps between 40 and 50 million people in America who will be old. This is also a worldwide phenomenon. You might say it's the graying of the universe. In 1970 there were 291 million people over 65 in the world population, and it's estimated that by the year 2000 that number will be more than doubled; that there will be 585 million, according to present projection. Just 25 years from now!
The Myths of Aging
There are certain myths that have been reinforced by this society. 1) "Old age is a disease" — a pathological, loathsome state even more repugnant than venereal disease. 2) "Old age is mindless." Education is for the young, we say. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." "Education is for the kids," and "Who do those old folks think they are, going back to school?" There are all kinds of educational opportunities that very few people in proportion to our numbers are taking advantage of. And I think we need to examine very closely why they are not. 3) "Old age is sexless." Adult children have been brain-damaged by that myth. "Mother, at your age — why, the idea — it's preposterous!" "Grandfather — not really!" We get these reactions, instead of a rejoicing that there can be that surge of humanness, a reaching out to another for support and love and esteem. And we too have been brain-damaged to think that sex is not for us. But I'm here to say that it is. 4) "Old age is useless." We build obsolescence into all the things we make. We don't make things to last; we make things to wear out, even before they're paid for. And the same kind of obsolescence rubs off on people. The myth of the uselessness of old age brings us to sharply evaluate the whole meaning of work and play in our society. Abolishing mandatory retirement is just the beginning — it's not the answer and it's not the ultimate solution. I like to think that there can be a whole new view of work, flexible work; that teams of people could do a job; that a couple could share a job and share the maintenance of a home and share some public responsibility. But not all of our waking moments and our energy must be devoted exclusively to earning a living and keeping ourselves alive. There ought to be some leisure, there ought to be sabbatical leaves, there ought to be extended vacations — all kinds of flexible arrangements. This says something very radical to labor unions and corporations and academic institutions that scrap-pile their scholars. 5) "Old age is powerless." We've been conditioned by society to accept the images society has of us; to take ourselves out of any kind of useful place. Women like me often say, "Well, I can't do that anymore; you see, I'm just an old woman. I've done my turn. Let somebody else do it for a change." How many times have you heard that? "I deserve to rest and play and that's what I'm going to do." The prevalence of bingo, shuffleboard and the construction of deplorably tasteless crafts all show how widespread is this myth of powerlessness. Some people are organizing, and new programs are being developed. But we have been conditioned so deeply and so pervasively that it will take an enormous amount of attitudinal changing and redirecting to accept the fact that indeed we do have something to contribute. Indeed that our very losses and weaknesses and complaints and ailments can be the most powerful leverage for change that any human group ever possessed.
Life is a continuum but we divide it into little segments. We need to look at the whole sweep of human existence in order to address the question of age segregation. There's a lot of research saying that old people prefer to live with other old people. But no research has been done to show another frame of mind, or to open the door for an option or even to think in terms of age integration in the way of housing. The "Leisure Worlds" [age-segregated housing communities in Southern California] are turning up all over and people are buying into them because they are afraid to live in their homes. They can't get mortgages to keep their houses up, and there are no alternatives to age-segregated living. It's hard to escape. But it also is a terribly alienating thing. One of these communities I visited has a moat around it. The security offices check you in and out and there's a barbed wire fence around it. It's a sick mentality. I wish instead of age-segregated housing we would put some public money into age-integrated housing run on a cooperative basis. There are empty dormitory rooms as college enrollment declines because of changes in the demographic structure. I'd like to think that those empty dormitory rooms could be peopled with a new mix of people, old and young, living and learning together. It could begin right here in California. One group in Boston got a small foundation grant and was able by pressure to get the banks to lend them money to buy a group of beat-up and damaged old houses. They rehabilitated them and are running them on a cooperative basis, peopled by a mixture of old and young tenants. If we persist in the age-segregated housing that we've got and continue to pile up old people in high-rises, and in the private sector continue to build posher and posher condominiums and retirement communities, what of the future of our society?
The banking institutions of America are still hung up on the old market research that motivates the media: the belief that the dollars are available to people from the ages of 18 to 49, who are the consumers. And I say that market research is about 20 years behind the times. There is more recent indication that old people have a larger percentage of discretionary income than young people. That may seem strange, but we have scrimped and saved and we do know how to get along. Young people are tied to the mortgage of a house. They're tied to the next car payment. Everything they own is in hock. And banks and lending institutions fall all over themselves to lend money in that narrow age group. But once you are retired, forget it. These policies have contributed to the death of old neighborhoods, because if you can't get a loan to put a roof on your house, you move out and it becomes uninhabitable and is boarded up and vandalized. These wasteful banking
Ageism infects and pervades our whole Western society. It infects us, the aging, when we reject our gray hairs, when we take elaborate precautions to keep from even recognizing that we are getting old.
policies and practices just have to be challenged and changed.
I think it's very exciting that sensitive scholars and thinkers and policy analysts are challenging the health system, which is really sickness care. It's not holistic; it's fragmented, it's specialized, and it's just totally inadequate. But together we can devise holistic health centers. We can work in small ways to challenge and change and point the way to large institutional change.
A lot of the research in the gerontology field has been highly paternalistic. The caregivers have become the caretakers, and the providers of services have disassociated themselves from their own humanity. It's
Instead of going about the business of healing this sick society, we're lulling it to sleep with services. We need to see services for the aged for what they really are: novocaine.
"they" and "we." And much of the research that has been done by very sophisticated and well-trained scholars has been about us and for us, not with us. There are increasing numbers of us, we the old folks, who would like to be collaborated with in that kind of analysis. I see that whole mentality as denying the societal effects of aging: the economic and political aspects that are the basis for any kind of change that will come our way.
Much of what we call senility and confusion is not organic brain damage but induced by frustration, despair, sense of loss, and invisibility, which follow inevitably from loss of role and status and place. And much of what we call senility is the result of gross neglect on the part of the medical profession. I've got arthritis in both hands. Once upon a time I hid my hands. Now I flaunt them and I use them as an exaggerated social comment on a medical profession that doesn't know what to do about arthritis — and furthermore doesn't care too much, because of the "What-can-you-expect-at-your-age?" mindset. Something as basic and fundamental as nutrition — undetected malnutrition — will result in irreversible brain damage if it's undiagnosed and untreated. Undetected heart attacks (often painless), kidney infections, other kinds of diseases are physiological causes of brain damage. Now there's a short lead time between the possible detection of those diseases and the onset of confusion and brain damage. If there really could be some wholesale effort to get people in for proper screening and testing before it's too late, we could save ourselves billions of dollars that are now spent on nursing homes and extended care facilities.
Services for the Old
We need to see services for the aged for what they really are: novocaine. They're not really changing anything. They are simply dulling the pain of loss and deprivation and alienation and frustration and despair. They're making it a little easier to deal with, and they're letting society off the hook. Instead of going about the business of healing this sick society, we're lulling it to sleep with services. And unfortunately the misdirected efforts of many of my peers have been to just get more services.
There is a new awareness on the part of the young that they need models. That we and they are together in this. That growing up is just as hard and just as complicated as growing old. And that the same kind of ageism that makes old age a lonely terror makes growing up even in a youth-centered society a pretty tragic business. I like to think that we old folks and the young who are working with us can be the advocates of the people who are trapped in their middle-years careers. You can seldom initiate change without jeopardizing your job and your family. But we who are young and we who are old have nothing to lose. We who are old have everything to gain by taking risks. And I think of us in this dangerous new world as the risk-takers and the initiators of change, daring to think preposterous thought's about a new society — daring to devise new models for our human interactions. And I think we can develop small working models that challenge the system. Gray Power doesn't mean using our large numbers and our growing political awareness exclusively for our own self-interest or just to build another self-serving group. It seems to be most inappropriate when one is shaping oneself to meet one's Maker. If you're going to be accountable for the stewardship of your life before you die, it seems to me you have to transcend your own needs. To close the ranks between the old and the young is to me one of the first orders of business. To close the ranks between the rich and the poor is another order of business. (The old who are rich are seldom deemed old. There's a very subtle class distinction that is economic and that separates the elderly rich from the elderly poor and even from the elderly middle class — because the middle class become the near-poor in their old age.) We need to change our mindsets and to rid ourselves of the kind of cruelness that makes life so complicated for all of us; to develop a new awareness of our own selves and our contributions, but also a public awareness. The remembrance of the past — its pain, its agony, its despair, its triumphs and beauty — can be for society and for each of us a new source of inner strength, and a political tool as well. I've said to many elderly audiences: "Remember the past: the oppression, the hard work, the toil, and let that remind you again of the social justice that our society tosses aside. Never lose sight of what justice is. And justice linked with mercy can turn this society around."