Charlotte and Emily are cats. They belong to Margaret E. Kuhn, a little old lady living comfortably in the suburbs of Philadelphia. ‘It’s lovely here’, sighs Ms Kuhn, serving me with tuna salad and herbal tea. ‘In the summer we just live on the back porch. It’s such a pity I’m away so much.’
Last year Maggie Kuhn travelled 100,000 miles on a schedule that would quicken the step of the Secretary of State himself. And the purpose of her journeys was no less political.
‘Wrinkled radical’ is a label Maggie happily accepts. Aged 76, she is definitely wrinkled. And her reputation as a radical has been earned by ten years organising the Gray Panthers. Today, the Panthers are a 60,000-strong network of young and old Americans campaigning, not just against ‘ageism’, but for all kinds of change — from free medicine to nuclear disarmament.
‘Ageism,’ explains Maggie, ‘is the stereotyping and discrimination of people on the basis of age.’ It doesn’t just apply to the over-sixties. But that is where it hits hardest. The ‘Detroit Syndrome’ Maggie calls it. ‘Only the newest model is desirable. The old are condemned to obsolescence; left to rot like wrinkled babies in glorified playpens — forced to succumb to a trivial, purposeless waste of their years and their time.’
The Panthers argue that ageism is a condition of society that will not be cured by concentrating on the needs of the elderly alone. ‘We’re not hung up on old folks’ issues and we’re not delivering services like meals on wheels,’ explains Maggie. ‘We’re trying to find the root causes of the alienation that brings about the need for those services.’
But the Panthers still tend to focus on issues that affect the elderly — ‘our exaggerated needs and our infirmities are levers for social change’ — but always with an eye to a better deal for everyone. ‘The health issue is a classic case,’ she says. ‘Health affects everybody — the unborn and the dying. Change policies on health and you automatically change attitudes towards ageing’.
The plight of the elderly is symptomatic of injustice in society as a whole. The Panthers believe that when these injustices have been addressed a society will have been created in which ageism disappears automatically.
‘It began with just six of us,’ Maggie remembers. ‘We decided we needed some kind of collective project just to keep us alive after we retired. So we got together to find a responsible way of using our new freedom. And we chose the Vietnam War.’
It was the perfect issue. ‘We met the kids on campus,’ she recalls. ‘It was so exciting.’ That was over ten years ago. Now she’s a public figure. ‘I’m humbled, proud and surprised by the standing ovations.’
Today the Gray Panthers are convinced that the central issue is preventing World War III. ‘We’ve got a bloated military budget. The Reagan Administration are not cutting expenditure — they are transferring it from things that are human and compassionate to things that are crass and arrogant. Reagan is a mediocre thinker — a class B actor at best. And Haig is a paranoid. They don’t have the transcendence in their spirit to look for peace.’
Maggie’s crusading spirit is richest when it comes to old people’s feelings about themselves. She accuses the Western world of ‘gerontophobia’ — a pathological fear of old people and of ageing. The young hate the old and the old hate themselves. Only the cosmetics industry profits — from sales of dye for grey hair, makeup to cover brown agespots, and face lifts for those who can afford them.
‘To be ashamed of your age is a denial of yourself, of your history’, argues Maggie, ‘It’s like throwing away twenty years of your life.’ She wants people to see ageing in a different light. ‘Life can begin at 60 if that’s what you want. The past is prologue. Now is the time to look forward.’
‘Sort out your life,’ she argues. ‘Review what you’ve done and be strengthened by it. You’ve conquered, you’ve suffered, you’ve triumphed over suffering. You’ve healed yourself of diseases; your broken bones have mended Your own history fortifies you — don’t deny your history.’
As for her own history: ‘I’ve had the best of both worlds,’ she grins, ‘some fighting jobs and a great love life.’ She never married — choosing a lifelong career with the church instead. Now, having nursed her mother and brother on their death beds, the man with whom she had a secret 15-year love affair is decaying in an old folks’ home. She no longer visits him — he doesn’t recognise her.
Today she holds up her misshapen hands — ‘like a badge’ — and explains that, although she has survived three bouts of cancer, the cold weather still aggravates her arthritis. ‘But we have a healing brain,’ she says. ‘And we must use it.’
Two members of the Gray Panthers’ executive also have cancer. One recently completed a three month trip to England. ‘A triumph!’ exclaims Maggie. ‘Another person would have said "I can’t do that— I’m going to die".’
Maggie believes old age should be the time of greatest personal liberation: ‘It’s the time for the mind and spirit to flourish. The body may be tired but you can always reach out to new ideas and new ways of thinking.’
And she works hard to put her beliefs into practice. After buying a pair of three storey stucco houses, she started sharing with six others — aged between 20 and 40 — who pay rent to help maintain their joint household. ‘We’ve created an alternative family here,’ she explains, anxious to counter any preconceptions about ‘hippy’ communes, ‘and I like to think we can replicate it.’
So part of the house has become a Shared Housing Resource Centre. The aim is to change housing policy and raise bank loans so that fewer old women are left to die alone in their decaying houses. ‘But old people’s attitudes have to change too’ she says — and tells the story of a friend whose hip operation went wrong and confined her to a single room in her big old house. ‘She’s so demanding,’ complains Maggie. ‘If only she’d think of sharing instead of just saying "take care of me".’
‘You see, it’s very important that old people get their heads turned around and reach out to the young — because the young and the old are in the same predicament.’ Both are poor, dependent and seldom taken seriously. They are kept out of the workforce, in conflict with adults and in trouble with the banks. Young and old even have the same drug problems: ‘The pushers are different, but both are addicts.’
The Panthers believe that old and young will be the first to find a common interest in combating ageism. But the old have a special advantage in the fight ‘Nobody can tell us to shut up,’ says Maggie. ‘We can be as radical as we want.’
‘And there is room for anger. But you must channel your rage. My goal — until the rigor mortis sets in — is to do one outrageous thing every week. Like putting sequins around my age spots.’
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