Frontlines

Panther in her prime

Peter Carlyle-Gordge December 3 1979
Frontlines

Panther in her prime

Peter Carlyle-Gordge December 3 1979

Panther in her prime

Frontlines

Peter Carlyle-Gordge

Tow-and-a-half million Canadians, roughly 11 per cent of the population, are aged 65 and over; by the year 2000 their ranks will have swelled by an extra half-million. Birthrates are in decline and pension experts fret and warn of serious things to come—of a vast retired, dependent population that will have to be carried on the backs of an overtaxed, overworked and dwindling population of workers. But that scenario is being challenged. In increasing numbers, elders are resisting the

legal compulsion to retire at age 65taking much of their inspiration from a spirited American iconoclast and leader of the Gray Panther movement.

“Admittedly the outlook on paper is bleak,” says Maggie Kuhn, 74, spry and optimistic as she pecks daintily on a grilled cheese sandwich at Winnipeg’s Delta Marlborough Hotel. “But, you know, I’m a great believer in divine intervention. Some unknown factor always turns up to change the course of history. My own outlook once was dim and look at me now.”

Look indeed: feted by the media, showered with awards, appointed to powerful committees, a world traveller, internationally known as the founder and guider of a movement that was waiting to be invented by the right person at the right time. But Maggie Kuhn—whose recent speaking tour was an attempt to boost Canadian “panthers”—also knows the feel of the human scrap heap.

After a lifetime of fighting just causes, she ended up at the end of her “normal” career working in the na-

tional office of the United Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. She thought she was in her prime, but by the book she was over the hill. “In 1970 I was to turn 65 and they were kind enough to warn me I’d have to go,” she says. “I cried for a month. It seemed so unjust to just cut me off because I had reached a fixed point in chronology.”

After the black despair came the grey rebellion. Kuhn began to organize, together with five other elders similarly

cut off. The Gray Panthers, now a 10,000-strong national body, was conceived and born, and with it Kuhn was reborn. “Gray Panthers was styled on the radical approach of the Black Panthers, and it could only be born when we got over self-pity. We decided the world was screwed up, but that if we cared enough we could perhaps help to change it.”

Initially, the intergenerational lobby group waged war on the futile war in

Vietnam. Naturally, it also fought for an end to mandatory retirement, a humane health care system and an end to enforced poverty for the retired on fixed and declining (through inflation) incomes. “We are fighting agism,” says Kuhn. “The grey revolution is out of the closet and I’ll fight to change the system as long as I’m able.”

Gray Panthers, based at her Philadelphia home, now publishes its own national newsletter, actively lobbies Congress and maintains a “media watch,” attacking any commercials or articles that stereotype old people, much as feminists attack commercial putdowns.

The grey revolution in Canada, she feels, is on a par with that in the U.S.: elders—she detests the patronizing term “senior citizens”—are finally coming of age, recognizing the discrimination perpetrated on them and gradually becoming aware of their political power. She sees one major plus for Canada’s elders in universal medicare. “We are still fighting against a medical empire in the U.S. that delivers fat profits to a few but is basically inhumane,” she says. “Canadians should fight tooth and nail to stop any government attempts to dilute their health care system. It’s one of the finest.”

She’s delighted too with a handful of Human Rights Commission decisions in Canada that have ruled against mandatory retirement at 65: “Mandatory retirement is a massive social waste and destroys individuals,” she seethes. “Only Maine and California have outlawed it but reality may force companies to abandon the policy even before governments do. Several large companies are now calling back seasoned employees who were pensioned off. They’ve finally realized that in times of trouble the aged and experienced may have wisdom to contribute.”

The thrust of her movement has always been intergenerational: “If we lobby only for the rights of elders the governors will play us off against the kids,” observes the political realist. “We must form coalitions with many groups, many age levels, if we’re to make the world more sane. We can take people to the moon but we can’t get a bus for handicapped people to ride. That’s what I call screwed-up technology.”

Her travels are not without purpose. In Winnipeg to address a conference on “The Senior Boom—Our New Society,” she urges 250 delegates to pester politicians “like hell.” “Don’t miss a single council meeting. Let administrators know you’re watching them and taking notes,” she urges. Her audience is highly attentive even though she states

the obvious—few have stated it before so clearly.

The politicians are there, too. Newly elected federal Liberal MP Lloyd Axworthy tells the upturned grey heads that seniors today are more educated, more aware and physically healthier than at any time in the past. And although he is well received, these are the grandmotherhood issues. Where is the meat? Dutifully, a spokesman for Manitoba Health Minister Bud Sherman enters and begins to carve. He proudly announces the formation of a special committee to advise the government on future directions it should take to cope with the dimly defined problem of castoff elders. Kuhn’s presence has again produced some kind of acknowledgment and commitment. “This may be an important step and may provide the type of social, critical analysis our society needs,” she says. “It’s a beginning.”

Her speech over, Kuhn is tired and remembers her arthritis: “Did you know,” she says with the wide-eyed awe of a child who has just learned a new fact at school, “that the dinosaurs had arthritis? They’re certain of that from examination of bones. Perhaps it contributed to their extinction.”

That gem imparted, she lambastes the nuclear energy industry, the polluters of the land and greedy monopolists—in no particular order. She never attacks people by name, just ideas and their supporters. Last year in England, however, she did trade verbal insults with union leader Jack Jones—“He didn’t like my ideas and I didn’t like his and we hollered and had great fun”—

but she isn’t bitter or vindictive. In late September she also stood with Jane Fonda before 200,000 anti-nuclear protesters in New York and added the weight and wisdom of her years to the idealism and energy of the youthful cohorts. “It just blew my mind seeing so many people so opposed to messing with our future,” says Kuhn. Her adaptation to younger generations goes beyond colloquial expressions—she now admits that trial marriages no longer produce in her a Presbyterian angst.

The movement she founded gathered so much steam that in 1973 Ralph Nader’s Retired Professional Action Group threw its lot in with her and merged. The importance of the Gray Panthers was recognized in the 1972 presidential campaign when George McGovern made her a member of his Advisory Board on Aging. Her personal dynamism has been acknowledged with a pile of degrees and awards, including U.S. Humanist of the Year; her personality has been captured in a documentary: Maggie Kuhn: Wrinkled Radical.

All this after being told she was “finished.”

“I am proud of my wrinkles and I’ve earned them,” she says with gusto. “Elders should be proud, not apologetic.” Practically, she would like North Americans to start learning something from ethnic minorities who still believe in the extended family—not necessarily a family of blood relationship. A spinster, she shares her own home with eight others ranging in age from 22 to 74. The others pay rent or provide services in kind, but the human living experience, she says, is fantastic: “I just wish elder ladies with homes would consider doing what I did and they’d soon forget loneliness and start living. Age can cut people off, but it doesn’t have to.” This winter she and her lodgers will construct a solar greenhouse. Her eyes gleam with anticipation.

The household is shared by others too—a poodle, two tanks of fish, 150 plants and a trio of eccentric cats: Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Loving Puss, or LP for short. It is, to hear it, a happy, fulfilled household. A very human family.

“We have to stop shutting people in boxed-in nursing homes,” says Kuhn. “We have to begin sharing again. If there must be nursing homes then at least let them be built with public and shared areas. The massive paternalism of the ‘helping’ professions hasn’t always helped. The aged need to see and meet the young. We’re all getting older, after all.”

She is, unquestionably, a lady in her prime.