Radical Aging, Part 1: The Legacy of Maggie Kuhn

This past year I’ve been reading everything I can find about the aging activist and founder of the Grey Panthers – Maggie Kuhn. After being forced into retirement by the Presbyterian Church, Kuhn devoted her life to linking the challenges faced by older adults to larger fights against war and military spending, environmental sustainability, anti-racist movements, sexual liberation, and economic justice.

Maggie Kuhn

Maggie Kuhn – TFBA

She advocated direct and confrontational political action centered in the perspectives and strengths of older adults. She says in her autobiography, “I’ve never been able to turn down a good cause. When I worked for the YWCA and the Presbyterian Church, I came to see all injustices, no matter how small or seemingly unrelated, as linked.”

She also had a killer sense of humor. How can you not love a woman who requested that her headstone read:

Here lies Maggie Kuhn under the only stone she left unturned

Kuhn never let us forget that our society has failed to protect its most vulnerable members. She was relentless in her criticism of our leaders for spending money on war and corporate welfare rather than building aging infrastructure. As she put it in a dialogue with religious leaders, “services are really novocaine shots, unless they sensitize people to the needs for social change” (Maggie Kuhn on Aging 1977, 25).

Aging network services are stretched thin caring for the current generation of older adults, and those of us in the field are keeping an anxious eye on the runaway train known as the Baby Boomer generation, all 76 million of whom will soon be needing a lot of care.

Many people are tired of talking about Boomers. I admit, it can be hard to drum up a lot of sympathy for the folks who are a large part of Voldemort’s rise to power, and who often vote against the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, and other programs patching together the fraying social safety net into which they’re about to tumble.


Me whenever Boomers freak out about “socialism”

Boomer Fatigue is exactly why we all need to read Kuhn. She’s helped me realize that the aging Boomers present an unprecedented opportunity to politicize and radicalize older adults. Now more than ever we need to find ways to make sure older adults are part of the struggles for racial justice and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, prison abolition, economic justice, Queer liberation, environmentalism, de-colonization, and struggles against neoliberalism. Now is the time to support a generation of older activists that are radical in vision, tactics, and goals.

The Right has already played into their fear, it’s time for the Left to give voice to their anger.

So what does that look like? Again, Kuhn can help us. In that same conversation with religious leaders (Maggie Kuhn on Aging 1977, 91-3) Kuhn noted that “We who are older have enormous freedom to speak out… we can take on entirely new roles–dangerous roles” at which point she lists the following seven roles for older activists:

  1. Testers of new lifestyles
  2. Builders of new coalitions
  3. Watchdogs of public bodies—guardians of the public interest and common good
  4. Advocates for consumers’ rights and whistle blowers on fraud, corruption, and poor services
  5. Monitors of corporate power and responsibility
  6. Healers of a sick society
  7. Critical analysts of contemporary society and planners for its future directions—shrewdly assessing our materialism and the ersatz values of our plastic world!

Over the next several months I will take up each of these roles and articulate what they could mean in the current political landscape. I will highlight work already being done by older activists, and also signal places of undeveloped connection between older adults and different movements. Along the way we will discuss things like care robots, Social Security, feminist critiques of nursing homes, reproductive justice, queer sex, why every single one of us should volunteer at Meals on Wheels, and the many older adult activists who are pissed off and making some noise.

I hope these posts get you thinking about aging as a social justice opportunity, and if anyone would like to bring a movement or leader to my attention, collaborate on a post, or start a political action, please let me know in the comments!

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