Life in Community

The Gray Panthers Strike Again

October 19, 2020 by

Six months ago when every corner of our lives saw upheaval and change, we took measures to protect the most vulnerable members of our families and communities. For many of us young people, that meant not visiting our grandparents and other elderly friends and family. And of course for millions of seniors, that meant missing those drop-ins and dinner parties, grandkids and graduations. But many did not sit idle. Their resilience served notice to our society that we must either acknowledge and celebrate their potential, or reckon with it.

A recent New York Times piece on the Gray Panthers shared the little-known organization’s fiery past and accomplishments under its founder and long-time leader, Maggie Kuhn. Best known as a vocal advocate for the rights of American seniors, Kuhn’s Gray Panthers battled against all forms of “disengagement” – the notion that the elderly should and would exit general society as they become less economically productive. Kuhn is famous for her attack on disengagement theory, bristling at the idea that older people should be simply recreating at home instead of contributing to society. The Panthers were instrumental in the 1986 Congressional ruling that broadly protected senior citizens from mandatory retirement. The Gray Panthers also protested against stereotypes in pop culture, the Vietnam War, and President Reagan’s proposed Social Security cuts, while promoting compassion and improved services for their frailer contemporaries. They worked to expose abuses in long-term care facilities and organized with their “Panther Cub” partners to harness youthful energy for their cause. Kuhn’s insistence on including young people is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Gray Panthers’ activities. In fact, the organization’s motto, “Age and youth in action,” is a nod to Kuhn’s work with activists of all ages. She did not simply lobby for her own age bracket, but rather saw the unique ability of the “elders of the tribe” to “transcend special interests and seek public interests” so that the whole tribe could survive.

coupleJohn and Joanie Trapnell at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales, Australia

In an era of renewed political and social unrest, I wonder what the role of intergenerational activism might be. It’s tough to find one civil cause to unite our country, and perhaps dangerous to do so, but in a divided world, sometimes simply reaching out is a good beginning. After all, bridging gaps on the family, friend, and neighborhood level is sometimes the best way to start a ripple of change. My late uncle John was an energetic friend of everyone he met, especially reaching out during the last weeks of his life. The friendships between John and the young men who cared for him demonstrated the value of reaching across generations to touch a heart or guide a soul. More than a few times I stopped by his room for a “quick visit” – only to be there an hour later, still absorbing advice and trying to decline another shot of whatever was going strong that afternoon. John demonstrated through his generosity and genuine interest in others how to inspire change by example.

Nobody who knows John’s wife, Joanie, would call her old, but those same people would doubtless acknowledge her wisdom. Visiting her a few days ago, I asked Joanie her thoughts on the Gray Panthers and their accomplishments under Maggie Kuhn. “I was especially impressed by the protections she won for retirement age citizens who want to keep working,” Joanie commented, noting that in our community work places, department coordinators utilize the talents of community members of all ages, adapting work settings and job responsibilities to accommodate everyone who wants to work. And disengagement? Forget it. “If I want to play cards,” quipped Joanie, “I’m not going to look for somebody my age. I just want to make sure my opponent is old enough to drink wine, and young enough for me to beat!” Though you’ll sooner find my aunt in her garden than at the card table, I see a challenge thrown down for any takers when the weather sends us indoors.

And when that weather does send us indoors, we young people need to remember those among us for whom the dropping mercury brings a renewed fear of isolation and loneliness. So jump on that Zoom, pick up that phone, or wave through that window, and do your part to keep community alive in your neighborhood. But, as Maggie Kuhn showed, we young people might just have our work cut out for us keeping up with the inspirations of our seniors. Remember, “age and youth in action” is what keeps the tribe alive.


Peter Hinkey lives at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in Rifton, New York

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