Remember the Gray Panthers? They were real troublemakers. Sometimes I wish we had more Gray Panthers in our midst.
In August of 1970, a group of five friends in Philadelphia, PA, (all of whom were retiring from national religious and social work organizations) met to look at the common problems faced by retirees; loss of income, loss of contact with associates and loss of one of our society’s most distinguishing social roles, a job.
They also talked about the discovery of a new kind of freedom in their retirement — the freedom to speak personally and passionately about what they believed in. Since then, local networks and conveners of Gray Panthers have been established throughout the United States and they have a national policy office in Washington, DC.
Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers, was one of the original troublemakers. Maggie has been quoted as saying “Power should not be concentrated in the hands of so few and powerlessness in the hands of so many.” Maggie saw the role of older adults as “watch dogs” that “bark” when danger is near. True to Maggie’s spirit, today the Gray Panthers continue to fight “truth decay” and know that they are most effective when they are armed with the facts and not afraid to assertively express themselves.
The Gray Panthers remain committed to working for social and economic justice and peace for all people and espouse the vision of creating a humane society that puts the needs of people over profits, responsibility over power, and democracy over institutions. Their values emphasize honoring maturity, unifying the generations, active engagement, and participatory democracy.
Older adults have the advantage of having accumulated a great deal of practical and specialized experiences and wisdom over the course of their lives. Within indigenous communities (for example, aboriginal communities in Australia) elders are seen to hold a place of great honor. In many respects they are considered to be the foundation– the glue that keeps the community together. In a sense, elders are seen to be living history books and a valuable reference source for the stories, the language, the traditions, and the culture of the communities in which they have lived their lives. Such a perspective, unfortunately, can be easily overlooked in the hustle and bustle of daily life. We all bear both public and personal responsibility to not let that happen. Instead, the contributions and wisdom that comes with life needs to be recognized and respected.
To not express your views and opinions when the opportunities arise shortchanges you as well as those around you. Among the ways that expressing those views is best displayed is through active civic participation. There are some interesting programs that support older adults who have something to say. We could learn from them. In Britain, the “Speaking Up For Our Age” program provides start-up and development grants and support to older adults who would like to start an online forum. The organization “Age UK” works with older adults who want to set up a forum by: giving practical support, providing grants, sending newsletters, and holding conferences and training sessions across the United Kingdom. The benefits of these “senior forums” are seen to include: enabling elders to self-advocate their concerns and affect government policies. They use forums either as a social outlet online or to organize social events, and to give seniors a collective voice (source: ageuk.org.uk). In Atlanta, Georgia, the Positive Aging Lifestyles (PALS) Training Program gears its training workshops to giving self-confidence, balance, and power back to older adults. PALS reminds elders of their wisdom, experience and value and teaches them how to balance mind, body, and spirit so they can maximize their quality of life, increase their self-confidence, and be powerful contributors to their communities and society (Source: www.centerforpositiveaging.org).
How can we insure that our voices are heard? Sometimes you might need to be assertive in expressing yourself because you might not be encouraged to ask questions or invited to speak by others. This can happen all too often when seeing your health care professional, attending town meetings, or just participating in a family gathering.
Above and beyond speaking up for what you believe in, there are a variety of ways in which we can be heard publicly.
1) One way is to write letters to the editor of your local newspaper and your city and state government officials. Recognize what is being done right and express your concerns for what you feel is being done wrong.
2) You could spend a day at the capital meeting your legislators and sharing your views on the issues of the day.
3) Why not attend town hall, city council, or school board meeting and keep abreast of the issues impacting your community.
4) Nowadays, technology can be extremely helpful in enabling you to express yourself. Consider starting a blog online or contributing to other blogs that are dealing with issues of interest to you. Blogging can be done from the comfort of your home at any time of the day or night.
5) Why not consider running for election to your local town council or planning board, school board, or even state legislature.
6) Perhaps also consider serving on the boards or advisory councils of organizations in your community that address issues of interest to you.
Too often elder advocates are assumed to be people other than older adults themselves. The assumption is that elder advocates are human service professionals who speak for and protect older people. Often these advocates are social workers and other helping professionals who are especially trained to insure that older adult’s needs are met, services are funded and obtained, and a person’s civil rights are protected. That is all well and good especially when you are incapacitated or overwhelmed by the challenges of daily life. But that does not mean that you should not bear responsibility for yourself when you have the capacity and wherewithal to do just that.
There is no scarcity of issues nowadays that you are likely to have opinions about because they are issues that affect us, our families, and the communities in which we live on a personal level including health care, Social Security, Medicare, economic security, transportation, housing, insurance, and community safety, to name just a few.
Being an effective advocate for yourself is going to be largely determined by the extent to which you know the facts about particular issues and can share those facts clearly and convincingly with others. Oh, and by the way, older adults who function as advocates not only can make their own lives and others better, but can also debunk some of those persistent myths that suggest old people are just passive recipients of the actions (good or bad) undertaken by others.
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) has some very good resources and tip sheets in their Advocacy Toolkit (http://www.ncoa.org/public-policy-action/advocacy-toolkit/) that you might want to look at. You will find easy to digest guidelines on: understanding the issues that affect older adults; how to be an effective advocate outside of Washington, DC; how to find legislators, write to Congress, and get elected officials to attend your event; tips for making successful visits to members of Congress; how to make your trip to a town hall meeting successful; and tips for contacting the media and getting your views printed in the newspaper.
Regardless of your point of view or your political affiliation, you have a right to be heard. And, don’t think that you should always leave the responsibility of voicing your concerns to organized lobbying groups. While there are many of them at the state and national level (including AARP), they necessarily will have a long list of issues on their plate that compete for their attention. There is no guarantee they will be tuned in to issues that are affecting you or concern you at the local level on any given day.
So listen. Don’t let others drown your voice out or always speak for you. Let’s grow old on our own terms. And, by all means, don’t go quietly into the night. Cause a ruckus. You’ve earned the right. Take a lesson from Maggie Kuhn who believed, “Old age is an excellent time for outrage. My goal is to say or do one outrageous thing everyday.”
Dr. Len Kaye is the Director of the University of Maine Center on Aging and a professor at the University of Maine School of Social Work.