This Country Needs More Radical Grandmas

Why every protest movement benefits from an old lady brandishing a cane.

Back in November 2011—back when the crisp winds of change seemed to crackle in New York’s smoggy air and camping space at Zuccotti Park was nearing a premium—Fast Company published a demographic study of Occupy Wall Street. Conducted by a Baruch College professor and a business intelligence analyst (both supporters of Occupy), the study relied on a survey of 5,006 visitors to Some results of the survey were in keeping with the public’s perception of the movement (81 percent of respondents were white, 60.2 percent college-educated). Others weren’t (47 percent had full-time jobs). But one result in particular seemed intriguingly incongruous: A full 32 percent of site visitors were over the age of 45. For a movement that has consistently built its image on the young, restless and angry, that’s a surprising number of graying supporters.

But then, this was an Internet poll—anyone over the age of 45, or for that matter 65 (one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S., by the way) could express their support from the relative comfort of their own computers, rather than the cold pavement of Zuccotti Park. How many older supporters of the movement—all of whom, from youthful 45 to aged 105 were included in that 32 percent—would actually have the physical ability and will to sleep on concrete night after night; to participate bodily in what was probably the most dramatic political demonstration of physical solidarity, direct democracy and human vs. material capital we’ve seen in decades. Yes, elders could (and sometimes did) march. They could (and sometimes did) contribute their money, time and expertise, and voice their opinions in General Assembly. But the realities of camping on asphalt, of partaking in the physical act of occupation, fundamentally excluded most aging bodies.

I’m sure this was not the movement’s intention. But I’m also sure that, regardless of intention, our culture routinely marginalizes, undervalues and infantilizes the elderly. We are infatuated with youth, obsessed with buying and eating and generally consuming in order to forget for a second the reality of death. And as a result, we’ve effectively forced our elders into redundancy, corralling them in retirement homes and generally trying to forget their existence as much as possible.

Do I exaggerate? Only slightly. Aren’t I scared of dying, too? Well, yeah, sure. But do I believe our current system of eldercare is functional, equitable and for the good of society in general? Not a chance. I choose to lay my allegiance at the feet of the Gray Panthers. Or, more particularly, Maggie Kuhn.

If you don’t know who Maggie Kuhn is already, you should. You really should. A longtime resident of West Philadelphia until her death in 1995, Maggie was perhaps the most fearless, flinty and influential age advocate in America. In 1970, at the age of 65, she was forced into retirement from a job she loved. Angry and saddened by the loss of such purposeful work, she rallied together five of her friends who had been made similarly redundant and formed an organization that came to be known as the Gray Panthers.

The Panthers “prowled” (and indeed still prowl) against injustice, first and foremost. Though brought together around elder rights, they joined with student groups to protest the Vietnam War and other issues; their motto is “Age and Youth in Action.” Maggie was a driving force behind this intergenerational cooperation. As she put it in an interview reprinted recently on Huffington Post, “I believe that women and old people represent society’s least tapped energy source … When we are kept apart from those who will live on after us, we deprive ourselves and we also deprive the young; our society is correspondingly weaker because we have not lived together.”

Maggie lived according to her principles—communally, in a big old Victorian in West Philly with younger people of all ages and genders, every member of her intergenerational family contributing chores and taking on responsibilities to serve one another. And she insisted, again and again, “We who are older have enormous freedom to speak out, and equally great responsibility to take the risks that are needed to heal and humanize our sick society.” She saw herself and her fellow elders as “testers of new lifestyles,” “builders of new coalitions,” “watchdogs and watchbitches of public bodies, guardians of public interest and good,” and “monitors of corporate power and responsibility.”

Maggie was a visionary: “We are a new breed of old people,” she prophesied. And as the over-65s gradually overtake the young in sheer numbers, she has in many ways been proven right: Aging in this country is changing, has already changed dramatically. Old people are working longer (mandatory retirements like Maggie’s are almost a distant memory) and living much longer than ever before.

But Maggie’s vision of the elderly as wise and bold risk-takers with nothing to lose, leaders and advisers in radical revolution, is far from becoming a broad-based reality. In fact, as David Leonhart argued in last Sunday’s New York Times review,

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, younger and older adults voted in largely similar ways, with a majority of each supporting the winner in every presidential election. Sometime around 2004, though, older voters began moving right, while younger voters shifted left. This year, polls suggest that Mitt Romney will win a landslide among the over-65 crowd and that President Obama will do likewise among those under 40.

Beyond political parties, the two have different views on many of the biggest questions before the country. The young not only favor gay marriage and school funding more strongly; they are also notably less religious, more positive toward immigrants, less hostile to Social Security cuts and military cuts and more optimistic about the country’s future. They are both more open to change and more confident that life in the United States will remain good.

Clearly, the radicalization of the old is not going very well. And while I’m sure some of it has to do with the natural fiscal and sometimes social conservativism that tends to arise once you’ve got a little money and want to protect it, I know for a fact that it’s possible. I know because the woman I chose to call Grandma died last year at 92, and spent every Friday afternoon she could manage leading anti-war demonstrations by the side of the highway she lived on, waving her cane and holding up signs like “Honk to Exit Iraq!” She was a consummate matriarch, a mother to all strays and hitchhiking passers-by, and she was a force for radical change until the day she died.

So I can’t help but think that if we as a society made space for a broader, more inclusive and respectful definition of our elders—if we padded up the concrete a little to allow for old and wise bones—we might begin to see age as Maggie Kuhn did, as “a universalizing factor, enabling us to close ranks among the young and old, black and white, rich and poor–to form coalitions of power and shared humanity.”