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Maggie Kuhn, 86, Still Stirs Consciousness : Gray Panthers: She is proud of her involvement in civil rights, peace, labor, environmental movements.

March 08, 1992|A.J. HOSTETLER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PHILADELPHIA — It's been more than two decades since Maggie Kuhn was asked to retire, and got her revenge by founding the Gray Panthers. Now she and the organization she formed for those not ready to give in to old age are examining their accomplishments.

"We have begun to shape and shake up an ageist society," Kuhn, 86, said. "We have begun to celebrate age, not deny it. Old age is a triumph and I think we have made that case."

Last fall, Kuhn's book, "No Stone Unturned: The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn," was published. It tells her own story against the backdrop of 20th-Century changes: the women's movement, the labor movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement and the environmental movement.

It includes a discussion of her sexual and romantic encounters, from her college days through her eighth decade. Kuhn, who never married, writes of a 15-year relationship with a married minister and an affair with a man 50 years her junior she met when he was a University of Washington student.

Sexuality is "the material of life and to deny it in old age is to deny life itself," Kuhn said in explaining the inclusion of such personal details.

In a recent interview, Kuhn, sat patting the cat perched on the sofa beside her. Her gray wool suit topped purple tights and black Nikes, and she often punched the air with an arthritic, clenched fist.

Making life meaningful for the elderly is more of a challenge now than when Kuhn's group of retired activists was dubbed the Gray Panthers by a television producer, she said.

"The human life span has almost doubled since the turn of the century. The challenge is, what are you supposed to do with that when you're supposed to retire" halfway through life.

The Gray Panthers must ensure that people find a goal for the second half of their lifetime, she said. In its first 21 years, the Gray Panthers helped change society's views of aging and the elderly, she said.

"We've had enormous success. We've made the case for a connection with the youth. Age and youth in action," she said, repeating the Panther motto. "And doing away with the rigid segregation based on age" that violates that continuity of life she so values.

"With discontinuity, you get disunity. The trauma of social change is very hard for some people to take, so the continuity of life gives you a way of dealing with social change without being disrupted by it," said Kuhn.

The Panthers now are tackling such issues as older workers and the health care and prison systems.

Kuhn said she worries about the fallout from "merger mania" and the recession, in which older, more experienced workers are fired to make room for younger, less costly employees.

And dying in today's high-technology health care environment worries her, she said, so much so that she ended her autobiography with her hopes for a peaceful death.

Her "death with dignity" philosophy was formed when her comatose brother was kept alive for several days before being allowed to die. She has tried to make sure that kind of ordeal won't happen to her. Her lawyer, minister and physician have co-signed her living will.

But until then, the Gray Panthers and Kuhn will keep challenging society, she said. "I'm going to be outrageous till the end."

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