"Maggie Kuhn spoke with some friends, and they all had similar concerns," Eklund says. Mandatory retirement was not the only practice to which they objected. "They wanted to do something about the way older people are viewed by individuals and by society. They didn't like the way they were treated in department stores, for example, how people condescended to them. When they met new people, they thought they were being judged by their looks rather than by their competencies. So they held a public meeting in New York City to talk about the positive contributions of people who are retired. More than a hundred people showed up," Eklund says.
This meeting represented the birth of a seniors' rights organization known as the Gray Panthers, with which Maggie Kuhn remained associated until her death earlier this year at the age of eighty-nine. Though the Gray Panthers had initially rallied around issues of age discrimination, they had a much broader agenda. Eklund says, "One of the primary things that they were concerned about was the Vietnam War. They opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam and decided it would be the first thing they would focus on, at the same time that they were focusing on age discrimination. The way they would do this was to bring together like-minded older and younger people. Young and old began to work together in a variety of ways-- marching on Washington, picketing, writing letters, visiting legislators."
From their beginnings, the Gray Panthers demonstrated a flair for attracting attention to their causes. When the 1971 White House Conference on Aging--a presidentially sponsored event composed of politically appointed delegates from throughout the country--was held in Washington, D.C., the Gray Panthers protested. The racial and social makeup of the delegation, they maintained, did not accurately reflect the diversity of the older population in this society. For example, Eklund says, "there was a lot of concern that the special needs of minority elders were not going to be represented at this conference, and that seemed a form of double discrimination. So the Gray Panthers worked with another new group, the National Caucus on the Black Aged, to hold at the same time as the White House Conference what they called the ‘Black House' Conference on Aging, also in Washington. They got so much publicity that the leaders of the White House Conference on Aging contacted and included representatives from the National Caucus on the Black Aged."
The Gray Panthers' grassroots methods for bringing about awareness and change closely resembled those of other social activist organizations of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with whom they sometimes formed coalitions. The Gray Panthers supported and continue today to support a socially progressive philosophy. But the Gray Panthers' approach has not been the only one, nor even the dominant movement, toward protecting the rights of the elderly in this society.
The most visible, the largest, and the most politically mainstream group is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), founded in 1958, with a membership today of approximately 32 million. Led by Horace B. Deets since 1988, the AARP sponsors programs for seniors at the community level, such as tax assistance and crime prevention classes. It also offers its members a group health insurance plan. But the AARP may be best known for its lobbying efforts on behalf of the interests of senior citizens. In fact, during this year's Congressional debate over budget cuts in federal programs that assist seniors-- especially Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid--the AARP's protests against these cuts led to warnings that the organization was in danger of losing its tax-exempt status.
The federal programs that the AARP defends so vigorously exist as the product of several waves of government-directed social reform that have occurred throughout the history of the nation. The earliest efforts consisted of assistance to the elderly and other needy groups through the collection of mandatory poor taxes, which were levied as long ago as colonial times. "Poor relief primarily went to older people," Eklund says. "There was an idea of shared social responsibility for older adults." In the latter part of the nineteenth century, pension programs, such as the Civil War veterans pension fund, began to appear. It was not until the 1930s, however, that the U.S. government undertook a comprehensive approach to providing financial supplements for the elderly. The Social Security Act of 1935, which was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, enacted pensions for most retired commercial and industrial workers sixty-five years old or older. Through the years, the program has expanded to cover increasing categories of beneficiaries.
"Social Security is an example of a program that has worked and solved the problem that it was set up to address," says Karen Harlow, associate professor of public and environmental affairs and of family medicine on the Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis campus. "Back in the thirties, the Depression era, a number of medical problems were being solved, and people began living longer than they had planned for financially," Harlow says. "When Social Security began, more than a third of all elderly were living at or below the poverty level. Now the poverty rate among elders is down to 12 percent." Harlow credits Social Security, along with increased saving for retirement, for the improved quality of life many elders enjoy. Another advantage for seniors since 1965 has been Medicare.
"Initially Social Security was developed to address the poverty problem," Harlow says. "By the mid-1960s, the political issue was national health insurance. President Lyndon Johnson was trying to pass a national health insurance plan and didn't think he could get it through Congress, so Johnson's compromise was to provide coverage for certain vulnerable groups. The Medicare program, a health insurance plan just for older Americans, was set up within the Social Security Administration because elders were seen as legitimately dependent, as part of the ‘deserving poor.'"
Ironically, as older Americans' quality of life has risen, their image has changed, says Harlow. "Elders have lost their sympathy status. In the media the elderly are no longer portrayed as frail or helpless, which is often appropriate, because many of them are not. They're often portrayed as athletic, as affluent." The new image is not always accurate, however, and Harlow worries about how this image affects public policy. "There is still a large concentration of older people who are extremely vulnerable--for example, very elderly women," Harlow says. "If we take services away from this group, they will have serious problems."
Harlow, who focuses her research on how the government decides to allocate funds for services to needy groups, recognizes that the loss of services for such individuals is a very real threat. "At the same time that we have a growing elderly population and more people needing expensive, long-term health care, our government is attempting to reduce the deficit, in part by cutting spending on federal programs for seniors," she says.
Harlow and Eklund share a concern about those individuals who are not only elderly but who also belong to one or more other groups that are subject to some form of discrimination: women, minority group members, frail or disabled individuals, and others. One of the many missions of IU Bloomington's Center on Aging and Aged, Eklund says, is to work on "maintaining sensitivity to the needs of exceptional aging populations, particularly the developmentally disabled, although we're also concerned about minorities and about rural, isolated elderly." For example, Eklund and co-researcher Barbara Hawkins have been collecting data for eight years on older adults with Down syndrome, many of whom live into their sixties and seventies.
"We sometimes talk about developmentally disabled people being in double jeopardy, because there clearly is evidence of discrimination against both older people and people with disabilities. If they have both conditions, there probably is increased discrimination," Eklund says.
Tony Shepherd, who directs the Area 9 In-Home and Community Services Agency on the IU East campus in Richmond, has found that people do not even have to be older than sixty-five to be subjected to age discrimination. "A typical situation is that of a divorced woman, over fifty-five years old, who did not receive much property in the divorce settlement," Shepherd says. "She may look for a job for a year with no success--because employers are reluctant to hire older workers--and use up her savings. A middle-class woman can go into this cycle and be poverty stricken in a very short time."
Discrimination in hiring exists, Shepherd says, despite evidence from research showing that older workers learn their jobs as quickly as younger workers, stay with companies longer than younger workers, and are more likely to desire part-time positions than younger workers. "Some progressive employers are now beginning to look at older people as an excellent resource," Shepherd says. "For example, the Travelers Insurance Company realized millions in savings with a program for hiring older workers."
Shepherd predicts that attitudes about older workers will continue to become more positive as people stay in the work force longer. "I foresee many more people working into their seventies," he says. The passage of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1986, which eliminated mandatory retirement for most categories of workers, has made it possible for today's older workers, unlike Maggie Kuhn in 1970, to continue in their professions.
Still, Karen Harlow warns, society must establish a better system for meeting the needs of those elders who are unable to work. "Currently 3.5 percent of all elderly have a serious disability, and 5 percent of our population lives in nursing homes," Harlow says. And with over-eighty-five-year-olds as the fastest-growing segment of the population, some debilitating, permanent, and costly health problems such as Alzheimer's disease (which affects up to one in three individuals eighty years old or older) may become more prevalent. Harlow predicts that the U.S. government or individual states eventually will institute some form of universal health insurance, which will help to address such problems. "We are the only major industrial country that doesn't have national health insurance," she says. "In all of the national polls, there is majority support for it."
It is important, however, that elders not be viewed primarily as consumers of expensive government services. Harlow, Shepherd, and Eklund all assert that this portrayal is inaccurate. "Older people aren't just takers," Eklund says. "They're also givers." As an example, Eklund cites many intergenerational programs, including one being developed by the Center on Aging and Aged, which enable seniors to be involved in the education and care of young children. "I have seen political attempts to pit seniors' interests against those of other groups in this society," Shepherd says, "particularly the needs of children. Older people are not selfish. They care about the next generations. They are probably the most patriotic group. They have fought in wars; they've made it through the Depression. We have many seniors who are raising their grand-children. As the baby boomers age, they are beginning to see that we need the programs that serve older people, especially their aging parents."
All three of these faculty members find the amount of progress that elders have made in this century to be encouraging, and they see positive signs for the future, as this group (to which everyone aspires to belong) grows in size, in well-being, and in political strength. Harlow notes that people in the over-sixty-five-year-old population continue to get healthier as the group expands.
"About 12 percent of the U.S. population is now over sixty-five," Eklund says. "By the year 2030, it will be roughly 20 percent. If these people are like today's elders, they will vote in greater numbers than any other age group. There's no good evidence, however, that older people vote alike. So although there is potential for this to be a very strong coalition, there is also a great deal of diversity among older people, just as among people in any age group."
Shepherd envisions a future in which society will eliminate many current constraints on elders: medical breakthroughs that will prevent or cure Alzheimer's disease and other disabilities, less expensive treatment techniques, and new technologies that will enable seniors to live more independent lives. "In the future we may not be throwing up our hands and saying, 'How are we going to take care of these older people?'" he says. "Older people will be taking care of themselves."