By Regina Salmi, Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan
In 1970, Maggie Kuhn was forced to retire from her job on the day she turned 65. At this time, the mandatory retirement law allowed her employer to make her retire. Maggie felt this was unfair, so she began talking to friends who experienced forced retirement and together they began writing letters, making phone calls, and visiting legislators.
The law enforcing retirement at age 65 wasn’t abolished by Congress until 1986, but it was thanks to Kuhn and her friends bringing awareness to the issue that we are no longer forced out of jobs because of our age. Maggie’s group, dubbed the Gray Panthers, were also at the forefront of nursing home reforms, fighting ageism, and preserving social security until her death in 1995. That same year she was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Maybe we cannot all be Maggie Kuhn, but what we can learn from her legacy is that our age doesn’t have to stop us from having a voice and making a difference in our communities. In fact, Kuhn might argue, no one is going to care more about issues that affect us than we are. Upon her forced retirement, she said, “With this new freedom we have, let’s see what we can do to change the world.” Like Maggie, we all have the opportunity to become advocates, especially those of us who find we have more time on our hands after we choose to retire.
What do we mean by advocacy? The word advocate comes from the Latin ad- meaning “toward” and vox meaning “voice”. When we engage in advocacy, we are lending our voices to a particular issue. The traditional forms of advocacy are to send letters or make phone calls to legislators. AAAWM’s Advocacy Coordinator and Planner, Lacey Charboneau explains, these methods have “stood the test of time” and “neither needs to take much time or prolonged effort.
The best advocacy letters are no longer than one page, include succinct and straightforward facts and end with a call to action of some kind.” In addition to these formal methods of advocacy, email and social media engagement are also becoming effective forms of engaging with decision makers. Charboneau emphasizes though that, “No matter what the issue, or who the audience, there is no more effective way to get your point across than showing up and speaking up in person.”
Millennials may have surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest eligible voting block in the United States in 2018, but Boomers remain a powerful group when it comes to legislative matters. As seniors it is important we recognize the ability we have to create change.
“Older adults are the keepers of vast amounts of experience and knowledge” Charboneau observes, “They have seen and experienced history — both the positive and negative. Older adults should be empowered to share their opinions and thoughts with those in power so we can learn from our past as we move forward.”
According to the AARP, the recent passing of the “Tax Cut and Jobs Act” activated an automatic $25 billion cut to Medicare. As a result of advocacy efforts on the part of seniors, the House and Senate “waived the required cuts as part of a temporary spending bill to prevent a government shutdown.”
Advocacy is often a matter of education. It is important to make legislators aware of the concerns of older adults and how certain policy decisions may affect seniors. As Charboneau says, “No single elected official can be expected to be an expert on everything. It is our responsibility to educate our legislators on the issues that matter to us.”
As long as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security remain the three largest government-funded programs, there will always be a need to build awareness, educate and advocate elected officials.
So, how does one get involved in advocacy? Charboneau advises the first step, “Decide what issue is most important to you.” As you research about that issue, you may find there is already an advocacy group working on the issue and you can join. Maybe your issue is a local one and, like Maggie, you talk with other people affected by this concern and form your own group.
Maybe there are people in your church or senior center who would be interested in forming an advocacy group. AAAWM has an advocacy group called Advocates for Senior Issues if you are in or near Kent county, they welcome new members. There are also nationally recognized groups, like the AARP or AMAC that offer opportunities to get involved in advocacy campaigns. The most important step toward advocacy is to find a way to get involved.