Ed and Ashton Applewhite: A Conversation about Ageism

Photo By: Adrian Buckmaster

Ashton Applewhite was recently named Influencer of the Year by Next Avenue atop their list of 50 Influencers of Aging for 2016. A writer based in Brooklyn, New York, Ashton is the author of the recently released (and enthusiastically reviewed) This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Applewhite blogs at her website, This Chair Rocks, has written for Harper’s, Playboy, and the New York Times, and is also the voice of Yo, Is This Ageist?. Since 2012, Applewhite has been speaking widely about how ageism makes aging in America so much harder than it has to be, as well as about the medicalization of old age, ageism and elder abuse, and the effects of ageism on women’s lives. She has been named as a Fellow by the Knight Foundation, the New York Times, Yale Law School, and the Royal Society for the Arts, and recognized as an expert on ageism by the New York Times, National Public Radio, and the American Society on Aging.

Ed Friedman: How did you begin writing about aging and ageism?

Ashton Applewhite: About eight years ago I began interviewing people over 80 for a project called “So when are you going to retire?” and reading about longevity. It didn’t take long to realize that almost everything I thought I knew about aging was wrong. I had no idea that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives, for example. That the vast majority of Americans over 65 live independently. The older people get, the less afraid they are of dying. Why don’t more people know this stuff? Because we live in a culture that drowns out all but the negative about growing old, or even just aging past youth. Why is that? Because social and economic forces frame aging as a problem or a disease so they can sell us remedies to “fix” or “stop” or “cure” it. Aging is a natural, lifelong, profoundly enriching process. Experience tells us so. Aging means living, which is why it’s so damn interesting. And to paraphrase British journalist Anne Karpf, it makes no more sense to be anti-aging than anti-breathing.

EF: What are some of the ways people respond to this topic?

AA: When I ask people if they know what ageism is, most reflect for a moment, compare the word to other “isms,” and realize what it must mean. The concept rings true, and they nod. But it’s still a new idea to them. And unless social oppression is called out, we don’t see it as oppression; it’s “just the way things are.” Perpetuating it doesn’t require conscious prejudice or deliberate discrimination. Almost all of us are prejudiced against older people, and olders ourselves are no exception. The thing about this topic is that once people become aware of ageism, they see it everywhere. The ground shifts and they can’t go back to the place of not knowing. That’s where all social change begins: between our ears.

EF: Have you noticed any overriding theme from people responding to your new book?

AA: It’s been very exciting to see how many people say, “I want to join the movement” and “It’s a book for all ages.” Many professionals have said “Should be required for anyone working with older adults”. MY G.P. wondered why we don’t teach kids about ageism in the public schools where we teach about racism, and other forms of discrimination. It’s a blessing and a curse that it’s hard to tell who’s going to be galvanized by the book’s message. Some people don’t want to be jolted out of age denial. Others say “Where have you been all my life?” They could come from anywhere, could be the proverbial butcher, baker or candlestick maker.In the process of researching, writing, and speaking, have you had any personal revelations or changes of heart?

EF: In the process of researching, writing, and speaking, have you had any personal revelations or changes of heart?

AA: The more I think about this the more I realize we have to learn from the social justice movements that preceded this one. I’ve been thinking a lot about intersectionality—the way different forms of discrimination reinforce and compound each other. Earlier movements always seemed to leave a group behind: the civil rights movement did little to advance women’s rights; the women’s movement largely left out women of color; I don’t think anyone was thinking about the disability community. We have a chance to make this new movement truly inclusive—and why not? Everyone is aging, after all, and when you make the world better to grow old in, you make it a better place in which to be a woman, a child, disabled, and so on. This makes ageism the perfect target for collective advocacy, which is exciting.

EF: One of our challenges in promoting Creative Aging is the internalized ageism that prevents people from accessing their creative potential. How has this occurred and what kind of message can we deliver to help older adults avoid being self limiting?

AA: Ageism is woven into the fabric of life, reinforced by the media and popular culture at every turn, and seldom challenged. How could anyone be entirely free of it? Can you imagine anyone complacently identifying himself as sexist or racist? Yet no one even blinks when older people are described as incompetent, or boring, or even repulsive. (And most people are unaware that younger people also face age bias.) Older people can be the most prejudiced of all, because we’ve had a lifetime to internalize negative myths and stereotypes—to make them part of our identity and sense of self—because until now those myths and stereotype have gone unquestioned.

I think the message to people who say they’re too old to take advantage of a Creative Aging program is to point out that they may never have picked up a paintbrush, or may not be interested in ceramics, or maybe they’re tone deaf or worried about “failing” at something new—but those factors have nothing to do with how old they happen to be. There is virtually no circumstance in which you can’t participate in a creative endeavor because you’re too old. If you don’t have the fine motor skills to learn painting, you can try your hand at writing poetry. Maybe you don’t like writing, but you could learn acting. It’s never too late. In any event, what’s the worst that could happen? Not to mention the fact that trying something new is a great way to keep our brains functioning well and to meet new people.

EF: Why do you think their is a resistance to address ageism?

AA: Many people don’t make the distinction between “ageism” and “aging.” They see “old” and just put their heads back in the sand, pretending that something that’s happening to all of us every day—getting older— is somehow, magically, not happening to them. That denial feeds ageism, and segregates us, and fills us with needless dread. Way better to pull our heads out of the sand and start coming to terms with our own aging—which starts with the uncomfortable step of looking at our own bias. It’s not surprising that people are resistant. And it’s wonderful to see attitudes shift once people start seeing that the problem—the barrier to full participation in civic life—is ageism, not aging.

Of course not all the obstacles are a function of ageism. Longevity is a rather recent phenomenon, and we’re entering new social and biological turf. Roles and institutions have yet to catch up.

EF: As individuals, what are some things we can do to combat ageism?

AA: Changing the culture is a tall order, but look at how women’s roles have changed in a single generation, and at the amazing progress we’ve made in this century alone against homophobia and transphobia.

My book lays out a blueprint in every domain. Some places to start:

  • Look for ways in which you’re ageist instead of looking for evidence that you aren’t. You can’t challenge bias unless you’re aware of it, and everyone’s biased some of the time.
  • Talk to people significantly older and younger than you, and listen carefully. If you don’t know many of them, seek them out.
  • The next time you wonder whether an outing or an outfit or an attitude is age-appropriate, reconsider the question. For adults, there’s no such thing.

Change ripples outward when we point out ageist behaviors and beliefs in the world around us. Some places to start:

  • Train yourself to notice when everyone in a group is the same age, and unless there’s some legitimate reason, speak up about it.
  • Assume capacity, not incapacity. Don’t assume someone is too old—or too young—to weigh in on a topic or take on a responsibility.
  • If you’re on the receiving end of an ageist comment, ask gently, “Why would you say [or think] that?” Then just be quiet.

If you’re feeling ambitious, start a consciousness-raising group around age bias. This powerful tool catalyzed the women’s movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. You can download my guide, Who Me, Ageist?, here.

Ed Friedman

Ed Friedman

Ed is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Lifetime Arts. He has spent over 30 years in parallel careers serving the arts community, and older adults and their families.

Artwork by Lisa Curran
Ed Friedman

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