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The Elder Interview
Ashton Applewhite, Author of This Chair Rocks, Explores the Solution to Ageism
Ageism has been dubbed “the last acceptable prejudice” in society – and writer and activist Ashton Applewhite is out to firmly challenge that. Her straight-talking blog, TED talk and book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, discuss how ageism distorts our view of old age, and urge us to challenge age-based prejudices in ourselves and in society. We talked to her about the messages we absorb from society, the false divide between old and young – and why the solution to ageism needs all generations to get active
This Chair Rocks is a ‘manifesto against ageism’ – why, and what was the catalyst for it?
Ageing is how we move through life and how we interact with people and institutions. It is the biggest canvas there is.
I started writing about ageing because I was afraid of getting old – but I didn’t know that at the time. I started my blog in 2007 – back then it was called So When Are You Going To Retire.com, because I started out interviewing people over 80 who work.
This offered a very contained and upbeat way to look at ageing: “Old people – they can work; they can keep doing what they’re doing!”, which wasn’t really a surprise. In hindsight, it was just my way of dipping my feet in the shallow end before entering the deeper, murkier waters of ageing itself.
The surprise was that everything I thought I knew about what it would be like to be that old was either not nuanced enough, too negative – or just flat out wrong. That was the catalyst for the project: Why don’t people know these things? That people are happier at the beginnings and the ends of their lives, for example, or that dementia rates are rapidly declining.
We don’t know them because we live in a culture that drowns it out. When ageing is a framed as a problem or a disease, we can be sold stuff to “cure,” “fix” or “stop” it. Fear and anxiety create markets; you can’t make money off satisfaction.
It took a long time to go from a tiny blog that nobody read to the wider canvas of This Chair Rocks, but after a few years thinking and reading, I was asked to give a talk on the subject at an arts festival. That monologue became the germ of a talk I now give, and the book then followed.
Ageing is how we move through life and how we interact with people and institutions. It is the biggest canvas there is.
Are you a fan of the idea of ‘positive ageing’?
I am not a Pollyanna about ageing the idea of ‘eat enough kale’ or ‘think positive’ and it’s all going to be great’ – well maybe it will be, or maybe not. But the depiction of ageing as decline alone is just as flawed. There are good and bad things about every age. Let’s tell both sides of the story.
The way we use the words ‘old’ and ‘young’ is deeply indicative of the way we view ageing, and often we’re totally unaware of it. A man came up to me recently and told me his mum was in her 90s, but that she “wasn’t old”. But although she may be a marathon runner…she’s really old! Whatever this man loved or admired about his mother’s way in the world were a function of her age, not despite it.
Often people use the word “ageless” as a compliment, but the idea of agelessness robs us of our years. I like to think of us as “ageful.” We have a picture of ageing as only loss, and yes there are real losses, but there are also benefits. Ageing is also an additive process. As author Anne Lamott says, “We contain all the ages we have ever been”. That is what makes us…us.
When we aspire to youthfulness it’s as if we are denying, or ashamed of, that incredibly rich process we went through to get here. If ageing is so awful how come nobody wants to be younger? Nobody would actually trade themselves in for their younger selves unless they could take their present-day consciousness with them. We know we’re richer with experience.
Importantly, most of us are happier too – despite society’s messages. That the well-documented U-curve of happiness we see at the beginning and end of life persists in such an ageist world is remarkable. Imagine what it would look like if we could reduce the stigma and fear around ageing. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we didn’t have to work so hard to overcome all that bias in ourselves and our society?
The paradox of ageism is that that ‘The Other’ [that you’re prejudiced about] is your future self.
What role does prejudice play in ageism?
Ageism is a form of prejudice: It’s discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of age. Prejudice pits us against each other, that is its function. And we’re only now starting to look at that prejudice in ourselves and call it out in society.
It’s not all ageism. We age slowly, and when you’re a kid, it’s impossible to imagine becoming an old person. And longevity is now. People didn’t start living past 30 until the Palaeolithic era. In the 20th century, life expectancy in the United States grew by a staggering 30 years.
This is new evolutionary and biology ground, and institutions and roles have yet to catch up with it. That’s why combatting ageism is so important. Our responses to this huge shift are going to be very different if we think of it as this awful problem, rather than as a tremendous opportunity—millions of educated, healthy adults than ever before in human history—as well as a legitimate challenge.
The solutions are intergenerational – bring old and young together and ageism dismantles itself because you have allies. Age tells you so little about what someone is capable of, or interested in. When all ages mix, it’s the natural order of things; it’s segregation that enables stereotyping. All prejudice involves “othering”—seeing another person or group as “other” than oneself, which makes them seem less human and legitimises discrimination against them. The paradox of ageism is that that “other” is your future self.
In a youth-obsessed culture, we’re encouraged, women, in particular, to compete to “stay young.” This reinforces ageism, sexism, and capitalism.
Prejudices pit us against each other to maintain the status quo. As long as we believe in an imaginary divide between old and young, we can be persuaded to compete to be on the right side of that imaginary velvet rope, and that our interests are opposed.
This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite is available on Amazon.
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How can we start to challenge ageism and move things forward as individuals?
Youth and age are different. Life is long, and it changes us in ways that are neither good or bad, but they are real. We need a system that acknowledges those differences – but without organising them into a system of social inequity.
All change starts within us. We need to look for reasons we are ageist – which we all are – rather than evidence that you’re not. Once you start to see it in yourself, you start to see it in the world. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to look at your own bias – but it is really liberating.
On my website, there is a resources link with a guide to starting a consciousness-raising group, called “Who Me, Ageist?”. Consciousness raising is the tool that catalysed the women’s movement – and it changed the world.
Women came together and realised that what they had been thinking of as personal problems, were actually widely shared political problems that required collective action. With respect to ageing, we might think “oh I can’t open the jar, I should be stronger” or “there’s no handrail, I should be better prepared” and blame ourselves. But those aren’t personal problems, those are political problems that are a function of discrimination. They are a reason to mobilise, not a reason to feel ashamed of perfectly natural physical transition.
If there is no handrail it is not your bad: the venue should be made safe and accessible for all. And those bottles should be easy to open for everyone.
The last chapter in my book is full of suggestions of ways in which we can change our thinking. Listen to whether the words ‘young’ and ‘old’ and as substitutes for positive or negative feelings that actually have nothing to do with how old we happen to be, for example.
I think it is really important to say how old you are. At the same time, it’s important to push back against the fixed meanings attached to numbers in society. If someone asks my age, I say, “I’m happy to tell you, but first tell me why you want to know.” I’m 65.
If someone says “you look great for your age” you can say “you look great for your age too.” Then let the awkward silence sit there for a bit, so the person reflects on why something they intended as compliment doesn’t feel like a compliment.
It’s easier to acknowledge a prejudice against yourself than one against someone else – and in that there is a private act of liberation that is accessible. Life is better on the other side of it, that’s for sure.
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