This Chair Rocks

People are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. Only 2.5% of Americans over 65 live in nursing homes. Older people enjoy better mental health than the young or middle-aged. Dementia rates are falling, fast. So how come so many of us unthinkingly assume that depression, diapers, and dementia lie ahead? That the 20th century’s astonishing leap in life expectancy is a disaster-in-the making? Underlying all the hand-wringing is ageism: discrimination that sidelines and silences older people. So I’ve written a book. I blog about it. I led the team that developed Old School, a clearinghouse of anti-ageism resources. I am the voice of Yo, Is This Ageist? (Go ahead, ask me.) I’ve written a consciousness-raising booklet. And I speak widely. All tools to help catalyze a movement to make discrimination on the basis of age as unacceptable as any other kind.

About the Book

Buy the book

From childhood on, we’re barraged by messages that it’s sad to be old. That wrinkles are embarrassing, and old people useless. Author and activist Ashton Applewhite believed them too—until she realized where this prejudice comes from and the damage it does. Lively, funny, and deeply researched, This Chair Rocks traces Applewhite’s journey from apprehensive boomer to pro-aging radical, and in the process debunks myth after myth about late life. The book explains the roots of ageism—in history and in our own age denial—and how it divides and debases, examines how ageist myths and stereotypes cripple the way our brains and bodies function, looks at ageism in the workplace and the bedroom, exposes the cost of the all-American myth of independence, critiques the portrayal of olders as burdens to society, describes what an all-age-friendly world would look like, and concludes with a rousing call to action. Whether you’re older or hoping to get there, this book will shake you by the shoulders, cheer you up, make you mad, and change the way you see the rest of your life. Age pride!

Wow. This book totally rocks. It arrived on a day when I was in deep confusion and sadness about my age—62. Everything about it, from my invisibility to my neck. Within four or five wise, passionate pages, I had found insight, illumination and inspiration. I never use the word empower, but this book has empowered me.

ANNE LAMOTT, New York Times best-selling author

Along comes Ashton Applewhite with a book we have been waiting for. Anti-ageism now boasts a popular champion, activist, and epigrammatist in the lineage of Martial and Dorothy Parker. Until This Chair Rocks we haven’t had a single compact book that blows up myths seven to a page like fireworks.

LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS

 

“Ashton Applewhite is the Malcolm Gladwell of ageism.”
-JAMES BECKFORD SAUNDERS, CEO, Australian Association of Gerontology

Vibrant, energetic, fact-filled and funny, This Chair Rocks is a call to arms not just for older people but for our whole society.

KATHA POLLITT, poet, essayist, and Nation columnist

Sometimes a writer does us all a great favor and switches on a light. Snap! The darkness vanishes and, in its place we find an electric vision of new ways of living. I want to live in a world where ageism is just a memory, and This Chair Rocks illuminates the path.

DR. BILL THOMAS, founder of Changing Aging

This Chair Rocks is radical, exuberant, and full of all sorts of facts that erase many of the myths and beliefs about late life. As Applewhite defines and describes ageism, new ways of seeing and being in the world emerge, empowering everyone to see things as they really are.

LAURIE ANDERSON, artist

A knowledgeable, straight-talking, and witty book that briskly explains to anyone how-wrong-we-are-about-aging. There’s radical news here to enlighten the most “done” starlet, and
tart turns of phrase to captivate the most expert age critic: ‘All aging is “successful”—not just the sporty version—otherwise you’re dead.’ This pithy primer ought ideally to be given to every American adolescent—to inoculate them against the lies and stereotypes that can spoil the long life course they will all want.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, author of Aged by Culture and the prize-winning Agewise and Declining to Decline

Ashton Applewhite is a visionary whose time has come, tackling one of the most persistent biases of our day with originality, verve, and humor. Her magic formula of naming and shaming may just shake all of us out of complacency and it into action. Whether you relate through being older now or recognize that aging is in your future, this is one of the most important books you’ll ever read.

Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org and author of The Big Shift: Navigating the New Life Stage Before Midlife

A smart and stirring call to add ageism to the list of ‘isms’ that divide us, and to mobilize against it. Applewhite shows how ageism distorts our view of old age, and urges us to challenge age- based prejudices in ourselves and in society. An important wake-up call for any baby boomer who’s apprehensive about growing old.

Pepper Schwartz, Professor of Sociology, University of Washington and AARP’s Official Love & Relationship Ambassador

This Chair Rocks is a 2016 Foreword INDIES Winnerin Adult Nonfiction!

Smart, sassy and oh so wise.

AARP

Finally, a take-down of the last acceptable prejudice. Applewhite eloquently and expertly exposes the structural discrimination that makes growing older so much harder than it should be—not just for the white, affluent, healthy, and able-bodied, but for women, people of color, people with disabilities, and poor people. Full of treasures, This Chair Rocks should be required reading for everyone in aging services, to help us confront ageism in our personal and professional lives and join forces against it. As Applewhite writes, ‘It’s time for Age Pride.’

Donna Corrado, Commissioner, NYC Department for the Aging

An eloquent and well-researched exposé of the prejudice that feeds age bias, and a passionate argument to mobilize against it. This must-read book is also a fun-read for every age.

Stephanie Coontz, author, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

To live agefully – what a wonderful word! With warmth, wit and clarity, Ashton Applewhite explains what it means, while never falling into age-denial or age-shame. This is a book packed with provocative and liberating ideas, to make you leap into the air with pleasure – even if your knees, like mine, are a little dodgy.

Anne Karpf, author of How to Age


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Ashton Applewhite

Age ≠ affinity. (Except when it does.)

            I often point out that age has far less to do with compatibility than we think it does. There are exceptions, of course: reproduction is largely a young-person’s game, along with extreme sports. Age differences can’t be wished away, nor should they be. But hanging out mainly with people our own age has more to do with comfort and inertia than with actual affinity, and the habit costs us.

            I still think that’s the case. But a question that came in to my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog tempered my thinking. It came from a woman in her late 50s who belongs to a cancer survivors group.The admins regularly schedule events ‘for survivors under 40’ or for ‘young survivors,’” she wrote. “So far they’ve involved trivia games and making appetizers, which would be interesting for just about any adult. I politely pointed out that what they were doing was ageist and suggested they reconsider, but they went radio-silent. It's so frustrating and demoralizing to be left out simply because of my age. Do I just let this go?”

             My first reaction? Hell no! Perhaps the admins were assuming younger members wouldn’t want to hang out with older ones. Even if so, better to call it out, because when we remain in age (and race and class) silos, prejudice persists. Besides, wouldn’t it make more sense to form affinity groups around commonalities like shared diagnoses or treatments?

            But not so fast. Before responding, I had the good sense to query two thoughtful younger friends, also breast cancer survivors. Their responses took me by surprise.

“Yes it’s helpful for people who identify as cancer survivors to join all different kinds of groups,” responded Dorian, who joined a bunch of them. “They were mostly older women (because that’s the biggest demographic), weeping because they might not have grandchildren, while at 26 I was wondering whether I’d even have a child. Or a career, or a life.”

It was a group for young adults and partners that Dorian found head and shoulders more helpful than any other. Members had different types of cancers, treatments, and prognoses. The only thing they had in common was the emotional experience of being a young person with cancer, and in the end, for Dorian, that mattered most. “They addressed things like dealing with parents swooping in at a time when you’re trying to establish independence, breastfeeding; and the future [emphasis hers]. One of the things cancer takes away from you is your future, and I think your perspective on that may be different as a 20-something than as a 60-, 70-, or 80-something.”

            Pam concurred, summing up the issue “in one word: envy. Younger women diagnosed with breast cancer are envious, for many reasons, of women who’ve had more time to establish their lives before this disease creates chaos.” She found it helpful to sit with women of all ages, but also joined the Young Survival Coalition for women diagnosed at age 40 or younger. “It was, and continues to be, a very important experience,” she wrote. Members were desperately trying to figure out how the diagnosis would affect their fertility, eligibility for adoption, and employment and financial prospects. “Cancer can be like a bomb hitting your life,” she explained, “and how much you've been able to prepare does make a difference.” And while Pam thought all survivors should have the chance to play trivia and make appetizers, "if some of groups are just for youngers, I hope you can understand why.”

            I do now. Even if I didn’t, I’d respect these younger women’s perspectives because it’s their truth. In any case, their response raised new questions. I posed one of them to Lori, the woman whose letter kicked this off: would she like the option of joining a group of older survivors?  “I'm just not seeing any advantages for us older people beyond specific topics,” she replied. A group for people who were losing partners of many decades might be for olders. Another, for fertility issues, would target younger people. A third, for caregivers, would be age-agnostic. Trivia and appetizers optional. Clearly the admins could have done a better job of addressing her query, but that was just the tip of just one iceberg.

            I reflected some more. Like many age-related questions, the deeper I went the more complicated and interesting it became. How could it be otherwise when trying to distinguish what’s rare and what’s shared in the context of the one experience—growing older—every human shares? Answers may vary, as they say, depending on the circumstances, number of people, culture, and on and on. But I did arrive at a couple of general observations:

  • Affinity seems to relate more to life stage than to age: to shared experiences and transitions rather than to the chronological age at which they occurred.
  • The connection between life stage and age is far from fixed.
  • The value of same-age groups is not evenly distributed across the lifespan.  

Chronological closeness is more significant early on, when even a small age gap looms large because each year makes up greater percentage of our time on Earth. This limits perspective and point of view: our grasp of our capacities and potential. As Pam and Dorian poignantly attest, time itself is more salient for young people, especially ones confronting a life-threatening diagnosis. This makes age is a better predictor of genuine affinity among youngers than it does among olders.

For those fortunate enough to move into adulthood, chronological age becomes less salient over time. We age at different rates—physically, socially, developmentally—and become more different from each other. The older the person, the less their age reveals about them. Consequently, as the booster stages of reproductive capacity and peak physical performance detach from the rocket of life, age and stage also disengage.

As trajectories become more diverse, so do the points at which we enter various life stages—if, indeed, we enter them at all. No doubt there’s an average age range for people immersed in toddler-wrangling, or transitioning genders, or starting businesses, or learning to sing or code or cook. But loads of people do none of those things, or some of them, or stop and start. Examples of age-based affinity groups may come readily to mind: new moms, perhaps, or club-goers. But we can become mothers at 15 or at 50, and you’ll find olders on the dance floor if you look.

Age-diverse groups would be far more numerous if:

  • we didn’t tend to head for people our age in social situations, because we falsely assume that’s who we’ll have the most in common with, or that we won’t be welcome otherwise.
  • we weren’t barraged by ageist clickbait about what’s “age-appropriate.” (For adults, there’s no such thing.)
  • we weren’t brainwashed by an ageist culture into believing age shapes affinity far more than is actually the case—far less than class, race, gender and ethnicity, not to mention personality.

            Similar-age groups are socially sanctioned. They’re familiar. It’s easier to hang with people who look like us than to bust out of age- or race-based silos. But “age fit,” like “culture fit,” which is workplace code for “people like me,” is more about habit and comfort than actual affinity. That overlap is greater among younger people, because school is an age-sorting mechanism and because they’ve had less time to develop diverse interests and perspectives.

Age is never irrelevant. It is a key identifier lifelong, connecting us forever to people who’ve lived through the same historical events and share cultural references. At times, this matters most. It’s the point of reunions, for example. The pleasure of being with people we’ve known all our lives is acute, and grows more precious over time.

But genuine affinity based on chronological age is the exception, not the rule. If that seems improbable, it’s because so few of us have friends much older or younger than ourselves, not because age segregation is “natural” or destined. The more time we spend in mixed-age company, the more evident that fact becomes. So if most of your friends are your age:

  • think of something you like to do and find a mixed-age group to do it with. Strike up a conversation with the oldest or youngest person in the room.
  • question age-based assumptions. Yes, someone might look askance across an age gap—jerks are everywhere—but they’re a small minority and deserve to be ignored.
  • question habit. (Why, for example, does it seem so important to learn the age of a new acquaintance?) If everyone on the team or the guest list is the same age, ask why. Occasionally there’s a legitimate reason, but not very often.
  • push back against age apartheid, personally and professionally.

The sooner we emerge from our same-age silos, the richer our lives become, the more accurate and nuanced our grasp of what it means to grow older, and the more attainable the solidarity these times demand.

More recognition (!) — the Maggie Kuhn Award

I'm thrilled to announce that on May 12th I'll be receiving the Maggie Kuhn Award from PSS as "a visionary leader, author and advocate in combating ageism" for my "tireless efforts in the tradition of that great champion for older adults."

I have two pictures over my desk. One is of Robert Butler, who invented the word "ageism" and to whom I dedicated my book. The other is a photo of me in front of a poster of Maggie Kuhn, presenting the same award to the Gray Panthers NYC in 2016. That's my mom on the right, whose moral compass was as clear as a lightning bolt, gesticulating at something she wanted to change. These are the activists who most inspire me. Unfortunately, I never got to meet Kuhn, but she was a fearless trailblazer and a free spirit and it is a great honor to be recognized as following in her footsteps. "Speak the truth," she urged us, "even if your voice shakes."

PSS, which stands for Presbyterian Senior Services, has supported my work from the get-go, and I theirs. Buy tickets or donate if you're in NYC, feel like supporting an esteemed nonprofit, and want to see me blush.

40 Over 40 – The World's Most Inspiring Women

I'm delighted to be included in the first international edition of 40 over 40 – The World’s Most Inspiring Women, a list announced by F10 Fe:maleOneZero and sponsored by Capgemini.

As a feminist, it’s an honor to kick off Women's History month by joining a group of extraordinary women around the world "who have one thing in common: they change the world for the better.” As an activist, I see my inclusion as a welcome, long-overdue indicator that global conversations about inclusion and equity must include age. W00t!

In January, I landed on HelpAge USA's inaugural 60 Over 60 list. Can 20 Over 20 be far behind?

Kidding, I swear.

There’s more

Other Writing by
Ashton Applewhite

Let’s Climb Out of The Generation Trap

Let’s Climb Out of The Generation Trap

June 29, 2021

Link here.

Reflections on the Plague Year From an Anti-Ageism Activist

Reflections on the Plague Year From an Anti-Ageism Activist

March 15, 2021

Link here.

Defeating the Pandemic Means Confronting Ageism and Ableism

Defeating the Pandemic Means Confronting Ageism and Ableism

March 26, 2020

Link here.

Beating age discrimination

Beating age discrimination

May 1, 2019

Article in The Big Issue

An Essay by Ashton Applewhite

An Essay by Ashton Applewhite

March 14, 2019

Article on Books Inc.

There’s more

Yo, Is This Ageist?

(Go ahead, ask me.)

There’s more

Appearances

My We Are All Aging talk explains the roots of ageism – in society and in our own age denial – how it divides and diminishes us, and ends with a rousing call to mobilize against it. This Chair Rocks: How Ageism Warps Our View of Long Life charts my journey from apprehensive boomer to pro-aging radical and proposes an alternative to all the hand-wringing: wake up, cheer up, and push back. Aging While Female, Reimagined describes how the double whammy of ageism and sexism makes aging different for women, and what we can do about it. I also speak about the medicalization of old age, ageism and elder abuse, and how to reframe the new longevity in order to make the most of longer lives. To book me for your event, please contact the Lavin Agency.

What People Are Saying:

I was encouraged by the statistics you quoted, forced to acknowledge my own ageist thoughts, and ultimately fired up to fight them in myself and others. You are on to something big!

Sarah Meredith, painter

Why can’t we stop ageism? Good question. For some answers, start looking in the mirror and look around you. For a good dialogue on the subject, visit Ashton Applewhite’s website, This Chair Rocks.

Harry R. Moody, Director of Academic Affairs, AARP

Consciousness-raising at its sharpest and most useful.

David Watts Barton, journalist and playwright

This Chair Rocks confirms our knowledge that emotional well being is abundant in later life, challenges us to face our own internalized ageism, and inspires us to envision a future in which our society is released from age-related prejudice and discrimination. And it’s fun, too!

Geriatric Mental Health Alliance of New York

Holistic, deep, urgent, and also fun.

Lenelle Moise, playwright and performer

All practitioners working with older adults need to be informed about the pernicious influences of ageism. Nobody does this better than Ashton Applewhite. Her thinking is deep, her passion infectious, and her cogent message is spot on: we urgently need to have a national conversation about ageism to raise awareness about it and to stop it.

Risa Breckman, LCSW, Executive Director, NYC Elder Abuse Center

You have found a fantastic mission: raising consciousness that older is far better than the stereotype that enslaves us all.

Jennifer Siebens, producer, CBS News

Ashton Applewhite’s plenary address at the 2013 New York State Adult Abuse Training Institute was compelling and original, and really resonated with our 400 participants. She is an articulate and committed voice for an important cause: challenging the demoralizing shadow that ageism casts across society.

Jean Callahan, Director, Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging

Octogenarians are the fastest-growing segment of our population, yet most Americans are scared stiff at the prospect of growing old. [Applewhite’s work] is a welcome and important tonic.

Dr. Robert Butler, founding director of the National Institute on Aging, coiner of the term “ageism”

We need an anti-ageist movement, for sure. Ashton is already in it.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, author of Agewise and Aged by Culture

A beautifully delivered, provocative description of how ageism clouds our vision of what life holds in store.

Sabrina Hamilton, director, Ko Festival for the Arts

Ashton Applewhite is on a crusade. A journalist and author, her mission is to raise awareness of ageism in America and get people young and old to join her in speaking out against it.

Senior Planet

Thank you again for your terrific keynote yesterday. I heard from so many attendees that it affected them deeply. You are wise, funny, and provocative – a great combination!

Teresa Bonner, Program Director, Aroha Philanthropies

Upcoming Appearances

keynote, Apartmentalize

Where: San Diego Convention Center

When: June 24, 2022 01:00 pm

More info: Annual conference of the National Apartment Association. Info here.

speaker, Tanglewood Park Bookclub

Where: virtual

When: June 28, 2022 03:00 pm

More info: Hosted by Senior Resources of West Michigan, AgeWell Services, and LifeCircles/PACE (Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly). Details pending.

Speaker, UK Network of Age-friendly Communities annual conference

Where: Birmingham, England

When: July 5, 2022 12:00 am

More info: Details pending.

speaker, National Congress of Geriatrics and Gerontology, Chile

Where: virtual

When: October 7, 2022 08:30 am

More info: XXVI National Congress of Geriatrics and Gerontology: Aging in Chile: Global changes and local challenges. Details pending.

Course instruction, OLLI at UVA

Where: virtual

When: October 8, 2022 01:00 pm

More info:

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at University of Virginia (UVA). Details pending.

Advocacy webinar for RTOERO

Where: virtual

When: October 19, 2022 12:00 am

More info: RTOERO is Canada's largest provider of non-profit group health insurance for education retirees

speaker, RiverWoods Exeter

Where: virtual

When: January 24, 2023 12:00 am

More info: Details pending.

 

Past Appearances

Media

podcast, We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle

podcast, We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle

March 24, 2022

Link here.

article “How older workers can push back against the reality of ageism”, CNBC

article “How older workers can push back against the reality of ageism”, CNBC

March 20, 2022

Link here.

interview on To Your Greatness with Dawn Mathis

interview on To Your Greatness with Dawn Mathis

March 8, 2022

Link here.

Retire with Purpose podcast

Retire with Purpose podcast

January 26, 2022

Link here.

interview on The Wider View

interview on The Wider View

December 23, 2021

Link here.

There’s more

Resources



You’ll find many more resources on Old School, a clearinghouse of free and carefully vetted blogs, books, articles, videos, speakers, and other tools (workshops, handouts, curricula etc.) to educate people about ageism and help dismantle it.

Video

On YouTube

 

Keynote address at the United Nations
6 October 2016

Talk at Future Trends Forum in Madrid
1 December 2017

Talk at the Library of Congress
25 October 2016

What Is Ageism?

Ageism is stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. We experience it any time someone assumes that we’re “too old” for something—a task, a haircut, a relationship—instead of finding out who we are and what we’re capable of. Or “too young;” ageism cuts both ways, although in a youth-obsessed society olders bear the brunt of it.

Like racism and sexism, ageism serves a social and economic purpose: to legitimize and sustain inequalities between groups. It’s not about how we look. It’s about how people in power assign meaning to how we look.

Stereotyping—the assumption that all members of a group are the same—underlies ageism (as it does all “isms”). Stereotyping is always a mistake, but especially when it comes to age, because the older we get, the more different from one another we become.

Attitudes about age—as well as race and gender—start to form in early childhood. Over a lifetime they harden into a set of truths: “just the way it is.” Unless we challenge ageist stereotypes—Old people are incompetent. Wrinkles are ugly. It’s sad to be old—we feel shame and embarrassment instead of taking pride in the accomplishment of aging. That’s internalized ageism.

By blinding us to the benefits of aging and heightening our fears, ageism makes growing older far harder than it has to be. It damages our sense of self, segregates us, diminishes our prospects, and actually shortens lives.

What are the antidotes?

  •    Awareness: the critical starting point is to acknowledge our own prejudices about age and aging. (Download a copy of Who me, Ageist? How to Start a Consciousness Raising Group.) Then we can start to see that “personal problems”—such as not being able to get a job or being belittled or feeling patronized—are actually widely shared social problems that require collective action.
  •    Integration: connect with people of all ages. An equitable society for all ages requires intergenerational collaboration.
  •    Activism: watch for ageist behaviors and attitudes in and around us, challenge them, and create language and models that support every stage of life.

Bio

I didn’t set out to become a writer. I went into publishing because I loved to read and didn’t have any better ideas. I had a weakness for the kind of jokes that make you cringe and guffaw at the same time, my boss kept telling me to write them down, and the collection turned into the best-selling paperback of 1982. I was a clue on “Jeopardy” (“Who is the author of Truly Tasteless Jokes?” Answer: “Blanche Knott.”), and as Blanche made publishing history by occupying four of the fifteen spots on the New York Times bestseller list.

My first serious book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, was published by HarperCollins in 1997. Ms. magazine called it “rocket fuel for launching new lives,” and it landed me on Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum enemies list. It also got me invited to join the board of the nascent Council on Contemporary Families, a group of distinguished family scholars. I belonged to the Artist’s Network of Refuse & Resist group that originated the anti-Iraq-invasion slogan and performance pieces titled “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War.” As a contributing editor of IEEE Spectrum magazine, I went to Laos to cover a village getting internet access via a bicycle-powered computer. I was on staff at the American Museum of Natural History for 17 years, where I wrote about everything under the Sun, quitting in 2017 to become a full-time activist.

The catalyst for Cutting Loose was puzzlement: why was our notion of women’s lives after divorce (visualize depressed dame on barstool) so different from the happy and energized reality? A similar question gave rise to This Chair Rocks: why is our view of late life so unrelievedly grim when the lived reality is so different? I began blogging about aging and ageism in 2007 and started speaking on the subject in July, 2012, which is also when I started the Yo, Is This Ageist? blog. During that time I’ve been recognized by the New York Times, National Public Radio, the New Yorker, and the American Society on Aging as an expert on ageism and named as a Fellow by the Knight Foundation, the New York Times, Yale Law School, and the Royal Society for the Arts; I’ve written for Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times, and I speak widely, at venues that have ranged from universities and community centers to the Library of Congress and the United Nations. In 2017 I received a standing ovation for my talk at TED 2017, their mainstage event in Vancouver.

I am a founder of the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse.

My book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, was published in March, 2019 by Celadon Books, a new division of Macmillan, Inc.

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