This Chair Rocks
People are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. The vast majority of Americans over 65 live independently. The older people get, the less afraid they are of dying. Aging is a natural, powerful, lifelong process. 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.
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
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
Smart, sassy and oh so wise.
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
Media coverage of anything aging-related has long been characterized by alarmist hand-wringing, the most egregious example being the gray tsunami metaphor. Coverage of the pandemic is no exception, given that some three quarters of COVID19-related deaths are of people over age 65, many occurring in nursing homes where the virus has run largely unchecked. Typical headlines read, “Ageism on the rise” and “Pandemic making ageism worse!” Don't make the same mistake.
The pandemic isn’t generating more prejudice, it’s glaringly exposing the ageism and ableism that have been all around us all along. Because ageism is so unexamined, the pandemic is bringing it to many people’s attention for the first time. It’s not ageist and ableist attitudes and behaviors that are on the rise, it’s public awareness and outrage about this type of stigma and discrimination. That’s what's new and here’s what makes it so exciting: we have a historic opportunity to build on that awareness.
Yes, there’s been awfulness, but there’s also been swift, fierce pushback: against the Telegraph journalist who suggested the virus could benefit the economy by “culling” older Britons; against the Boomer Remover nickname, the handiwork of clueless trolls; against the Texas Lieutenant Governor’s grotesque proposal that grandparents sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy. Supporting this kind of grassroots activism means framing the pandemic, in all its terror and uncertainty, as an unprecedented opportunity to join forces across age, race, and class and create a more equitable post-pandemic society.
1. You’re stuck inside and it’s a feelgood documentary. Crip Camp is about an unintentionally visionary “summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies,” as the film’s co-director (and former camper) Jim LeBrecht explains early on. A sound designer with spina bifida, Lebrecht shot much of the film’s early footage with a camera strapped to his wheelchair. The world it captured is joyous and liberating.
2. Crip Camp shows people seeing and listening to each other across difference. The campers' race, gender, families, and socioeconomic status varied widely, as did their impairments: epilepsy is not like cerebral palsy, or polio, or depression. At Camp Jened, people with profound speech impediments got heard, people in wheelchairs made out, people on crutches played baseball. At the time, the 1970s, people “like them” were routinely hidden from sight and denied access to schools, jobs, and public spaces. These campers were treated like whole people who counted.
3. Crip Camp shows what grassroots activism can do. LeBrecht headed into the project with a hunch that Jened played an outsize role in the disability rights movement of the late 70s and 80s, and he was right. In an interview in the Guardian, disability rights crusader Judy Heumann, who attended in 1971 at age 15, recalled, “This camp is where we had those conversations in the bunks late at night that made us realize, hey, there’s this civil rights movement going on around us, why aren’t we a part of it?” That camp experience—of seeing and being seen, of glimpsing a radically different and inclusive future—launched a generation of activists.
4. Crip Camp shows the Capital Crawl, the most affecting act of civil disobedience ever, and arguably most effective. On March 12, 1990, frustrated by years of legislative inaction, more than 60 activists abandoned their crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs and began crawling up the 83 stone steps that lead to the Capitol. Four months later, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act.
5. Crip Camp reveals our internalized bias. As non-disabled camp director Larry Ellison says, “We discovered the problem wasn’t people with disabilities, it was our problem.” Disability rights advocates use the term “non-disabled” because the likelihood of acquiring a disability, temporarily or permanently, is statistically very high for all of us. Pretending otherwise feeds both ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities) and ageism. It reinforces dual stigma: “I may be old but at least I’m not crippled!” and vice versa. Seeing ourselves as “non-disabled”, or even “temporarily able-bodied,” has the opposite effect. It reminds us of what we have in common, and that a world that works better for people with disabilities—who come in all ages, after all—works better for everyone.
6. The pandemic makes Crip Camp's message an urgent one. COVID19 has glaringly exposed the ageism and ableism all around us. Olders and people with disabilities. along with people with underlying health issues, are dying at disproportionate rates because we are more physically vulnerable and because we are considered more expendable, so this awareness comes at a hideous human cost. We have a historic opportunity to build upon this awareness. It’s time for olders to ally with the disability justice community and people with chronic illness by insisting on equal access for all to protection and medical treatment. (Peter Torres Fremlin’s Disability Debrief lays out an inclusive response to the pandemic.) It’s also time to remove longstanding barriers to access and opportunity. For example, accommodations enabling people to work remotely, which people with disabilities had requested for decades, magically became possible once the health of the general public was a risk. These accommodations need to be permanent.
Achieving equal rights for every human being, independent of age and physical condition, means addressing the intersection of ageism and ableism. This reckoning is long overdue and tactically necessary, for reasons I've been writing about for a while. The pandemic makes it ethically imperative and terrifyingly urgent. It’s time to build on what we learned at Crip Camp, whose campers went on to change the way we see disability, changing it from a personal misfortune to a social problem: “The problem is not that I’m in a wheelchair, the problem is that there are stairs between me and where I want to go.” Boom. That’s what we need to do around aging: “The problem is not that I have wrinkles, the problem is that I’m being discriminated against because of it.” It’s time to join forces, demand equal access and equal rights, and enforce them as the pandemic recedes into memory.
Defeating the Pandemic Means Confronting Ageism and Ableism
March 26, 2020
Beating age discrimination
May 1, 2019
Article in The Big Issue
An Essay by Ashton Applewhite
March 14, 2019
Article on Books Inc.
Eight surprising facts about getting old in America
March 10, 2019
Article in the New York Post
If you care about equality, fight ageism – just as you fight sexism and racism
March 4, 2019
Article in the Independent
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.
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
Book Club Webinar, National Academy of Certified Care Managers
When: June 9, 2020 12:00 pm
This'll be more fun if you've read This Chair Rocks – A Manifesto Against Ageism but you don't have to! "This webinar will be dynamic and informative, covering topics outside the scope of the book through lecture, storytelling, and live facilitated dialogue with the audience about how to recognize the impact ageism has on our clients, and our practices, and ourselves. This Chair Rocks is available in a variety of formats – so download the audiobook, fire up your e-reader, or grab a print copy, and join your colleagues in the discussion and earn CE contact hours too!" Register here. $ 39.00 for CMCs, $59 for non-CMCs
Boston Public Library
When: June 17, 2020 02:00 pm
More info: Hosted by Beacon Hill Village in partnership with the Boston Public Library. Free and open to the public.
#ActivitiesStrong Virtual Summit
When: June 23, 2020 02:00 pm
More info: Hosted by Linked Senior, the summit aims to help professionals in senior living understand the impact of COVID-19 on activities and life enrichment. The summit runs from 11AM-5PM ET, and I'll be speaking from 2-3PM with Penny Cook, CEO of the Pioneer Network. Session title and description: Now is the Time to Address the Intersection of Ageism and Ableism. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the rampant ageism and ableism around us. We have an unprecedented opportunity to build on that awareness—an opportunity with immense implications for individuals and those we support in senior living. Register here.
Sage-ing Institute Summit on Longevity
Where: ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland, New Zealand
When: September 29, 2020 12:00 am
keynote, American Alliance of Museums Creative Aging Convening
Where: High Museum, Atlanta, GA
When: November 5, 2020 12:00 am
public talk, High Museum
Where: High Museum, Atlanta, GA
When: November 7, 2020 12:00 am
More info: Free and open to the public. Details here
Modern Elder Academy
Where: Baja, California
When: February 14, 2021 12:00 am
keynote, National Service Coordinator Conference
Where: JW Marriott Indianapolis, Indiana
When: August 25, 2021 12:00 am
More info: Details here.
keynote, The Upside of Aging
Where: Palos Verdes Golf Club, 3301 Vía Campesina, Palos Verdes Estates, CA 90274
When: September 15, 2021 01:30 pm
More info: Sponsored by Palos Verdes Peninsula Village. Free and open to the public. Register here.
At Home, On Air, In Conversation with Ashton Applewhite and Tiffany Yu
May 27, 2020
conversation with Madonna King, Integrity 20 event at Griffith University
May 18, 2020
The Entrecouragement podcast, Episode 5
May 15, 2020
Straight Up: Against longevity science
May 12, 2020
interview, Griffith Review 68: Getting On
May 1, 2020
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.
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.
My book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, was published in March, 2019 by Celadon Books, a new division of Macmillan, Inc.
HONORS & RECOGNITION
- Member of the 2018 Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 100
- 2018 Game Changer Award, Lifetime Arts
- Fifth Annual Forbes list of Forty Women to Watch over 40 (2017)
- PBS site Next Avenue’s annual list of 50 Influencers in Aging — Influencer of the Year (2016)
- Salt magazine’s list of The World’s 100 Most Inspiring Women (2015)
- ¶ Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- ¶ Twitter: @thischairrocks
- ¶ Facebook: www.facebook.com/ThisChairRocks
- ¶ Instagram: www.instagram.com/thischairrocks
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