pushing back against ageism—which affects everyone
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.
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
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.
Challenging ageism can feel daunting and lonely. We know we can learn from and find ways to support each other. That's why our small-but-mighty Old School Clearinghouse is now hosting Movement Builders Convenings.Meet fellow advocates from around the world, find out what they're up to, get a little help from our friends, and share a win!
Six year ago, on an escalator coming out of a weekday movie matinee, I had a wild idea. Despite the fact that the entire audience was older, I spotted only one gray-haired woman. Covering the gray, I realized, is a way we women collude, en masse, in making ourselves invisible as older women—and when a group is invisible, so are the issues that affect it.
This behavior is understandable, to say the least. Powerful forces are at play: capitalism, sexism, ageism, misogyny, and a multi-billion-dollar anti-aging industry, to name just a few. Economists have a name—the “attractiveness penalty”—for the fact that women are judged far more harshly than men for “looking old,” and the costs of not conforming. So millions of women spend millions of dollars and millions of hours in hair salons or over the sink, coloring their roots. For some it’s fun, for others a burden, for many a costly tyranny. Those forces are extraordinarily hard to buck. But what if—what if—we acted together? What if all the women who disliked covering the gray acted together, creating the Year of Letting Our Hair Go Gray. The world would see how many we are, and how lovely, and how powerful! It would be transformative!
I posted the idea on my This Chair Rocks Facebook page . . . and I got a ton of blowback. Which I deserved. Who was I to tell women how they should or shouldn’t do? Why didn’t I go first? Which I did that spring (“So I Dyed My Hair White”), continuing to bleach batches of it in the years that followed.
Then along came COVID19. During lockdown, as my bleach job grew out, your gray grew in. Millions of you—you know who you are—turned 2020 into the Year of Letting Our Hair Go Gray that I dreamed of on that escalator in 2015. I’m sorry it took a pandemic. I know many of you couldn’t wait to get back to the salon. No judgement, I swear. But I’m thrilled to see so many women outing themselves as older in this way, making peace or more with what they see, and claiming their full identities as older women. We are a force. The Year of Letting Our Hair Go Gray is just one way of making it gloriously visible.
This guest post is by Dr Hannah McDowall and first appeared on STOPAgeism. Hannah a director of WIGS a landing place for people who are itching to side-step the frameworks and assumptions that limit our capacity to imagine better social futures. It speaks to one of my pet peeves: the habit of using “aging” when “older” is the correct adjective, as in “aging parents” or “aging celebrities.” Everyone is aging.
The word ‘ageing’ does not mean ‘old’ or older. It is an adjective which refers to time passing, and the effect of that time passing on the noun it describes for the duration of that noun remaining in existence. In the case of people, the duration for which we are alive. From the moment we are born to the moment we die we are ageing, and yet in recent years this word has been used to refer to organisations and programmes of work exclusively interested in the concerns of older people. Here are just a few of the many examples: Age UK, Centre for Ageing Better, The Ageing Better Programme of the Community Fund, the Ageing Platforms eg European, Age Friendly Communities, Help Age International, Independent Age, there are so many more. And how many children’s or youth organisations use the words age or ageing in their brand? None. Although they are also all about age. Youth Voice, Save the Childen, Girl guiding, no shame in using age-specific terms there.
The older people’s sector has been well and truly age-washed.
So what? Isn’t age just a nicer word than old? Maybe, yes, but only if we think that being old is something that needs ‘nicening’ up, and of course we do think that. Which brings us to the related term ageism.
Multiple studies indicate that negative attitudes towards being old are ubiquitous starting in early childhood (as young as 4) and growing from there. This discrimination is referred to as ageism although that too is a misnomer, as the public discussion does not explore discrimination against all age groups, only older people. The Age-washing of old offers a rebrand which is only skin deep, it doesn’t seem to have reduced ageism against older people in any way, or enabled us to think about our own ageing as something integral to being alive.
I don’t know if the age-washing of our language merely reflects our othering of later life and older people, or actually makes it worse. But it sets ‘ageing’ up as the fall guy for being old (undesirable), something that happens to other people, those ageing ones over there (not me thank goodness, not yet anyway). Which leaves us stuck in a linguistic and framing pickle, and that pickle has consequences. It’s not till we are well into our final decades that we relent and agree to associate ourselves with ageing. Just look at the demographic which uses Age UK’s services. And if you run an event on ageing or ageism the average age will be well above 50. It also robs us of a word, because when we use it, it will be read as old, instead of what it really means. Linguists and psychologists are the experts here, but there is plenty of evidence that the words we use for things shape how we think.
But perhaps the language also offers a ripe opportunity to get un-stuck through getting imaginative. What if, in our imaginations, we gave all those organisations and programmes which use the word ageing to denote an older-people’s focus a good scrub down, and renamed them with something that made that focus explicit, releasing them to do their work of helping older people out in the open: ‘Older People UK’ ‘A Decade of Being a Healthy Older Person’, ‘Older People’s Friendly Communities’, and my personal favourite, ‘Centre For Being An Older Person Better’.
This would leave the ground clear, starkly so, for imagining what organisations and programmes of work, which were really concerned with the dimension of ageing across the life course, might do. Here are just four ideas to get us in the mood:
Anti-ageism campaigns would engage with people at all stages of the life course to explore how their age identity limits their freedoms. They would seek to understand the fears we have about changing age identity, and use this to create unconscious bias training, again for all ages, to support empathy, trust and communication across generations. They would focus not only on externally focused ageism but also internally focused. Because age identity and age discrimination would be identified as something which applies to you throughout the life course and not just when you are old, you would learn how to understand this identity in relation to your other identities, knowing when ageism is active. You would then also know how to name it and ask for its redress both in everyday situations but also when a legal case applies. You wouldn’t have to wait till you are 50 to learn about your age identity.
Health and wellbeing policy would adopt a life course approach as Prof. Alan Walker has been calling for for years. Prevention strategies targeted at younger people and intended to pay back with a longer healthy life expectancy, would be owned, designed and scrutinised by young people to ensure they don’t just ‘prevent’ in the long term but meet their needs right now. Throughout the life course people would be able to access support for managing and growing through life transitions no matter what age they are. Life course meaning-making would be something you would learn and be supported to do.
Life course-curious Intergenerational working would emerge as a toolkit and methodology for addressing negative attitudes towards ageing. Intergenerational practice (bringing young people and old people together for positive outcomes) is heralded as a way to bridge generational divides and reduce ageism (towards older people). Although it does bring warm glows and friendship on both sides there isn’t much evidence it affects negative attitudes towards ageing. What if intergenerational activities directly explored the experience of age and ageing? As a participant you would work with those of different ages to create new and rich understandings of the experience of ageing. A wonderful curriculum of games, activities and projects could be designed and evaluated to measure long term effects on participants' attitudes towards ageing.
Arts and the creative economy would encourage, expect and support artists, fashion designers, dancers, musicians, actors, etc. to ‘emerge’ as artists at any age, not just when young. We would see dance performances which integrate the competencies and beauty of bodied of all ages equally and not separate events for older performers as is common now. ‘Ageing’ arts programmes would not be synonymous with art programmes for older people (good though they are) but would mean artistic exploration of the experience of ageing across the life course. The fashion industry would design for all ages and would market with models of all ages (as well as all the other dimensions of identity), and not in a way which pigeon-holes age groups but releases them to imagine themselves new in new looks.
These four are the tip of the imagination iceberg. They only illustrate what might be possible if we took the age rebrand to the bottom, beyond the oily wash of words, to an age revolution. It’s time to reclaim ‘ageing’, to explore why we put it off, to at last admit that children and older people are our younger and older selves not some other kind of person. It’s time to know and savour what the experience of ageing and having an ever-changing age identity means, for each of us individually but collectively too, for what I can imagine for myself sits within what we can all imagine for each other.
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
Let's Dismantle Ageism, Peninsula Family Service workshop
When: March 2, 2021 04:30 pm
More info: Details pending.
Still Kicking, Peninsula Family Services workshop
When: March 16, 2021 04:30 pm
More info: Details pending.
keynote, Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation Summit
When: March 24, 2021 12:00 am
More info: Register for CABHI Summit 2021 here. General admission is free.
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.
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.