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“MAKE NOISE ABOUT THIS!” – Nasty Woman Writers reviews my manifesto

This thoughtful review, the kind every writer dreams of, was written by Maria Dintino. She and Theresa Dintino created Nasty Women Writers, where the review first appeared, “to amplify the voices and messages of powerful women . . . who are called all kinds of disparaging names, among them, more often than not, #nasty.” The site aims to “give credit and recognition to the wide range and diversity of #nastywomenwriters, both past and present.” I’m honored and delighted to be one of them.

Last Christmas one of my sisters gave me a copy of the book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, by Ashton Applewhite.

Perhaps it’s because I’m creeping closer to turning 60 that I finally decided to read it, or perhaps it’s because I’m creeping closer to 60 that I kept it at bay for so long, collecting dust on a shelf for the better part of a year. Either way, I’m elated that I finally read it and I’m ready to make noise about this!

Ageism, like other forms of discrimination, becomes more noticeable and intolerable once it’s painstakingly brought to one’s attention. Painstakingly because Applewhite takes the time to expose ageism in all the ways it manifests in our culture, the damage it inflicts, and ways to change course.

This is the sort of book that insists on copious pages of notes and oodles of colored sticky flags; so bear with me if I’m quotation-heavy, because no one speaks to ageism better than Ashton Applewhite, said to be “the most prominent anti-ageism activist today”(Baum).

Also, since she covers so much territory in This Chair Rocks, I was forced to select only a handful of her illuminations and arguments, so do yourself a very serious favor and read the book! She paints the complete picture, where all I can offer here are glimpses.

According to Applewhite, ageism is:

“discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of a person’s age. We’re ageist when we feel or behave differently toward a person or a group on the basis of how old we think they are…Ageism isn’t a household word yet, nor a sexy one, but neither was “sexism” until the women’s movement turned it into a howl for equal rights”(8).

She continues, providing a broader, more inclusive scope, from the intersectionality of ageism to our complicity in it:

“All ‘isms’ – ageism, racism, sexism – are socially constructed ideas. That means we make them up, and they change over time. Like all discrimination, ageism legitimizes and sustains inequalities between groups, in this case, between the young and the no-longer-young. Different kinds of discrimination – including racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and homophobia – interact, creating layers of oppression in the lives of individuals and groups. The oppression is reflected in and reinforced by society through the economic, legal, medical, commercial, and other systems that each of us navigates in daily life. Unless we challenge the stigma, we reproduce it”(9).

Although we may own some of the blame by not challenging ageism, Applewhite places the bulk of the struggle where it belongs, on policy and budgetary decisions with competing priorities:

“A big GDP is less important than political will and long-term planning. Resources are not inherently scarce; the United States spends almost as much on its military as all other nations of the world combined. This “scarcity” is the result of policy decisions in a society whose oldest – and youngest- citizens are demeaned and disregarded”(34).

There has to be a shift in national priorities if we want to improve the quality of our longer lives.

Ageism is unique in that it’s

“a prejudice against our own future selves, as Todd Nelson and many other age scholars have observed, and has the dubious distinction of being the only “ism” related to a universal condition. It takes root in the denial of the fact that we’re going to get old. That we are aging…

“That’s the nature of prejudice: always ignorant, usually hostile. It begins as a distaste for others, and in the case of age (as opposed to race or sex), it turns into a distaste for oneself”(16-17).

This statement hit me hard and I am now keenly aware of when I experience this distaste for my aging self. When I experience this, I turn it around to an appreciation of this stage of the life span, one where there is no shortage of ambition, joy, and beauty, if we chose to see it, as we do in the other phases of life.

It’s incumbent on each of us to recognize and reject “the incessant barrage of messages from every quarter that consigns the no-longer-young to the margins of society. In our mindless absorption of those messages and numb collusion in our own disenfranchisement,”(9) we allow ageism to undermine our experiences.

Let’s get one thing straight, aging not a bad thing! It’s not something you can or should try to avoid! It is the natural process of life. How basic is that?

Applewhite challenges our notion that the majority of olders languish in facilities: “Only 2.5 percent of Americans over sixty-five live in nursing homes,”(40) and she challenges our notion that olders no longer have an interest in sex: “Sex and arousal do change, but often for the better, especially for women”(5).“Here’s the kicker: People are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. If you don’t want to take my word for it, Google “U-curve of happiness.” Even as age strips us of the things we cherished – physical strength, beloved friends, toned flesh – we grow more content”(5).

I can attest to the U-curve of happiness.

Applewhite, armed with research and in the company of scholars, bust other myths too, such as: “Society will be swamped by all these old people!” and “An older population will bog everyone else down in caring for the sick and the frail,” and “Olders are a drag on the economy,” and “One generation benefits at the expense of another,” and “Social security bankrupted! Medicare exhausted!” and “We can’t afford longevity.”

Wow, all that ugly negativity. But Applewhite debunks these notions and as she does, I sense a veil lifting, revealing the truth and the way it should and could be.

Working on a college campus, I’m well aware that ageism goes both ways and I speak up when I hear ageism being hurled toward the youngers:

Ashton Applewhite’s TED talk 2017: Let’s end ageism  (Credit: Bret Hartman/TED)

“If someone assumes that we’re “too young”: ageism cuts both ways, and young people experience a lot of it. That’s what’s going on when people grumble about lazy Millennials or complain that “kids are like that”(9).

It’s not hard to see that ageism doesn’t make any sense either way. We were young once and living in the world we inherited, and we’re getting older day by day, living in that same world, slightly altered by our own doing! The vast majority of people are not lazy as children, not lazy as adolescents, and not lazy as adults at any age. (Can we get rid of the word lazy since it seems like a cover for disappointed, deflated, sad, bored?)

Can we accept and embrace that people at all ages are worthy of recognition and respect? There is nowhere along the age span where you were a better, more valuable person than you are now. This goes for the baby who is now 5 and the 30-year-old who is now 50. Do we know things now we didn’t know then? Yes. Could we do things then that we can’t do now? Perhaps. But this has no bearing on our worth and how we should be treated. Ever.

One of my favorite sections of the book is where Applewhite addresses the potency of  intergenerational living. For a number of reasons, none of which are healthy, we’re a society hell-bent on segregation which hinders our quality of life in so many ways.

We can do better and we’d ALL benefit if we did do better!

As Applewhite says:

“A social compact for longer lives would opt for integration over age apartheid, in the form of affordable, multi-generational housing, adequate and accessible public transportation, and universal compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It would provide families – defined not by biology but by long-term mutual commitment- with subsidized caregiving at decent wages, and treat those workers with dignity. It would enforce the Elder Justice Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act”(237).

Are you feeling an urge to make noise yet?

She continues:

“not only because segregation impoverishes our lives but because the exchange of skills and stories across generations makes sense in so many arenas, from kitchen to conference room, from learning a language to mastering a sport, from art to astronomy. The list could go on forever, because it’s the natural order of things. In the United States, ageism has subverted it, impoverishing youngers as well as olders. And when people aren’t visible, whether ghettoized or homebound, whether by choice or reluctantly, so are the issues that affect them”(192).

Let’s process that one again, “And when people aren’t visible, whether ghettoized or homebound, whether by choice or reluctantly, so are the issues that affect them”(192). The motives, dangers and short-sightedness of segregation in a nutshell.

And let’s hear it for UNIVERSAL DESIGN, a concept that’s been around since at least the 1980s!

“Age-friendly communities aren’t just wheelchair- and walker-friendly, they’re gurney- and skateboard- and stroller- and bus-passenger- and delivery-guy- and tired-person friendly. Let’s call these programs what they are – all-age friendly. Let’s acknowledge the need for helping hands, and reach for them gratefully and without shame”(180).

A final point I want to highlight is a hobgoblin that shows up in so many of our social constructs: the big ol’ binary.

“Reject the bogus old/young binary”(50). When someone asks “How old are you?” Tell the truth. Then ask what difference the number makes”(52).

Applewhite provides numerous practical ways we can respond to questions and comments we receive and overhear about age, as well as edit the ones we ask others. When we question ourselves and others, we’re all forced to stop and think. Then we can see that ageism isn’t in anyone’s best interest, and we can call and work for change.

A couple of parting quotes from Applewhite’s manifesto to further entice you to read and share it:

“It’s harder to unlearn than to learn, especially when it comes to values. The critical starting point is to acknowledge our own prejudices…Acknowledging bias is an uncomfortable task and an ongoing one, as I’m reminded on a regular basis. Make the effort and the rewards are real- you can’t get that genie back in the bottle.

“I hear regularly from people who’ve begun to reject age shame that they instantly feel relieved and empowered. As we travel this path- from accepting stigma to perceiving it as unjust and realizing that we can challenge it through collective action – we experience what sociologist Doug McAdam calls “cognitive liberation.” It’s a fantastic feeling, and it is the linchpin of movement-building”(226-227).

I have made a personal commitment to combat ageism when I see it, hear it, and ignorantly perpetuate it. I am ready to make noise, not only because I’m turning 60 and am on the receiving end of this prejudice more often, but because after reading Applewhite’s book, I can see how entrenched it is in our culture.

To me, ageism seems an extension of a consumeristic society, a culture that views almost everything as disposable. It’s the same cultural mindset that is destroying our planet and keeping sexist, racist, and other oppressive systems in place.

“Like the ongoing movements that continue to challenge entrenched systems of racism and sexism, overcoming ageism is going to take a lot of determined people of all ages working to overturn “the way things are.” That means a lot of uncomfortable reassessments, difficult conversations, and outright conflict, not just over healthcare and housing but about when we stop valuing people, and why – not because we grow old, but because we do so in an ageist world. That struggle is essential if we want to create a world in which people can find meaning and purpose at every stage of life”(Applewhite 241).

Ashton Applewhite has tackled the big issue of ageism head-on and compellingly. She has done the heavy lifting, exposing the many facets of this prejudice and for that I am very grateful.

I agree with Anne Lamott, one of my all-time favorite writers, who says, “I never use the word empower, but this book has empowered me”(Hill).

Ashton Applewhite is a #Nasty Woman Writer and Activist!

© Maria Dintino 2020

Works Cited

Applewhite, Ashton. This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. New York: Celadon Books, 2019.

Baum, Caroline. “The ugly truth about ageism: it’s a prejudice targeting our future selves.” The Guardian, 14 Sept 2018.

Hill, Amelia. “I refuse to regret waking up a day older’: Ashton Applewhite’s fight for age pride – The activist on her manifesto to empower older people, how to challenge age prejudice – and why she dyes her hair grey.” The Guardian, 17 June 2019.

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my new talk is out in the world

My new talk, “Still Kicking – Confronting Ageism and Ableism in the Pandemic’s Wake,” debuted earlier this week at n4a, the national conference of Area Agencies on Aging—to rave reviews, yay! Here’s a look at some of the ground it covers:

  • Remember the early messaging about the virus? “Don’t worry, it will ‘only’ infect the old and the ill.” That is the lethal, global impact of ageism and ableism, two forms of prejudice we talk about too little and too late—for which the entire world is now paying dearly.
  • After COVID struck, there was a lot of hand-wringing, as there always is around anything age-related, with a lot of people saying the pandemic is making ageism and ableism worse. Here’s a different way to think about it: The pandemic isn’t making ageism and ableism worse, it’s exposing what’s been all around us all along—and giving us a historic opportunity to build on that awareness.
  • It doesn’t take much head-scratching to realize that much of our fear about aging is actually about how our minds and bodies might change as we move through life. That’s not ageism, it’s ableism. It’s not actually about age: plenty of youngers live with disability and plenty of olders do not. It’s the misguided belief that being non-disabled is “normal” and that leading meaningful, desirable lives means staying youthful, able­-bodied and able­-minded. Only the well-off can pursue this goal, which segregates us, sets us up to fail, and fills us with needless dread.
  • The intersection of ageism and ableism is where many of our darkest fears reside. Illness. Incontinence. Indignity. It’s also where we encounter—in direct proportion to those fears—the potential for personal liberation and collective activism.
  • When an acoustic neuroma destroyed most of the hearing in my left ear, I caught myself thinking, “At least it’s sexy brain tumor deafness instead of sad old-person deafness.”  Which makes me both ageist and ableist. So is the title of this talk—“Still Kicking”—although at least it’s on purpose. Using “still” to modify an ordinary activity (like working, or driving, or having sex) is an ageist habit because why would people stop? It’s ableist because why sort people according to whether or not they can kick?
  • Systemic discrimination is a formidable obstacle. But it is real, which makes it easier to tackle than something nonexistent: the imaginary failings which these systems created and need us to believe in.  We are not broken. We are not special. We are not lesser. We are perfect. Or, as a Buddhist friend gently corrected, “We are perfectly imperfect.”
  • All of us lucky enough to grow old—a privilege denied to many—will age into impairment of some kind. People age well not by avoiding chronic illness and disability but by adapting to them.
  • There are billions of us. Fifteen percent of the world’s population is disabled. Half of us are no longer young. Our numbers are growing. Medical advances mean that more disabled people are reaching adulthood and beyond. All over the world people are living longer: population aging is a permanent, global, demographic trend. We won’t make the most of those longer lives without confronting ageism and ableism in the world around us, starting between our ears. Nor will be as effective as these turbulent times demand. Let’s join forces.

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the manifesto is out in paperback!

And a thing of beauty ! You can support your local bookstore by ordering it from IndieBound or Bookshop. It’s also available from Barnes & Noble, and of course from Amazon, where you could make my day by writing a review. If you like the book. Which you will, because I guarantee it’ll make you think differently—and feel better—about the years ahead. More about the book here.

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Age justice requires disability justice—and vice versa.

A terrific special section of today’s New York Times is devoted to the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. There is no mention of age or ageism. It would be convenient to attribute that omission to the fact that most older people are not disabled (true but complicated). But you sure wouldn’t know it from the way the media and public health advisories turn the vast and varied 60+ population into “the [frail/vulnerable/dependent] elderly.” And it’s not the real reason. The real reason is that we act as though people with disabilities don’t grow old and olders never become disabled—and an ageist and ableist culture gives us cover.

That has to change. Aging and disability are not the same. But they overlap in ethically and tactically important ways:

There are a lot of us, and our numbers are growing. As modern medicine saves people who once would have died, more disabled people are reaching adulthood and beyond. One out of four American adults has some type of disability. Disability rates rise steeply after age 75—the fastest-growing age cohort. Population aging is a permanent, global, demographic trend. Some impairment awaits us all.

We all face stigma, and we’re all biased. Both olders and people with disabilities encounter discrimination, and prejudice. Many olders refuse to use wheelchairs or walkers, even when it means never leaving home, because the stigma is so great. People with disabilities are as ageist as everyone else. When an acoustic neuroma destroyed most of the hearing in one ear, I caught myself thinking, “At least it’s sexy brain-tumor-deafness, not sad old-person deafness”—making me both ageist and ableist.

Ignoring the overlap between ageism and ableism leaves stigma unchallenged and rules out collective activism. A mandate of the disability justice movement is to stand in solidarity with other marginalized groups, as the Black Panthers did in 1977 by bringing supplies and cooked meals to the over 100 disabled protesters who occupied the San Francisco H.E.W offices for almost a month, and as the Black Lives Matter movement is doing now by supporting the rights of transgender and Indigenous people. “Speak up not only for your own disability, but for invisible disabilities, and disabled people of color as well,” urges activist Alice Wong, the author of Disability Visibility. Speak up, too, for older people with disabilities, who have much to learn from younger pwd about adapting, identity, and pride.

Just as realizing the potential of the disability justice movement means joining forces with age activists, being anti-ageist means being anti-ableist. For most of us—including me, so stay tuned to this blog—that means learning more about disability. Watch Crip Camp and learn about disability culture.  Being anti-ageist also means being anti-racist, which right now means supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Because achieving equal rights for everyone—everyone!—means ending White Supremacy. Because growing old is a privilege denied to many black, brown, and disabled people. And because it’s all one struggle.

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Breonna Taylor did not get to grow old

Here’s my latest newsletter. Subscribe here. I don’t write them very often, no spam, and it’s easy to unsubscribe.

Breonna Taylor, a Black EMT, was murdered in her bed at 26 years old. Michael Brown was 18. Tamir Rice was 12. Why am I writing about these young victims of police brutality in a newsletter about ageism? Because systemic racism stands between so many black and brown people and long life itself. Because being anti-ageist means being anti-racist. Because, in the words of poet and activist Audre Lorde, “There’s no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don’t lead single-issue lives.” 

At 17, when I carried a candle across the Potomac River in Washington DC, my home town, to protest the Vietnam War, I didn’t understand that the black liberation movement was fueling massive social change around the world: not just the anti-Vietnam War movement, but the Paris uprisings of May ’68, the disability justice movement (watch Crip Camp), the women’s liberation movement, and the gay rights movement (listen to documentary filmmaker Yoruba Richen explain why none of us is free until all of us are free). I’ve been marching ever since, but for a long time race and class protected me.

I got the sexism memo in my 30s, as I struggled to stay married under patriarchy. In my 50s, afraid of growing old, I woke up to ageism. In my 60s, hearing loss and bone badness brought ableism home. Enter COVID, which has glaringly exposed the intersectional nature of vulnerability itself. Which brings us full circle, as always. The pandemic has hit older Americans hard, but it has hit Black olders the hardest. Systemic racism is fundamental to capitalism and our society is built on it. (Here’s a crash course from author and activist Kimberly Jones on how racism is embedded in the history of the United States.) Achieving equal rights for everyone—everyone!—means ending White Supremacy. Right now, that means supporting the Black Lives Matter movement with our words, our wallets, and our masked and distanced bodies if we can.

We live in a society that outfits policemen in state-of-the-art military gear and hospital workers in garbage bags, where people who diverge from what Lorde called the “mythical norm”—think white, young, male, non-disabled, thin, cisgender, and financially secure—are dying from COVID19 in vastly higher numbers. These things are related. Just as different forms of oppression compound and reinforce each other, activism is intersectional too. When we confront White Supremacy, we not only make the world a better place in which to be Black, we make it a better place in which to be old, to be female, to have a disability, to be queer, and to be poor. It’s all one struggle. If I can learn to cut my own hair, anything is possible—including the revolutionary change that just might be within our grasp. 
With my friend Ardele at an #EldersForBlackLives
protest in front of New York’s City Hall in NYC on June 24th
I show up in person when it’s safe because it makes me feel good; you may not want or be able to, which of course is totally fine. There are tons of excellent books, articles and movies to help us understand racism and how to end it. Here are some starting points from NYTimes columnist Michelle Alexander. Reading isn’t enough. As someone quipped on Twitter, Extreme Weather Study Groups don’t help communities ravaged by hurricanes. Here’s a Guide to Allyship, which quotes author Roxanne Gay:
Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance. We need people to do this even if they cannot fully understand what it’s like to be oppressed for their race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, or other marker of identity. We need people to use common sense to figure out how to participate in social justice
It’s our fight too.

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We’re all Old People in Training, whether we know it yet or not

This excerpt from my book ran on TED’s “Ideas” page under the title Rather than identifying as old, young or middle-aged, be an “old person in training” instead. I’ve loved that idea since I encountered over a decade ago (!), although I had no idea how central to my thinking it would become.

Becoming an Old Person in Training allows us to choose purpose and intent over dread and denial and connects us empathically with our future selves, says author and activist Ashton Applewhite.

What’s the best answer to “How old are you?” Tell your questioner the truth — and then ask why it matters. Ask what shifted in their mind once they had a number, and ask why they think they needed to know. The information feels foundational, but it isn’t. We ask partly out of sheer habit, carried over from childhood, when a month was an eternity and each year marked developmental changes and new freedoms.

“The kids drive me crazy asking how old I am,” said 80-year-old Detroit schoolteacher Penny Kyle. “I don’t mind telling my age, but I know on the job it can cause you a problem, so I always say I’m 104.” Ha!

We ask because age functions as a convenient shorthand, a way to contextualize accomplishments and calibrate expectations. It’s lazy, though, and utterly unreliable, and arguably impertinent. A woman who attended one of my talks says she answers the question by retorting, “How much do you weigh?” Scientist Silvia Curado refuses to give her age — not because she wants people to take her for younger but because she refuses to be pigeonholed in a way that she finds “reductive and usually faulty.” Her consciousness makes it a political act. Social worker Natalia Granger offers a radical suggestion: Follow the example of gender-nonconforming people. When asked for your age, identify as “age-nonconforming.”

Author and environmental activist Colin Beavan did something similar when he announced on Facebook that he was “coming out as age queer. I am not comfortable with the roles and stereotypes associated with the age of the body I was born into,” he wrote. “My body’s age is not my age. From now on, I will be identifying as 37.”

I want to be age queer by rejecting not my age but the fixed meanings that people assign to it.

I love the culture hack, but I want to modify it because identifying as 37 (still “young”) is a form of denial. After a back-and-forth, he decided to stop identifying with a specific age. I want to be age queer by rejecting not my age but the fixed meanings that people assign to it. I claim my age at the same time that I challenge its primacy and its value as a signifier.

The habit of wanting to know a person’s age is hard to break. Take the journalistic convention of including ages in newspaper stories. Two stories in the same week — one about a 42-year-old nursing student running for homecoming queen and another about a 91-year-old mayor swindling River Falls, Alabama, out of $201,000 — got me thinking about it. Dolores Barclay, a veteran Associated Press reporter, fielded my question.

“It is just another essential fact to include about the subjects we cover. It’s part of the ‘who’ in reporting,” Barclay responded. “Age is often relevant to certain stories as well. For example, if we write about a ‘senior citizen’ or ‘older person’ who takes her first skydive, does the story have more impact if the subject is 70 or if she’s 99? Or, if we’re profiling the accomplishments of a musician who has had an illustrious and amazing career, don’t we want to know how old he is? What if he’s only 24, but reading the story we might think he’s 60?”

Obviously, the subject’s age belongs in obituaries and profiles of child prodigies but I believe its reflexive inclusion in other stories is nothing but a bad habit. In terms of it being a necessary part of the “who” of a story, race is no longer an obligatory part of the “who” — unless the story is about race relations. Why should age be any dif­ferent? There are plenty of ways to clue readers in the rare event that it’s relevant to the story. A little confusion could rattle assumptions about what people are capable of at a given stage of life or what they have in common across age divides, which would be all to the good.

To avoid reducing people to labels or medical diagnoses, disability etiquette prescribes “people first” language: instead of “mentally ill,” saying “people with mental illness;” instead of “autistic” or “epileptic,” saying “people who have autism” or “people who have epilepsy;” instead of “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair,” saying “wheelchair users;” and so on. The disability is a characteristic of the person; it does not define them.

A lot of people are in the grips of a cruel paradox: They aspire to grow old yet they dread the prospect.

So, here’s yet another thought experiment: How about learning from the disability rights movement and conceiving of ourselves as “people with age” instead of as X- or Y-year-olds? Age becomes just another attribute, like being a good speller or a Filipino or a Cubs fan. People could “have years” — just as people with dementia “have trouble thinking.”

Age needn’t set apart, nor be set apart from other identifiers. Person first, as retired psychotherapist Bill Krakauer discovered when he started taking acting classes. “So here are these bunch of kids and they see an old guy, right? After a while it quiets down. It takes a few weeks, but everybody forgets. I stop looking at them like young people, and they stop looking at me like an old guy and we’re all just people.”

My final thought experiment: Think of yourself as an Old Person in Training. In 2008, I heard geriatrician Joanne Lynn describe herself as an Old Person in Training, and I’ve been one ever since. I know I’m not young, I don’t see myself as old, and I know a lot of people feel the same way. They’re in the grips of a cruel paradox: They aspire to grow old yet they dread the prospect. They spend a lot of energy sustaining the illusion that the old are somehow not us.

Becoming an Old Person in Training bridges the us/them divide and loosens the grip of that exhausting illusion. It acknowledges the inevitability of oldness while relegating it to the future — albeit at an ever-smaller remove. It opts for purpose and intent over dread and denial. It connects us empathically with our future selves. As Simone de Beauvoir put it: “If we do not know who we are going to be, we cannot know who we are: Let us recognize ourselves in this old man or in that old woman. It must be done if we are to take upon ourselves the entirety of our human state.”

In a world increasingly segregated by race and class as well as by age, reaching over those divisions to acknowledge the one path we’ll all travel is a radical act. It means ditching preconceptions, looking at and listening carefully to the olders around us, and re-envisioning our place among them. It means looking at older people and not past them, remembering they were once our age, seeing resilience alongside infirmity, allowing for sensuality, and enlarging our notion of beauty. It means thoughtful peeks through the periscope of an open mind at the terrain we will someday inhabit.

Becoming an Old Person in Training does take imagination, however. In her book A Long Bright Future: An Action Plan for a Lifetime of Happiness, Health, and Financial Security, psychologist Laura Carstensen describes the importance of generating realistic, humane visions of our future selves — what we’ll want to be doing and be capable of — and embarking on the tasks and changes and sacrifices that will get us there. “If we can’t picture ourselves teaching, laughing, loving and contributing to society when we’re 90 and 100, then good luck is about the only thing that will get us there,” she writes.

Becoming an Old Person in Training is a political act, because it derails this shame and self-loathing. It undoes the “otherness” that powers ageism (and racism and nationalism).

As an Old Person in Training, I see the 90-year-old me as withered and teetery but also curious and content. Envisioning her won’t make it happen, but I sure can’t get there without the aspiration. It means working against the human tendency to underestimate how much we’ll change in the future. Rich, complex stories about the past tend to yield vague, prosaic projections of a future in which things stay pretty much the same. Maybe that’s because the unknown breeds unease or because predicting the future is more difficult than reminiscing or because the task holds less appeal in a youth-centric society.

The consensus from people over 80 is that young people worry way too much about getting old, so the earlier we make this imaginative leap, the better. The sooner this lifelong process is stripped of reflexive dread, the better equipped we are to benefit from the countless ways in which it can enrich us. Some people are born with this awareness, and so have longer to develop the capacities that will serve them well later in life, capacities such as the ability to keep making new friends, to value internal resources, and to be able to let go, says writer and medical sociologist Anne Karpf. She also notes the values most admired in the industrialized world — high personal and economic productivity — do little to help us age. We would do both ourselves and the planet a favor, she observes, if we reject those values for more humanitarian and communitarian ones.

Becoming an Old Person in Training makes it easier to think critically about what age means in this society and the forces at work behind depictions of older people as useless and pathetic. Shame can damage self-esteem and quality of life as much as externally imposed stereotyping. Becoming an Old Person in Training is a political act, because it derails this shame and self-loathing. It undoes the “otherness” that powers ageism (and racism and nationalism). It makes room for empathy and action. It robs the caricatures of crone and geezer of their power and frees us to become our full — our ageful — selves.

I may be jumping onto podiums instead of out of airplanes, but I’m not running away from aging. That sets me apart from the aspirational supergeezers — people who want to be part of the smattering of octogenarian CEOs, nonagenarian performers and centenarian diploma-earners. The media loves ’em, but placing them on pedestals distracts from the social and economic factors that shrink the worlds of most older and disabled people. My attitude also sets me apart from an awful lot of other “aging experts” who are invested in the opposite: a deficit model of aging (helping the frail and needy age). We’re all Old People in Training, whether we know it yet or not, and our numbers will swell as we reject demeaning stereotypes and claim our aging selves.

Excerpted from the new book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite. Copyright © 2019 Ashton Applewhite. Reprinted with the permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing, LLC.

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The pandemic isn’t making ageism worse. It’s exposing it—and that’s a good thing.

Image courtesy of NPR

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.

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6 reasons to watch Crip Camp

Campers at Camp Jened, as seen in Crip Camp. 
Steve Honigsbaum/Sundance Institute

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 Capitol 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.