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learning from the women’s movement’s mistakes—and doing better

Here’s an excerpt from Ageist? Sexist? Who, Me? How to Start a Consciousness-Raising Group Around the Intersection of Ageism and Sexism (out later this spring from the Old School Clearinghouse). It’s about how women with privilege have left other women behind in the struggle for equal rights. We’re well into a new century, and at a time of unprecedented potential for social change. It’s no surprise that women are leading the movement to dismantle ageism. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors, which are what provoked the emergence of intersectional feminism. In the words disability justice advocate Dr. Angel Love Miles, Intersectionality demands that we work towards the liberation of everyone.”

The women’s movement has a troubled history.

Because it focuses on women of reproductive age, the women’s movement is ageist. The concept of “sisterhood” is integral to women’s rights, but by definition, sisters are close in age. (An image search under “sisterhood” yields no gray heads.) The practice of dividing the history of feminism into “waves” likewise consigns us to same- rather than mixed-age cohorts, and relegates older participants to the margins.

The women’s movement is also racist, because it has long focused on the interests of white women. Many activists for women’s suffrage were overtly racist, and many supported women’s right to vote as a way to offset the Black vote and bolster white supremacy. The movement has also been homophobic. In the 1970s , it was the failure of the women’s movement to address their issues that compelled Black and queer women to invent and demand intersectional analysis and activism. At the time, Betty Friedan, head of the National Organization of Women, coined the term “lavender menace” to describe the threat posed by outspoken lesbians, claiming their presence would slow progress towards economic and social equality for women.

Class bias has also slowed progress towards women’s liberation. Middle-class white women were instrumental in the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. Tech executive Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to ambitious women to “lean in” ignored structural discrimination: the glass ceiling that keeps the vast majority of women and minorities from reaching their professional potential. Because they benefit from white privilege and the shelter of patriarchy, middle-class white women were instrumental in electing, and attempting to re-elect, an overtly racist president who bragged about degrading and sexually assaulting women. 

Achieving true women’s liberation requires that white women learn to give up those privileges; that we keep in mind the way problems play out differently for different people; and that we aim for remedies that do not come at the expense of other women. The purpose of consciousness-raising is for women to identify experiences that unite us without ignoring our differences. Categories like gender, sexual orientation, class, and ethnicity may set us apart, but they’re also important vehicles for collective identity. The only effective and lasting way to advance equality is through solidarity and collective political action.

Here’s how the Black and Asian Feminist Solidarities’ website defines solidarity: “Solidarity at its core is about relationships. Solidarity means: we understand and commit to taking responsibility for one another—and that is the radical feminist future we believe in.” Are we willing to expand our circle of relationships? To be brave, and accept risks? That’s how we rise to the challenge posed by the Black and Asian Feminist Solidarities project: “What can we do together?”

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Why I want to translate “This Chair Rocks – A Manifesto Against Ageism” into Japanese and publish it in Japan

This guest post is by Keiko Shirokawa, a Tokyo-based senior producer for the German television network Zweites Deutches Fernsehen, who has long focused on anti-authoritarian and environmental justice initiatives. She wrote this letter to help persuade a Japanese publisher to acquire the rights. It worked. I just accepted an offer from Korocolor Publishers, which has hired Keiko to be the translator. Thank you, and hooray!.

In Japan – as in many other parts of the world – tackling issues affecting the aging population, improving public health, bolstering the medical system, and raising citizen’s awareness of health issues are critical, yet daunting, tasks. Concurrently, the elderly are barraged by advertising of commodities aimed at elderly consumers. And when the Japanese government recommended that their citizens not rely on the public pension system, they made it clear that they had abandoned means to address this issue of financial security properly.

The absence of a culture in which one feels comfortable can be tormenting to those who look ahead at an extended life expectancy in this super aging society. Contemporary culture – plays, music, literature – fail to speak to their hearts. In Japan, you can find a few who claim the necessity of studying gerontology, which is something, but these studies remain the subject of academia and scientific research.

In my case, I suddenly re-entered the world of broadcast television news when I was contacted to join a news crew covering the areas hit by the earthquake, tsunami on March 11, 2011, followed by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. I was 63 years old. On that day, I headed to the affected areas where dead bodies could still be found everywhere among the debris. Since that day, I haven’t stopped working for the foreign news agency that hired me then as a news producer. Ten years have passed since I started leading my life in a way so unexpected in Japanese society, and even unexpected to myself. I have been very healthy and competent enough to still keep this demanding job. However, my mind has been full of questions and fears for the many others who are not enjoying such a fulfilling life. And, in my heart, I feel a sense of alienation and isolation in Japanese society because of my age.

Under these circumstances, I came across This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite. Every point in this book seemed to brush away the cobwebs in my mind. I read it in one sitting. I was wondering how to convey these thoughts to Japanese society, which remains sexist as well as ageist. In other words, I was automatically translating it. Anti-ageism should penetrate Japanese society. I decided that the first thing I had to do was to publish a Japanese version of the book. I was unable to find a translated version of it on the market, so I approached a publisher, Korocolor first, whose reaction was very positive. I then sent an e-mail to Ashton Applewhite directly to ask for permission, which she enthusiastically granted.

In the meantime, the #MeToo movement had spread all around the world, and in Japan as well. A man of my generation and an old acquaintance was condemned because of sexual harassment. That led me back to the writings of the 1970s activists such as Betty Friedan. It was while reading her important book, The Fountain of Age, that I found Ashton Applewhite. Her work addressed so many questions that were filling my mind. I returned to the writings of Simone de Beauvoir as well.

I consider this book as a work that could spark an anti-ageism movement literally. At the same time, I see it as being on the vanguard, conveying a new culture for the elderly. I would like a translation of this book to be a first step in the creation of a new culture for the elderly in Japan and to be ready to make a declaration of anti-ageism to Japanese society. Therefore, it would be good to work with the publisher, Korocolor, which has published several in-depth books on the subject of the racism in Japan and has succeeded in reprinting many of them.

Also, in order to fill the inevitable gap existing between two different cultures, I asked Carol Baldwin, who is my best friend and a film producer and runs a community farm in Connecticut, to help fill in the gaps which might otherwise be lost in translation. She kindly accepted my request. The title, “This Chair Rocks,” is a good example to show the difficulty in translation, as a rocking chair is not associated in Japan with the elderly! Our elderly do not use rocking chairs when they rest; ours is not a chair culture.

I am 100% certain that the sexism I have been experiencing since I was born into Japanese society, the discrimination against Asians I was exposed to while living in the UK, and the ageism I am feeling deeply internally and externally these days should function as an ideological foundation to translate Ashton’s words into accurate and strong Japanese words.

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Ageless,” clueless . . . I goofed

During my book tour, I often closed readings with a passage about aspiring to “agelessness,” declaring it a form of age denial. A woman at Powell’s Books in Portland said, “Saying you’re ageless seems like saying you’re colorblind,” and the comparison stuck in my head. Later on, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility helped me understand the problem with “colorblind”: if we don’t see race/color, we don’t see racism. Eventually I put the two ideas together in a graphic that read: “’I’m ageless’ is to ageism as ‘I’m colorblind’ is to racism” and posted it to Instagram. I was pleased with the formulation, and even happier when an ally made the more elegant version below, setting the text against the silhouette of a Black woman.

Until a friend shared a different viewpoint: “As a woman of color I believe both ageism and racism need to be highlighted and addressed in today’s society, but I do not think they can be compared to each other. If it’s with reference to how they intersect, I get it, but when comparing one form of injustice to another, it can be interpreted as disregarding that group’s experiences and feelings. Racism deals with years of oppression, injustice, and countless moments of individuals feeling defeated on the basis of their skin color. Not everyone will know what that feels like, at least not in the eyes of BIPOC.” I apologized and thanked her, and received a gracious thanks for hearing her out.

Then I got defensive. Yes I knew I had to respect her experience as woman of color, but the woman who’d made the original analogy was Black! Yes I knew it was a mistake to compare “isms” (see Straw Man #4), but I was comparing ways of thinking about bias, not the biases themselves! Yes I knew this was defensive-white-person squirming, yet I squirmed. Then I asked for advice.

My partner told me I might be correct but that my friend was right: at the end of the day I was equating the two forms of oppression, which is unacceptable because the overall effects of systemic racism are so much more severe. My friend Julia confirmed it, although they cut me a bit of slack: “When you’re one-up in terms of privilege, when you haven’t had the lived experience, it’s easy to get yourself in hot water.” Julia does diversity and inclusion training professionally, and helped me see the issue as part a pattern of people “not seeing the part of you that maps to marginalization.”

What I should have done is place “I’m ageless” within a broader context. It’s part of a universal phenomenon in which people maintain, often with the best of intentions, that they “don’t see” difference. If “I don’t see your otherness” is a compliment, it reinforces what poet and activist Audre Lorde calls the “mythical norm”—typically white, male, thin, straight, cisgender, and non-disabled—as the standard against which other identities are weighed. The more closely people conform to that “norm,” the more privilege they enjoy. And vice versa: the fewer “boxes” people can check, the more oppression they’re likely to be up against. When people “don’t see” difference, they’re denying the lived experiences of those with less privilege, even though those experiences are at least as valuable.

Other examples?

  • “You don’t look trans to me.”
  • “I’d never have known you were disabled.”
  • “Sometimes I forget you’re Black.”

These experiences are not equivalent. Comments like these come from a place of privilege—from someone who conforms more closely to that “mythical norm” and thinks it’s a compliment to suggest the other person does too. They’re not compliments. They assume that “passing” is the goal, and that difference is something to overcome or overlook.

Our differences, whether of age or background or gender or something else entirely, are real. They’re part of our identities, part of what make us us. Lorde again: “It is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.” Paradoxically, when we “don’t see” differences, we give them both too much power and too little. We allow them to reinforce hierarchies of human value and at the same time close ourselves off to perceiving their intrinsic worth: the ways in which aspects of ourselves that include age, Blackness, queerness, and disability enrich our lives.

There is no norm. We are not broken. We are not “special.” We are not lesser. We are perfect. 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.

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Interested in meeting other anti-ageism advocates?

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!

Wherever on earth you are, one of these times ought to work:
Tuesday, March 30⋅5:00 – 6:30pm EST
Thursday, April 1⋅11:00am – 12:30pm EST
Come to both if you’d like!

Can’t make it but want to stay in the loop? Use the Contact Us form on the Old School home page to let us know, and we’ll add you to our Movement Builders google group.

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A wish fulfilled: the Year of Letting Our Hair Go Gray

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.

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Aging≠old. Aging=living. What do we lose when we get that wrong?

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.

Focusing all our interest in the age dimension of identity on older people cuts us off from asking what it means to be in right-relationship with our changing age identity from the beginning of life to the end of it. It doesn’t even work very well to support older people’s wellbeing as that is best done with practice and policy which protects through preventative approaches offered throughout life and not in age-segmented buckets.

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.

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Here’s to an intersectional new year!

A healthy year too, obviously, and as happy as we can make it. But what 2020 brought home for me was that being anti-ageist means supporting every movement for equal rights. It’s a big ask, but we cannot dismantle ageism without dismantling ableism, and racism, and sexism and all the rest, because  these systems reinforce and depend on each other. (That’s intersectionality—a clunky word for an important concept developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw and other Black feminists.) That’s why I’m delighted to announce the release of Ageist? Racist? Who Me?, Old School’s free guide to starting a consciousness-raising group around the intersection of ageism and racism. That’s why my new talk, Still Kicking: Confronting Ageism and Ableism in the Pandemic’s Wake, tackles dual stigma and the potential for collective liberation. And that’s why I’m wishing for an intersectional 2021 and beyond. In the words of disability justice advocate Dr. Angel Love Miles, “Intersectionality demands that we work towards the liberation of everyone.”

Nowhere are the consequences of belonging to more than one marginalized group more tragically evident than in the havoc COVID19 continues to wreak in long-term care facilities—which, like the rest of our healthcare system, had already been largely privatized and set up to fail. More than 120,000 long-term care workers and residents have died since the pandemic began[i]. Less than 1% of America’s population lives in long-term care facilities, but as of December 31, 2020, they accounted for 38% of US COVID-19 deaths.[ii] Residents are now dying at three times the rate they did in July.[iii]

Who lives in care homes? Older people and people with disabilities.

  • Over 80% Americans who’ve died of COVID19 were aged 65 and over.[iv] Age does put us at higher risk—but not in these numbers.
  • Unlike age, cognitive impairment is not a risk factor for COVID. Yet Americans with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to contract the virus than other people, and at least twice as likely to die from it[v].
  • People live in nursing homes not because they’re old, but because they’re disabled. Ageism and ableism— seeing older and disabled people as less valuable members of society— legitimize their appalling abandonment.

Who works in care homes? Most care workers are women of color earning minimum wage or less.

  • A society that doesn’t value its older and disabled members doesn’t value the people who care for us. This is especially the case if they are women, people of color, and/or undocumented immigrants. This describes most care home aides, who perform a job more deadly than logging or deep-sea fishing—for poverty wages that require many to work more than one job in order to feed their families.[vi]
  • Nursing homes with a significant number of black and Latinx residents have been twice as likely to be hit as homes whose populations are overwhelmingly white—no matter where they are, how big they are, or how they’re rated.[vii] The risk factor isn’t race, it’s racism.

What’s the good news? Activism is intersectional too. Just as different forms of oppression compound and reinforce each other, so do different forms of advocacy and education: when we confront any prejudice, we chip away at the fear and ignorance that underlie them all. A better world in which to grow old is also better place to be non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-rich—and vice versa.

 There’s a regrettable human tendency to think about this in zero-sum terms: I can only manage one role! But that’s not how equity works. When we ignore or overlook what the most marginalized are up against, inequality increases, which harms people and reduces collective well-being. When we use our privilege to create circumstances that enable everyone to participate and contribute, on the other hand, we all benefit.

This path is messier and harder and longer. It’s also the sustainable, ethical, and joyful path, and I’m glad to be on it.


[i] More than 120,000 long-term care workers and residents have died

“This Is Why Nursing Homes Failed So Badly,” by E. Tammy Kim, New York Times, Dec 31, 2020

[ii] Less than 1% of America’s population lives in long-term care facilities

The COVID Tracking Project, Atlantic magazine, Dec 31, 2020, https://covidtracking.com/data/long-term-care

More Than 100,000 U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Are Linked to Nursing Homes,” New York Times, Dec 4, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-nursing-homes.html

[iii] Residents are now dying at three times the rate they did in July

“This Is Why Nursing Homes Failed So Badly,” by E. Tammy Kim, New York Times, Dec 31, 2020,

[iv] Over 80% Americans who’ve died of COVID19

Older Adults at greater risk of requiring hospitalization or dying if diagnosed with COVID-19,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dec 13, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/older-adults.html

[v] Yet Americans with intellectual disabilities

COVID-19 Infections And Deaths Are Higher Among Those With Intellectual Disabilities,” by Joseph Shapiro, National Public Radio, June 9, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/06/09/872401607/covid-19-infections-and-deaths-are-higher-among-those-with-intellectual-disabili

[vi] a job more deadly than logging or deep-sea fishing

“How Many of These 68,000 Deaths Could Have Been Avoided?” New York Times Editorial Board, Sept 5, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/05/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-nursing-homes-deaths.html

[vii] Nursing homes with a significant number of black and Latinx residents

The Striking Racial Divide in How Covid-19 Has Hit Nursing Homes,” New York Times Coronavirus Outbreak project, Sept. 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-nursing-homes-racial-disparity.html

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What’s a better question to be asking about Senator Dianne Feinstein?

Last week the New Yorker magazine published an article describing the senior senator from California “seriously struggling” with cognitive impairment, titled “Dianne Feinstein’s Missteps Raise a Painful Age Question Among Senate Democrats.” The issue it raises isn’t a “painful age question.” It’s a painful competence question: is Senator Feinstein capable of carrying out her duties?  

The brouhaha that followed centered on whether or when Senator Feinstein ought to step down, a legitimate question. At the heart of the matter is a deeper one: why do we avoid discussing and dealing compassionately with cognitive decline?

  • because cognitive decline is so profoundly stigmatized
  • because age-related losses threaten the illusion of autonomy. In fact we are interdependent from birth to death, and, in the words of Dutch gerontologist Jan Baars, “Autonomy requires collaborators.
  • because internalized bias requires us to remain in denial—“My recall works fine.” “I’m safe behind the wheel.” “This’ll never happen to me.”—even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

What do we fear most of all?  Indignity. Public shaming. Precisely what Senator Feinstein now faces—because of her own denial, because her friends and colleagues colluded in that denial, and because an ageist and ableist culture gives them cover. That culture has to change, because the current climate of secrecy and complicity is a problem for everyone. As the article pointed out, “declining male senators, including Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, and Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, were widely known by the end of their careers to be non-compos mentis.” Is Feinstein facing harsher criticism because of her gender? Probably. But competence is the issue, not age, or gender.  When a seniority-based system like the U.S. Senate conceals incapacity, it discredits the system as a whole, and casts doubt unfairly on all its older members.

We have a right to know that our elected representatives are capable of carrying out their duties. This is not a partisan issue. Nor is it confined to politics. Ageist and ableist assumptions—that aging is awful and disability is tragic—harm every older and/or developmentally disabled person, no matter their age or place in the world.

Those assumptions are biased and misinformed. Most forgetfulness is not Alzheimer’s, or dementia, or even necessarily a sign of cognitive impairment. Even as the population ages, dementia rates are falling, significantly, and people are being diagnosed at later ages. Some twenty percent of the population escapes cognitive decline entirely; we all know some of those sharp nonagenarians. At the other end of the spectrum, up to five percent face early-onset Alzheimer’s. Most of us will end up somewhere in the middle, slowed but able to enjoy our lives and make our way in the world—like Feinstein, who is 13 days short of being the oldest member of Congress. (Rep. Dan Young is also 87.) People age well not by avoiding chronic illness and disability but by adapting to them. Had Feinstein not run for reelection, she could be going through this difficult transition out of the public eye. But hindsight is 20/20, and denial—cruel, dangerous, and enabled at every turn—is the default.

The necessary alternative—imperative, even—is to educate ourselves about cognitive decline, and learn to talk about it openly and accurately. Because the brain is where the self resides and the deepest terrors are the hardest to confront, neurological decline is a repository for our darkest fears. But those worries are hugely out of proportion to reality, and the dread itself puts us at higher risk. We know that attitudes towards aging affect how the mind and body function at the cellular level.  People with fact- rather than fear-based attitudes towards aging are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s—even if they have the gene that predisposes them to the disease.

Cognitive decline does not mean the loss of personhood. It is not inevitable. It should not be shameful. And it’s not going away: we are living longer than ever before. Instead of trying to sweep this aspect of what it means to be human under the rug, we need to address it—openly, realistically, and compassionately. This means culture change: mobilizing against the dual stigma of age and disability, starting between our ears. It’s doable. It is also the work of a lifetime and must be engaged in with others. What are we waiting for?

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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.