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Envisioning Elderhood—This-Chair-Rocks style

This email came in a few days ago from gerontology professor Elizabeth Bergman, and it made very happy—almost as happy as the video beneath it, which was created by her student, Anne Qu. It’s smart and funny all the way through, but I especially loved the part where Qu rearranges photographs of all the people she’s already been—a perfect representation of the book’s epigraph: “We contain all the ages we have ever been”—and anticipates the wrinklier incarnations to come. Also, I admit, the scene with the two guys on the sofa talking about the “old guy in the club,” which made me laugh out loud.

Hello, Ashton,

I’m writing to tell you how much I appreciate your book. As a gerontology educator at Ithaca College, my primary endeavor is to teach “traditional age” college undergrads about age and the aging process. Most of my students will only ever take one such course in their entire educational career, so I strive to make as much impact as I can in the course of one short semester! I am using This Chair Rocks for the second time this semester in a course I teach called “Age Matters: Discovering the Possibilities beyond Midlife.” Your book is so accessible and my students really connect with your message.

Students conclude the semester with an “Envisioning Elderhood” presentation, in which they reflect on the development of their thinking about age and aging and imagine their own experience of aging. They are given several prompts to which they must respond in the presentation, including how they plan to “Push Back” and how they are an “Old Person in Training.” Here is a link to the presentation created by Annie Qu last semester (she was happy for me to share with you). You’ll see the influence of This Chair Rocks all over it!

AQu Envisioning Elderhood Pres.1 from Ashton Applewhite on Vimeo.

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AARP’s new video: Aging Stereotypes Aren’t a Punchline

I like! It’s provocative, witty, and a huge improvement on one that preceded it, “What Does ‘Old’ Look Like to Millennials?” I do take issue with the video’s first punchline, Aging is a state of mind. Ageism is indeed a state of mind, but aging is also a physical reality; it’s the same problem I have with the saying that “age is just a number.”  The punchline improves when more two words are added: “Own it.” I’m down with that.

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It’s so great—and I’m so grateful—when readers get it.

This week the 93rd and 94th reviews of my book came in on Amazon, and the combination made me wildly happy.

Jaclyn Geller is the first reader to articulate the hidden-in-plain-sight, why-don’t-we-know-these-things theme that connects my two serious books. She wrote, “In Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, Ashton Applewhite said what many knew but wouldn’t admit: divorce is not the shattering tragedy it’s often made out to be. In fact, many women exit marriages and begin to blossom. For those of us who’ve watched friends leave matrimony behind, start looking and feeling better, and begin to take off professionally, Applewhite’s book was a reality check. One had to wonder, why did it take so long for someone to say this in simple, straightforward terms? This Chair Rocks accomplishes a similar feat of stating the obvious/not-so-obvious in clear, witty prose. Remember being a teenager, hearing that these were the best years of your life, and wincing in horror? Applewhite shows the benefits of getting older: wisdom, sensuality, the pleasure of time-tested, meaningful relationships… Her account is personal but not overly-confessional. Real-life lessons and unique insights emerge from the people she interviews. She debunks myth after myth about getting older, putting everything into a meaningful political context. Buy this book, and buy a copy for someone you love who’s just turned 70!”

Jane Bertrand is working on a book about climbing the highest peak in all 50 states. (Someone’s gotta do it!) She wrote, “I read your book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism during the fifth annual cross country ski trip in northern Maine with my best friend from kindergarten, her older sister, and a college roommate (ranging in age from 67-69). As we relaxed around the fire each evening, I would regale my friends with key passages from your book, which resonated deeply with this group. Prior to this trip, we had asked ourselves: how many more years can we keep making this three-day trip? After reading the book, we simply vowed “As long as we can.” Bertrand went on to appreciate my “captivating writing style” and “strategies for defying stereotypes,” but that’s not the part that brought a giant smile to my face.  How long will I keep being an activist? As long as I can.

When I hit 100 reviews, I’m having a party.

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my new talk—Aging While Female, Reimagined—debuts on February 2

I’ve been working for a long time on a big new talk about the gendered nature of aging—and procrastinating, because it’s a fiendishly fraught topic. There’s nothing like a deadline to force the hand, and I’m delighted to announce that you’ll be able to hear it on February 2nd at the Senior Planet Exploration Center, in New York. Doors open at 5:30pm; no charge but an RSVP is required. Register here.  

Here’s a description to whet your appetite:

What makes aging different for women — and so much harder than it has to be? How does the double whammy of ageism and sexism affect women’s health, income and well-being? And how does competing to “stay young” dig the hole deeper? In her rousing new talk, Ashton Applewhite proposes that we throw away the damn shovel, forge cross-generational compacts, and collaborate on different ways of thinking and behaving. The women’s movement taught us to claim our power. A pro-aging movement will teach us to hold onto it. 

 

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Gird your loins for 2017 with a holiday special from This Chair Rocks

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Last-minute Christmas shopping? Order a copy of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism for $15 here.  We’ll ship them within 24 hours and pay the postage. Here’s a review from someone who got the book for her mom and realized that it’s not just for olders.

I bought this book as a gift for my mother who sometimes feels overwhelmed at the prospect of growing older. This year’s milestones for her included: going 100% gray (no more dye) and becoming a grandmother. Although she shows no signs of slowing down, she feels the general invisibility of becoming an older woman in society and the workplace. Needless to say, she LOVED this book and the timing was perfect. She laughed out loud while reading it!

I quickly realized that this book is suited for me just as much as her. The author writes “The sooner growing older is stripped of reflexive dread, the better equipped we are to benefit from the countless ways in which it can enrich us.” This is really a handbook on how to live side by side with people of all ages respectfully so that we can avoid the prejudices our grandparents face(d). There are so many child rearing books (trust me, I am in the thick of reading them) but until now nothing guiding us and helping us navigate the last quarter or more of our life cycle.

This book accomplishes just that. And it is full of punchy one-liners and staggering statistics. I highly recommend this book to anyone, of any age.

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The current moment: what’s ageism got to do with it?

I wake these days remembering that something awful has happened. Reality assembles itself, and I feel worse. The multicultural, egalitarian, globalized society I hope to inhabit is under assault. Bigotry is ascendant. Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance—pick your prejudice!—are sanctioned, even celebrated. How do we respond to attacks on those most vulnerable? How does the mission to build a movement against ageism fit into this historical moment?

Until I thought hard about it, just posing that last question felt self-indulgent. Why insist on adding another “ism” to the list when so many higher-profile forms of discrimination, racism in particular, rightfully demand bandwidth? Should ageism move to the back of the line, at least until Medicare is in the crosshairs? Here’s the thing: we don’t have to choose. It’s not a competition. And it’s not zero sum. All forms of discrimination intersect with and compound one another. The flip side is that when we make a community a better place in which to be from somewhere else, to worship a different god, to have a disability or be non-white or non-rich, we also make it a better place in which to grow old.

Ageism is the perfect target for collective advocacy because it affects everyone. That very attribute, its universal nature, means that we undermine ageism when people of all ages show up for stuff. It’s that basic. The vital task for each of us—youngers and olders alike—is to join whatever struggle matters most to us in the days ahead. Stand up and step out—into the community, the classroom, the courts, the town squares.

Age-integrating the struggles ahead means coming to grips with our own internalized ageism, the voices that whisper “too old” or “too young,” that make us complicit in our own marginalization. At times there may be good reasons to sit tight, but age alone is not one of them. Only when each of us rejects this culture’s ageist script can we play the roles for which we were born—and we were all born for this time. Every stage of life has its strengths, from physical resilience to historical perspective, and we are strongest when we collaborate. If everyone in a group is the same age, whether 17 or 70 and whether it’s focused on carbon emissions or hate speech, it will be less creative and less effective. We are stronger together in the streets as well. Many olders are more vulnerable physically, but less likely to be victims of violence or seen as threats. Let’s change that. Let’s share the risk.

Standing together—whether in front of a mosque or a clinic or an encampment or a bank—undermines age stereotypes and builds solidarity. We are all old or future old, and Joining forces across our years offers a unifying cause in these divided times. We add ageism to the list of “isms” that we will not tolerate—implicitly, because all ages show up, and explicitly, because we insist upon it. Dismantling ageism changes from aspirational goal to certain outcome. We move organically towards a society where young and old, gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor all have a voice and a path. We have no other option, because we’re going to need all hands on deck—and because the possibility for radical social change has never been greater.

 

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“We’re what we do, not what we no longer do.”

In preparation for a panel on November 29 at the Brooklyn Historical Society on “Old Myths: Confronting Aging and Ageism,” the organizers asked what each panelist would like to focus on. John Leland writes marvelously about aging for the New York Times, and every word of his eloquent answer rang true to me:

I’d like to talk about the myth that some people lead a full and happy life in old age, and some become frail and disabled, as if these were mutually exclusive categories. The truth is that many people who are frail and disabled lead full and happy lives, doing what all of us do at all stages of life: adjusting our lives to our capacities. This myth used to go by the name of “successful aging,” with the unstated codicil that there was “unsuccessful aging.” We don’t define ourselves by our disabilities in old age any more than we do when we’re younger. Yet parts of society, and maybe social science, tend to define people that way. We’re what we do, not what we no longer do. 

 The corollary to this myth is the belief that if I can’t do the things I do now, life isn’t worth living. It’s an obvious fallacy—people all over the world live worthwhile lives without doing whatever it is that you do—but it remains pervasive. 

 One thing uniting these two myths is a view of old age as a postscript tacked on at the end of life, rather than a continuation of what came before. But it’s a stage of life like any other, and we make decisions about how we want to live and who we are. It comes with more experience than previous stages, possibly more wisdom, less stress, and greater satisfaction from small rewards. As at previous stages, we have ways to make it richer or less rich—live with purpose, express gratitude, be generous—and unlike previous stages, it’s free of delusions that we’ll be happy if we get a better job or appease our terrible boss or get that new house.

This is a wonderful example of how those of us who think deeply about aging from a humanist perspective arrive at similar conclusions—the notion that ageism is discrimination against our own future selves, for example. I say that anyone who wakes up in the morning is aging successfully, and take issue with the class bias inherent in the term “successful aging.” (More here—question #6—about why I dislike the term so heartily.)  And I often quote geriatrician Bill Thomas’s take on what Leland calls “the belief that if I can’t do the things I do now, life isn’t worth living.”  In his book Second Wind, Thomas calls it the “tyranny of ‘still’—the delusion that as long as we’re still running up the stairs, or dating younger women, or whatever our “still” happens to be, we can stop the clock—as if that would be a good thing.

Leland’s book, Happiness Is a Choice You Make and Other Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old, will be out next year. (The title echoes a key finding of another age scholar, Karl Pillemer, in his Legacy Project: Happiness is a choice,a matter of personal agency, not a condition.) I look forward to reading it, and to meeting him and the other panelists soon. Ellen Cole, co-creator of 70 Candles, will be focusing on ageism in the workplace; Dr. Ronnie LoFaso, a geriatrician at Weill Cornell Medical center will talk about ageism as a women’s issue; Paula Span, “New Old Age” columnist for The New York Times, will be moderating; and I’ll be tackling as many myths as I can squeeze in.

 

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Influencer of the Year!

Last week the PBS site Next Avenue announced its 2016 list of 50 Influencers in Aging. The people on it are remarkable, so it was an incredible honor to not only join them but be named the Influencer of the Year. (Last year’s was Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal; here’s a post about why his work is so important.) “Influencer of the Year” is a pretty great title, but what it represents is even more exciting: mainstream acknowledgement that if we want to improve conditions for olders in any domain, it’s time to confront ageism. Further corroboration: fully 25% of the other influencers—including Becca Levy and Jay Olshansky, both of whose research I have long relied upon—also named ageism as their top priority.

The list makes good browsing. Each candidate was asked to answer this question: If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be? I wrote, “Help catalyze a social movement to raise awareness of ageism that would transform the experience of aging in America by making discrimination on the basis of age as unacceptable as racism and sexism. We would no longer see aging as a problem to be ‘fixed’ or a disease to be ‘cured,’ but for what it is: a powerful, natural, lifelong process that connects us all.”

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AARP Oregon takes on ageism at the mother ship

On Wednesday morning I got a submission to Yo, Is This Ageist? from Facebook friend, fitness instructor, and fellow activist Shannon West calling out the Oct/Nov issue of AARP Magazine. The cover says “31 Proven Age Erasing Secrets,” and a double-page spread about exercise is titled “Younger Next Year.” “Why not ‘Stronger and Healthier Next Year?” asked Shannon. “A publication allegedly devoted to living life well and fully after 50 telling you to ‘erase’ age and that ‘young’ is good and ‘old’ =deterioration unless you ‘erase’ it. Really?” I couldn’t have said it better, except to point out yet another problematic article on the cover: “Ways to Outsmart A Younger Co-worker.” It’s never a good idea to buy into, or support, old-vs.-young ways of thinking, which pit us against each other and distract from the underlying issue: discrimination that affects workers at both ends of the age spectrum.

As it happens, the next day I spoke at an AARP Oregon Breakfast Forum in Portland, the first All-Age-Friendly City in the US. Since AARP was buying breakfast and books, I figured I should mind my manners. What a welcome surprise, then, when Elaine Friesen-Strang of the AARP Oregon Executive Council introduced me—and pointed out the offending cover to the whole group! Below, a picture of Elaine with me and Jerry Cohen, also of AARP Oregon, getting ready to kick some consciousness-raising butt after brainstorming about the magazine and the organization as a whole—yay!

aarp-mag-cover              aa-eieen-jerry

Elaine’s introduction gave me the opportunity to quote a comment on the AARP Facebook page from a woman named Susie Goode: “Again with the ‘we’re not old.” This is not disrupting aging, this is confirming that aging is the worst thing ever. It’s as if I claimed I were disrupting sexism by denying that I’m a woman. No.”  That’s genius.

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Can age be “just a number?” I’d say no.

The phrase has always made me uneasy, partly because it’s usually accompanied by a picture of an older person doing something considered “age-inappropriate,” like wearing a wacky outfit or doing something acrobatic. The bigger issue is that it trivializes something important. Age is indeed “only a number,” as long as that number reflects how many times we’ve circled the sun. Age is real. Age differences can’t be wished away, nor should they be.

Needless to say, it’s complicated, just like the discourse around telling people how old you are. It’s important to claim your age, and just as important to push back: to ask what difference the number makes in the questioner’s mind, and why? The longer we live, after all, the more different from one another we become. That makes chronological age an ever-less-reliable indicator of what a person is capable of or interested in, so it makes a certain sense to decline to identify with it. That’s one reason so many octogenarians maintain, truthfully, that they still feel fifty, forty, or even thirty inside—that “age is just a number.”

The other reason they feel that way is internalized ageism: the belief that younger = better and that their older selves have less value than their younger selves. That’s why fudging or disavowing our age is so problematic. It gives the number more power than it deserves. It distances us from our peers. And it reinforces ageist thinking, by implying that our years are something to be ashamed rather than proud of, and suggesting that capacities might erode or relationships founder if the number came to light.

People can be far apart in years and have plenty in common, as we realize the minute we bust out of age silos. That’s why I loved an article by Gina Pell called Meet the Perennials—her witty proposal for what those of us who refuse to be constrained by generational moats start calling ourselves. “It’s time we chose our own category based on shared values and passions and break out of the faux constructs behind an age-based system of classification,” she writes. “We are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who live in the present time, know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology, and have friends of all ages.” My people!

So what’s not to like? The article’s tired tagline: “age ain’t nothing but a number.” (This may well have been an editor’s handiwork, not Pell’s.) It’s the age-based version of “post-racial.” It’s happy talk, papering over the very real differences between being younger and older. It’s important to acknowledge those differences because it’s part of what makes relationships authentic. Because the differences are interesting. Because the exchange of skills and stories across generations is the natural order of things.

Those differences aren’t what stand between us and age equity. The obstacle is ageism—the age segregation that cuts us off from most of humanity and the prejudice that justifies it. As Pell writes, “Tolerance feels unattainable when there are hard lines drawn between decades, and terms like Boomers, GenX, and GenY keep us separate and at odds.”

If we’re going to dismantle ageism, we’re going to have to collaborate across those artificial “generation gaps.” Gerontologist Jenny Sasser, whose Gero-punk Manifesto ought to be required reading for all Perennials, describes this beautifully:

The revolution around dismantling ageism can’t happen unless we can create cross-generational coalitions, which can’t happen if we can’t meet each other in the middle across age difference and become friends. Not despite age differences, but across them—because we are both similar and different, because we are all traveling through the life course at the same time but are at different phases of the journey. We need to ask better questions about when age and generation differences matter, and when they don’t. And help each other develop a keener critical capacity for seeing through the socially constructed ideas and structures that keep us in conflict rather than in cooperation. 

Hold this in our heads and it’s far easier to reject young vs. old ways of thinking, to make friends of all ages, and to find common cause. Pitting the generations against each other is one of the major tactics used by the wealthy and powerful to divide those who might otherwise unite against them in pursuit of a fairer world for all. It’s like pitting groups of low-wage workers against each other, or the interests of stay-at-home moms against women in the paid workforce. The underlying issue is a living wage for all, and redress requires collective action. When issues are instead framed as zero-sum—more for “them” means less for “us”—it’s harder to see that the public good is at stake and the issue affects everyone. The objective, in the words of historian David Hackett Fischer, is to create a world “in which the deep eternal differences between age and youth are recognized and respected without being organized into a system of social inequality.” That social order has to work for all ages, and we Perennials and Gero-punks need to roll up our sleeves and help shape it.