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Ashton Applewhite

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.

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,

More Than 100,000 U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Are Linked to Nursing Homes,” New York Times, Dec 4, 2020

[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,

[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,

[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

[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,

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?

“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.

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.

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.

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.

Breonna Taylor did not get to grow old

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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.

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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