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Ashton Applewhite

Fighting Ageism Requires Long-Term Action

This guest post is by Jeanette Leardi, a social gerontologist, writer, editor, and community educator whose passion for older adult empowerment has led her to anti-ageism activism. It originally appeared on Stria News

Anti-ageism efforts are gaining momentum; now what can be done to sustain them?

Something radical is happening in the civil rights movement against age discrimination. After years of enduring widespread social prejudice, older adults and their generational allies are becoming more aware of grassroots and establishment initiatives to promote aging as a natural and therefore acceptable condition of life, and these efforts are gaining momentum.

Can this anti-ageism momentum last, or will it slowly fade? The answer lies in whether or not individuals, organizations, businesses, and the public as a whole commit to taking long-term action to sustain it.

Creating Personal Strategies

Any movement aimed at gaining ground over time must rely on individuals who are aware of what they are fighting for and are dedicated to that fight. That means first overcoming ageism in their own minds. “All change starts between our ears,” asserts This Chair Rocks author and Old School clearinghouse creator Ashton Applewhite in a post from her blog. She considers working on one’s own discomfort with aging as the ideal starting point.

Alice Fisher, president and founder of The Radical Age Movement, agrees. “People should not only say their true age, they should embrace the age they are at. Nobody knows what a 60-, 70-, 80-, or even a 90-year-old looks like anymore.” 

Visual cues are one thing to consider, but also important is language that promotes ageism. Kirsten Jacobs, director of dementia and wellness education for LeadingAge, says that she “always encourage[s] people to start by noticing language. Removing phrases like ‘senior moment,’ ‘I’m too old for that,’ or ‘100 years young’ from our collective vocabulary will make a huge impact.”

Personal strategies to defeat ageism can be applied more broadly to interpersonal relationships. Marci Alboher, vice president of strategic communications for Encore.org, advises everyone to “[h]ave an open mind about your own judgments. Ageism runs in all directions, so the next time you find yourself discounting a young person for her lack of experience, try to catch yourself. Also, try to find ways to connect across age differences, around common interests.”

There’s a reason why Alboher considers this strategy important. “A big contributor to ageism is age segregation––the separation of generations at home, school, and work,” she says. “When older and younger are in close proximity, we know that real relationships form––and ageist stereotypes begin flying out the window.”

Like Alboher, Jack Kupferman, president of the Gray Panthers, NYC Network, believes that older adults shouldn’t be the only ones involved in this collective endeavor. “It’s essential that this movement be intergenerational,” he says. “This is not a movement for older persons. It is a movement for all those aging… Perhaps, if we address the defeat of ageism as a legacy for future generations, we might be able to bring power and resources.”

Setting Professional Standards

Power and resources are two assets usually found in organizations and businesses, and because of this, they can help sustain the anti-ageist movement––provided, of course, that they have set standards of practice for themselves that align with the movement’s goals.

Fisher emphasizes that all establishments should “[p]ractice what they preach. The staff of any organization should be intergenerational. Members should not only be exposed to one age cohort in their organizations, institutions, schools and businesses.”

Paul Kleyman, national coordinator of the Journalists Network on Generations and editor of Generations Beat Online News, sums up the situation: “Too many American business leaders are caught today between bad attitudes and unrecognized advantages of our aging workforce,” he explains. “They need to recognize and dismiss common myths, such as that older workers cost them more on the bottom line.” He believes that businesses should invest in phased-retirement programs, which “offer more flexible work arrangements for older employers while enabling them to continue contributing their skills and knowledge to the company, while also mentoring younger employees.”

Taking a Public Stance

Even if individuals follow their own strategies and organizations and businesses improve their standards of practice, these efforts may not be enough to sustain an anti-ageism movement. A final piece needs to be put in place: keeping ageism clearly in the cultural consciousness by taking a public stance. But how?

“Talk to your legislators and other influential players that can make a difference,” urges Fisher. “Start a consciousness raising group on the topic of age… Encourage people to interact with each other and share their stories of age discrimination.”

According to Alboher, the media should play a responsible role as well. “Aging is one of the few experiences we all share, yet so many fear it,” she says. “It’s helpful when the media portrays older people as complex human beings, not as caricatures or sad figures.”   

Adds Kleyman: “[P]ublic awareness is the best ‘disruptor’ that can lead to any hope of real change. Especially important many times is becoming aware of gaps in coverage and letting news editors and producers know that they need to explore serious issues of aging beyond the cute story on the 100-year-old’s birthday or parachute-jumping former president.”

Also important to consider is the intersectionality of ageism with other civil rights movements. Says Jacobs: “I think we are starting to make strides, but we have a long way to go. I’m also mindful that a lot of ‘-isms’ in our society desperately need to be addressed. We will all make the most impact when we work in coalitions to address differences in our society.”

Ultimately, what’s needed to keep the anti-ageism movement’s momentum going? Kupferman sums it up well: “Awareness, Education, Organization, Resources, Action.”

Screw you Ashton Applewhite: How I Learned to Stop Looking Good “For My Age”

This guest post is by Danielle Hughes, who runs a branding, marketing, and copywriting agency for businesses and solopreneurs that counts many major American corporations as its clients. She earned her BFA in Advertising and Graphic Communication from Washington University in St. Louis, but realized she was a much better writer than a designer. Danielle lives in Forest Hills, NY, with her 13-year old son. This post first appeared on the Amazing Community blog.

I’m not a vain person. Yes, I take care of myself and I like to look good, but I’m pretty low maintenance as a “typical” (stereotypical) woman. I go out most days with unwashed hair and no makeup. I can often be seen donning one of many baseball caps. My go-to outfit is workout clothes or joggers and sneakers. That said, I do like to wear makeup. I do get dressed up and I can accessorize like no one’s business.

As someone who once weighed 235 lbs, I’ve had a long struggle with acceptance and appearance. Now, much fitter (I’m a 5-year CrossFitter), weight isn’t much of an issue for me, but at 46 years old, other things are. Grey hair. Wrinkles. Loose skin. Sun spots. I’m fairly “young at heart,” again another stereotype, but compared to most other women, or men, at my age, I’m pretty fit and healthy. And this is where the issue rears its ugly head — “compared to.”

At Amazing Community’s Inclusion by Design conference  on October 24, the dynamicanti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite gave a talk entitled, “Aging While Female.”And frankly I hate her now. Ok, not really, but I have always prided myself on the above. On these comparisons. I loved telling people my age and have their jaw drop. I thrived knowing that I was not your typical 46-year old, whatever that means. And Ashton has taken that away from me…but with good reason.

Because her impassioned keynote demonstrated to me, that by boosting myself up, I had to also be tearing others down. That this myth of beauty and youthfulness was perpetuated by society and mostly, let’s be honest, by white men, to keep women fearful. To keep women in line and desperate for attention and validation. Because if you are so focused on looking good, you can’t possibly notice that opportunities are being denied to you, that you are being held back and that you and other minority groups are being persecuted.

Heavy stuff, but it was like a gut-punch. The glory hound in me wanted to say “screw you, Ashton,” let me have my youthful looks and energetic spirit. Let me revel in being told I look 35. Let me gloat in how good I look for my age. But that’s just it. What do people my age look like? They look like, well, whatever they look like. There’s no barometer or benchmark. You can’t look good or bad for your age, because you are simply you. That is how you look.

It’s not a competition, though society certainly wants us to think it is. Without competition, the beauty industry wouldn’t be a $445 billion industry that preys on insecurity. All that money spent to look good, to look young to preserve youth. And, for what? Would we do this if we weren’t told to from a young age? If we grew up without media, would we be buying countless creams, lotions and products to keep our skin supple and wrinkle-free? Would the idea of dying our hair even cross our minds? Would the idea of injecting a disease into our face to smooth out lines?!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t want to look good. I still plan to work out (for my health and my physical ability as I age), wear makeup and color my hair, but we need to redefine what “looking good” means. And more importantly, we need to be ok with the fact that what one person does, shouldn’t affect what another does and there is no wrong or right way to age. No judgment. If you want to color your hair, great. If you don’t, great. So long as you are doing it for you, and not for validation and not because society makes you think you have to. We, as women, need to stop defining ourselves by our appearance. We are so much more than that. We are smart and industrious and talented and creative and passionate and strong and just simply amazing.

As we recognize this and support each other more, while belittling each other less, we can even the playing field and recognize the true beauty in every woman at every age.

great graphics for our campaign to transform “Dress Like a 100-Year-Old Day”

The 100th day of school used to be an opportunity to teach kindergarteners about the number 100. Somehow it morphed into kids dressing up like imaginary centenarians with mini-walkers and tiny canes—an event that reinforces ageist stereotypes. We’d like to turn it into one that educates little kids about late life, and nips ageism in the bud.  Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, teacher, or advocate, this post explains how to join the movement against ageism’s first nationwide direction action.

You’ll find some great suggestions in the comments on this Changing Aging post. Feel free to use and disseminate this image, the work of artist Celeste Fichter. (For a high-res version, contact her at thischairrocksassistant@gmail.com.) And here’s a link to a GIF that shows a jar of pennies filling up–great for sharing on social media.

Old School newsletter #2 is out

Not boring! Find out how the global movement to end ageism is gathering steam, and see which Resources We Love this month. Sign up for updates, and please use the submission form to send new resources our way. Old School will only reach its potential with input from teachers, writers, scholars, and advocates around the world. With your help, in other words.

 

A reminder: to qualify, the resource has to focus explicitly on ageism–not on positive aging or  productive aging or healthy aging or conscious aging or creative aging.  Old School can’t be all things to all people, its purpose is narrow: to educate people about ageism and help dismantle it.

International Olders Day kicks off with a superb anti-ageism campaign

In October, 2016, I had the honor of addressing the United Nations on the International Day of Older Persons. My keynote was titled End Ageism – Or the Rest Is Noise. Two years later, it’s thrilling to announce the launch of #AgingEqual, a superbly orchestrated anti-ageism campaign created by AGE Platform Europe.

For 70 days, culminating on the 70th anniversary of International Human Rights Day, the campaign will be teaching people how to recognize ageism, how serious it is, and how important it is to stand up for your rights—no matter what age you are. In their words:Ending discrimination requires collective action. Unless we confront ageism now, we will all face it sooner or later. Let’s join forces to create a society for all ages!”

Rhetoric is easy. #AgeingEqual is so much more, which is why this post is crammed with links to well-written, easy-to-implement ideas and instructions. You’ll find Easy Steps To Become An Anti-Ageism Champion on the campaign’s home page: know your stuff, spread the word, and add your voice. The organizers have created a downloadable Guide for Supporters. There’s also a downloadable Social Media Guide with hashtags, logos, sample posts, and instructions on popping your twibbon cherry (temporarily altering your social media profile picture – it’s a thing). Plus Get Inspired: a section of best practices and inspiring stories from organizers and allies around the world.

Pick your starting point, and let’s get cracking.

 

Turn “Dress Like a 100-Year-Old Day” into action against ageism

Dress Like a 100-Year-Old Day first bleeped onto my radar a few years ago, when someone submitted a picture to my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog.  It showed a little kid hunched over a toy walker and sporting a gray wig and fake glasses. All this regalia, along with fake wrinkles and drab duds and fake canes, is available in party and costume shops as the 100th day of school approaches. Once an opportunity to teach elementary-school kids about the number 100, the day has devolved into a bizarre dress-up ritual that equates old age with disability and little more. The timing matters too. Much research shows that attitudes toward aging, like attitudes towards race and gender, start to form during these impressionable early years.

 

Just as schools celebrate the achievements of African Americans during Black History Month and of women on National Women’s Day, how about turning the 100th day of school into an event that “inoculates [children] against ageism,” as Jill Vitale-Aussen of the Eden Alternative suggests in this scathing blog postDress Like a 100-Year-Old Day: A Call to Action, a new campaign spearheaded by the Eden Alternative, Pioneer Network, and Leading Age—three organizations at the forefront of culture change around aging—aims  to do exactly that.

Use the campaign’s great graphic any way you like. Download their Call to Action Letter_to_Educators, discuss it with teachers and parents and school officials, ask senior centers and retirement homes to make this a powerful opportunity to engage with local schools—and insist on change. Or as a less restrained commenter put it, “Let’s turn this obscenity into an opportunity . . . yell, scream, protest if your child’s school is participating in one of these events!”  Movements need direct actions, and this one has fantastic potential for a movement against ageism.

* * *

In addition to the Call to Action Letter_to Educators, here are some other resources to share with teachers. You’ll find them, and lots of other stuff, on Old School, our newly-launched clearinghouse of anti-ageism resources.

 

 

 

Old School is now in session!

Movements need people. (That would be you). Movements need purpose (To make the world a better place in which to grow old. And, while we’re at it, to be young, or have a disability, or be queer or non-rich or non-white.) And movements need tools. That’s why, in collaboration with age activists Kyrie Carpenter and Ryan Backer, I’ve launched Old School, a clearinghouse of free, vetted, anti-ageism resources: books and blogs, workshops and PowerPoints, organizations and advocates.

Check it out, and tell us what you think. (It’s in beta; more features coming very soon.)  

Spread the word. Follow Old School on social media–on Twitter, on Facebook, and on Instagram–tell the world about it, and help it grow. 

Send us stuff. If you have an ageism-related resource — not  about positive aging or  productive aging or conscious aging or  healthy aging, or creative aging – but explicitly focused on ageism — submit it to Old School using our online form. You name the resource, you own it, you link it to your organization or services; we make it available for free. 

We built Old School to educate people about ageism and help dismantle it though individual and collective political action. It’s an ongoing collaboration, and will only realize its potential with help from people like you and organizations like yours. We hope you’ll like it, use it, and help it grow.

 

Who’s going to create a better narrative of old age in America?

Most Americans aren’t optimistic about getting older, and think the source of the problem is aging itself. So do most policy wonks, framing population aging as a set of choices about how to care for an avalanche of “frail and needy elderly.” MIT’s Joseph F. Coughlin and I don’t share that myopia. His latest book, The Longevity Economy, is packed with big ideas about the “dramatic-yet-predictable” effects of the new longevity, which we think presents a remarkable opportunity to build a better old age. We also know that what stands between us and this brighter future is the culture itself. But he’s putting his faith in corporations to “do the right thing” while I envision a very different engine of change.

Coughlin founded the MIT AgeLab, which “applies consumer-centered systems . . . to catalyze innovation across business markets,” so it’s not surprising that his approach to the longevity boom is market-driven. “It’s as though a whole new continent were rising out of the sea, filled with more than a billion air-breathing consumers just begging for products that fulfill their demands,” he writes. Soon, he predicts, “the world’s most advanced economies will evolve around the needs, wants, and whims of grandparents.” The products and technologies that emerge to meet those needs won’t just be highly profitable. By improving the quality of life of older Americans in countless yet-to-be-imagined ways, the book predicts, they will enlarge and enrich the way we experience old age itself. It’s a bold proposition, and it’s also misguided.

What stands between us and this better old age?

Why are companies failing to “wake up, smell the Ensure”—which, Coughlin points out, is pretty much Soylent marketed to olders—and start courting older consumers with all the fervor they currently lavish on millennials?” Because of “our very idea of old age [emphasis mine], which is socially constructed, historically contingent and deeply flawed.”  “Socially constructed,” as I often say, is sociology-speak for “we make it up,” and we’re in synch when Coughlin declares “Old age is made up” [emphasis his].

Not made up like a fun game, made up like a shared delusion. Call it a “collective case of blindness” as Coughlin does. Call it “implicit bias—prejudice so deeply ingrained that you might not even know you harbor it—against older people is the norm across age groups,” as he also describes it. Call it “ageism,” as I do, and why Coughlin fails to is beyond me;  the word barely appears in The Longevity Economy. But although our approaches differ, we agree on the heart of the problem: an ageist culture that confines olders to the margins of society and sanctions only the blandest of “age appropriate” behaviors: relaxing, volunteering, grandparenting, and falling apart.

Who’s going to drive the necessary social change?

Not olders themselves, Coughlin writes, “because their ability to picture new, better ways to live is utterly constrained by our current, pernicious narrative.” The drivers, he says, will be the corporate visionaries who understand that olders aspire to the same stuff as everyone else does—work, romance, purpose, imagine that!—and create the products that enable those aspirations. “By building a vision of late life that is more than just a miserable version of middle age, companies won’t just be minting money . . . they’ll also be creating a cultural environment that values the contributions of older adults.” The result will create a virtuous circle: by enriching and enlarging our vision of late life, better products will bring it about.

I love Coughlin’s vision of “a new narrative of possibility in old age,” but I don’t think it’s going to emerge from the business community. Corporations can speed social change, and they can definitely commodify it, turning sisterhood into grrl power into the Spice Girls, for example. But they exist to profit, not provoke, and it’s easy to monetize fear and insecurity. Who says wrinkles are ugly? The multi-billion-dollar anti-aging skincare industry. Who says perimenopause and “low T” and mild cognitive impairment are medical conditions? The trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry. Why would corporations be instrumental in overturning prejudices from which they profit on this scale?

So I stumble over Coughlin’s belief that “More than any other factor, this new story [of old age] will be built on the testimony of longevity-economy products.” Really? A seismic cultural shift driven by consumer behavior? The longevity economy will bequeath us lists of service providers and garages full of tools and toys. But olders want to downsize, and products will have to be both indispensable and affordable in order to reach a mass market.  More importantly, products alone cannot transform the world in which we use them. For-profit ventures aren’t in the better-life-for-everyone business because the masses lack the disposable income to power wholesale culture change. If the goal is to go beyond meeting older people’s basic needs—to support growth and voice and visibility for all, lifelong—how do we develop the rituals, roles, and institutions that will be essential to achieving that goal? Why would we trust the private sector to start operating in the interests of the entire cohort, not just those in the 9.9%? (See this piece in The Atlantic about the “new American aristocracy.”)

A consumer revolution requires a social revolution.

We know that as time grows shorter, purpose becomes an ever-higher priority. As Coughlin observes, “Culture helps determine what older people find meaningful. And that raises a question: can . . . new, socially permissible routes to meaning open up?” Of course they can: look at the effect of the women’s movement on women’s lives around the world! Whether global or local, whether revolutionary or reactionary, social movements challenge our notion of what’s “normal,” equitable, and possible, and in the process transform society. The technology- and consumption-driven revolution described in The Longevity Economy cannot take place without a mass movement to raise awareness of ageism and to end it.

Changing the culture is hard, and it involves struggle. That struggle doesn’t start in a shopping cart, whether online or at Walmart. It starts between our ears, with the uncomfortable task of confronting our own, largely unconscious, age bias. It’s internalized ageism that keeps olders away from senior centers “because of all the old people there—I’m not like them.” (That and the fact that an ageist society doesn’t fund adequate, attractive, age-integrated gathering places.) Paired with ableism, ageism keeps olders from using walkers or wheelchairs because of the stigma, even when it means never leaving home. The same toxic combo scares off potential subscribers to the Village-to-Village aging-in-place movement, as Coughlin observes, because of “a serious perception barrier preventing people—even those evidently quite happy to join a service explicitly for older adults—from seeing themselves in a club designed to provide care for its oldest and frailest.”

Those “perception barriers” are based on fear and shame, the grotesque notion that to age is to fail. We’re going to stay mired in age shame until we take off our collective blinders and acknowledge, out loud and together, what we know to be true: that age enriches us. We’re not going to put these fears in perspective—to acknowledge, for example, that aging well and living with disability can and do coexist—without a shift in cultural values. That won’t happen without mass political action that provokes society-wide upheaval, because the dominant culture will push back hard, as it does against anything that threatens the status quo. A shift in consumer behavior isn’t going to do it. We need people in the streets, not waiting for the free market to rescue us or carry the ball.

From the personal to the political. (And back. And back again…)

Change begins with consciousness-raising, the tool that catalyzed the women’s movement. (Here’s a link to Who Me, Ageist? A Guide to Starting A Consciousness-Raising Group.) Women came together in the 1970s, compared stories, and realized that the obstacles they were facing—not getting heard, or hired, or respected—weren’t personal misfortunes but widely shared political problems that required collective action. Social change occurs only as we take that awareness out into the world and directly and explicitly confront the ageism that diminishes and segregates older Americans in every arena.

“The new, bespoke narrative of old age will emerge organically from our jobs as consumers. It will fit like a tailored suit,” Coughlin writes. Corporations are indeed going to do well by those of us who can afford tailors. There will be robots to hoist and help us, lovely communities to shield us from isolation, implants to enhance our senses (thank you, brand new cornea)—but only for those of us who can afford them. We can’t achieve equity without addressing the ways in which age intersects with race, class and gender. The movement needs to be much broader in order to bring about the richer and better old age that  we all hope to lives long enough to enjoy.

Who gets this better old age?

Coughlin does acknowledge, almost in passing, that “we’re staring at a possible future in which the gift of extra years of life is diverted straight to the wealthiest people in the world,” Possible? In a historic and shameful reversal, lifespans in the U.S. are in decline, largely among poor white women. A 2017 report by the United Nations found growing numbers of Americans living in extreme poverty. The engine of that disparity is unfettered capitalism. The modern welfare state was born in response to that disparity, lifting millions out of poverty in the wake of the Great Depression. That safety net has since been shrunk, and all the cuts that late-stage capitalism requires in order to stay viable, including the current tax bill, promise to shred it further.

Capitalism is at best indifferent to the welfare of vulnerable populations, and more typically hostile to it. Pitting “disposable workers” against each other keeps salaries low, and the less economically productive people at both ends of the age spectrum are especially at risk. Gender disadvantages. Companies continue to pay women less than men and promote them less often, because it helps the bottom line and because they can still get away with it. Racism and homophobia also enter in. Older workers of color are most at risk for unemployment, with older African American men twice as likely to be unemployed as older white men, and LBGT olders fare even worse. Corporations are no more going to fix ageism than they’re going to fix racism or sexism.

Closing the inequality gap and moving towards age equity means “changing the fundamental rules of old age,” Coughlin writes. I couldn’t agree more, and technology and innovation will indeed help older Americans stay healthy and connected. But at best his proposal is a subset of the solution. At worst it’s a band-aid on the gaping wound of deep economic inequality and a dangerous distraction from the radical action necessary to catalyze real social change. A better life for older people means valuing human beings lifelong, independent of their ability to consume or produce. That’s a better world for everyone, only a grassroots social movement will bring it about, and it is underway.