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Ashton Applewhite

A seemingly simple question—”Is the term ‘senior abuse prevention’ ageist?”— turns out to be a beast.

I hardly ever cross-post questions from my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog here. I’m making an exception because the question below below occasioned such a meaty discussion during this week’s Old School’s Office Hours meetup. It also helped me understand why the phrase “parenting your parents” is unacceptable. Colleague and Office Hours regular David Wilson (@oldscoolmoves) contributed a great deal to this response.

I sit at a table for the “Prevention of Senior Abuse” (I didn’t choose the name). As I was thinking about it, I was wondering if this concept is itself ageist? Does having initiatives directed at preventing abuse of olders equate olders to children? I don’t want anyone to face abuse and I think abuse prevention is a valid undertaking, I just wonder if abuse prevention specifically adressing abuse of olders is actually inherently ageist.

This is a tough one. Like “child abuse,” the term “senior abuse” tethers a life stage to vulnerability. It’s ageist—and ableist—to suggest growing old inherently makes people vulnerable to abuse, and infantilizing to suggest that olders have the same needs as children. Virtually all children require some protections, but the same is not true of all adults. Most older people can recognize what is likely to harm them, are used to having agency, and are reluctant to relinquish it. Furthermore, as geriatrician Louise Aronson writes in Elderhood, a higher level of risk than the one set by institutions and healthcare practitioners is often good for olders.

Yet some developmentally disabled young adults may require the same protections that kids do. The same could be true of older adults who are cognitively impaired. But that does not turn them back into children. In the words of Elizabeth Loewy, when she was the Assistant District Attorney in charge of New York County’s Elder Abuse Unit, “So many people especially when starting in the elder abuse field will compare it to child abuse. And the medical and legal issues are completely different. Individuals who have lived a full life, even if they are impaired, should not be compared to a child.” (This is also what makes the phrase “parenting your parent” unacceptable. Responsibilities may change, but caring for a child is different from caring for an adult. It is condescending, infantilizing, and misleading to equate the two.) Nor is impairment always in play when it comes to preventing abuse. Some olders are vulnerable not because of cognitive issues or physical frailty, but because they’e afraid or unwilling to confront their abusers. 

In other words, it’s really complicated. As you say, abuse prevention is a valid undertaking, and many good people do this difficult, underpaid, and undervalued work. I think “Preventing Abuses of Vulnerable Adults” would be a slightly better name for it, but not by much.

What would the world look if our work were done?

In her new year’s missive, my friend and ally Janine Vanderburg, Director of Changing the Narrative, reminded me how important is to have a vision. Here’s the one she and her colleagues came up with in December:

Scanned Document

We’re making real progress. In 2022, ageism made its way into many more conversations and headlines than ever before. Onward!

IMDb now lets people remove their birthdates and birth names from the site. That’s no substitute for culture change.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) has been waging a years-long legal battle with the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to stop the site from disclosing the ages of screen actors. Last June GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, signed on to support SAG-AFTRA in preventing IMDb from publishing performers’ private information. Six months later IMDb caved. On December 13 they initiated a new policy that allows industry professionals to self-submit and/or verify their birth year, birth name, alternate names and other demographic information, and choose whether to display the information.

The decision was framed as a major victory for both SAG-AFTRA and  GLAAD. It is indeed an inspiring example of how marginalized groups can make change by joining forces.  It’s terrific that people are now in charge of their data, and that transgender people will no longer be called by a name they’d prefer no one use, or “deadnamed.” It’s indisputable that being outed as a member of a marginalized group puts people at risk of discrimination, as both SAG-AFTRA and  GLAAD argued.

But not everything about this decision is progressive. In fact, it’s largely performative. Where’s the outcry about the increase in violence against transgender people? Where’s the call for older actors to be cast in proportion to the percentage of older people in society? What does this decision do to remediate transphobia and age bias in the culture at large? If publishing actors’ ages fuels ageism, as SAG-AFTRA contended in their lawsuit, isn’t supporting age denial the opposite of a remedy?

I asked Mariann Aalda, who’s been acting since 1978, how the absence of age on IMDB might affect performers. “The same way being in the closet affected gay actors,” she replied. “In the short-term it was a boon. Long term it became a burden. Keeping secrets is stressful. It’s making something ‘wrong’ about being your authentic self.”

It’s wonderful that  trans people can now be represented on IMDB as their authentic selves. We need to do a lot more work to ensure they feel safe doing so. Also a lot more work against age shame, so we can be our authentic selves at any age.

“Too old to be president,” Take Umpteen

Wondering how to respond when people equate a political candidate’s age with their fitness for office? You’ll find plenty of answers in “Biden is now America’s first octogenarian president. Here’s what that means,” which appeared in Salon today. The writer reached out to experts like physician Louise Aronson and demographer Jay Olshansky, who warned against ageism. I called out ableism: “It’s appalling to mock Biden for a stutter he has worked to overcome his entire life. And it’s disgusting to make fun of him for falling off a bike. It’s commendable that he rides a bike and stays physically fit.”

Ageism and ableism rear their ugly heads every electoral cycle. The lead-up to the 2022 mid-term elections featured an outbreak of major media stories that blamed “gerontocracy” for our broken democratic system. The “Take Umpteen” in the title of this post refers to “Here we go again with ‘too old to be president,” written when “old guy” Bernie Sanders was on the campaign trail. I said it then, I said it to Salon, and I’ll say it again:

Generalizations about the capacities of older people are no more acceptable than racial or gender stereotypes. Period.

The country’s first octogenarian president is considering running against someone only slightly younger. It’s bringing the haters out. To challenge their ageism and ableism, we need expert evidence. I’m grateful to Salon article for marshalling so much of it for today’s article. “Does age matter?” from the International Council on Active Aging is another good resource. So is this blog.

No matter what candidate is under scrutiny, the issue is a political system that prioritizes corporate interests—not the age of the wealthy men who benefit most. The issue is a culture that stigmatizes disability (see this post about Senator Diane Feinstein)—not the age at which we encounter it. The issue is capacity—not age.

Do it like Nashua!

Holly Klump, Assistant Librarian at the Nashua, NH, Public Library, put together a nifty event last week. Most of the 42 attendees were from RISE (Rivier Institute of Senior Education), an educational program run by a local university, as was the facilitator who led a discussion after the group watched my TED talk. Holly loved the audience reaction: “laughter/stunned silence/murmurs of agreement, etc.” Next the group watched a couple of my short Yo Is this Ageist? video clips. By the time I showed up—virtually—45 minutes into the program, the group had prepared some tough questions for me.  Heidi had also made sure the library and university had copies of my book.

“We heard lots of great feedback about the program,” Holly reported back, “and hopefully it will create more discussion and action. You certainly gave me lots to think about as well, especially how to address everyday ageism that I hear all around me. I also really appreciate and respect that you don’t shy away from talking about the other ‘isms.’”

Thinking of putting together an event about ageism that’s free and open to the public?  I work hard to make my ideas available via my This Chair Rocks blog (which is searchable by topic), my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog, videos, and extensive interviews—all available via my website. You can find hundreds more free resources of all types in the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse.

If you do your part—gather a decent-sized audience and ask them to engage in advance with some of these ideas—I’ll do mine: show up for a virtual Q&A. I’ll also ask for an honorarium payable to Old School, which is a nonprofit, and if you can’t manage one, I’ll show up for free.

 “Ravages of age,” really? That phrase has got to go.

This week’s New York Times Magazine opened with an essay by Elizabeth Nelson about whether we’re missing out on when elite athletes—Roger Federer and Serena Williams in this case—retire from their sports.     

Photo illustration by Mark Weaver

This sentence in the first paragraph made me groan:  “The ravages of age, culminating with a recent knee surgery, finally persuaded [Federer] to retire.”

This sentence in the second paragraph—“Sportswriters are required to use phrases like ‘ravages of age’ when discussing an athlete in decline”—made me howl. The hell they are! It’s a lazy habit journalists need to break. It’s also bigoted and misleading.

The following sentence did nothing to calm me down: “Truth be told, it’s a bit of a reach when describing Federer’s goodbye. Trim and suave . . . he scarcely gave the appearance of a man facing down senescence—just a man acknowledging the fact he can’t go five sets deep with Novak Djokovic.” Indeed.

Humans lose speed and strength as we move into midlife. This loss is more acute for athletes, whose careers are built on physical capacity. Federer is making this transition with grace and skill, not “facing down senescence.”

We age well by adapting to the way our bodies change over time, not by pretending it’ll never happen to us or by experiencing these changes as betrayal. It’s ageist and ableist to describe them as “ravaging.” Synonyms for “ravaged” include “destroyed,“ “devastated,” and “ruined.” Federer likely has decades of active, meaningful life ahead of him, not to mention countless lucrative opportunities.

Disease ravages. Grief ravages. Fear ravages. These experiences are part of being human, from childhood on. To blame them on aging is to blame them on living.

Language matters. Journalists need to stop relying on offensive, misleading phrases like “ravages of age,” and we need to keep calling them out until they do.

Thrilled and honored to be one of the Healthy Ageing 50

So this happened. Yesterday the Decade of Healthy Aging (a collaboration between the UN and the WHO) announced The Healthy Ageing 50: Government, civil society, industry and academic leaders transforming the world to be a better place in which to grow older. Incredibly, I’m one of them.

It takes a lot to bring me to tears, but the last line of my gorgeous profile did the job: “Ashton Applewhite shows us that a world for all ages is indeed possible if we recognise the potential within each of us, speak truth to power, and stand together as one.” Now I can get hit by a bus. Just kidding about the bus.

Guest Post: What’s the best way to respond to an ageist comment?

That question comes my way all the time, whether via my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog or during Old School’s weekly Office Hours meet-ups. (Here’s how to join us.) So when journalist and author Phil Moeller obtained some really good answers from some people I greatly respect, I asked permission to run his article as a guest post. A slightly longer version first appeared on his Substack, Get What’s Yours.

There was another study out recently about pervasive ageism. This one dealt with the wording in employment ads. I was going to write yet another angry piece about yet another example of the poor treatment of older people. But why bother? We already know such behavior exists. Besides, what’s an older person to do about it?

Pushing back against societal behavior is nearly impossible for most people. Pushing back against an individual who engages in ageist language or behavior might be another matter. So I decided to seek out some advice from a terrific group of age-related researchers and writers about effective one-on-one responses for older people who experience discriminatory behavior. What works? And could they give me a couple of examples?

To break the ice, I led off with my own example. When I was in rehab for a knee replacement, I had a competent and very likable physical therapist. We talked about a lot of things other than the torture she was inflicting on my new knee joint. One day, she greeted me with: “How are you doing today, young man?”

Of course, my alarms sounded loudly. But I doubted a direct and aggressive response would change her behavior. So, I said, “I’m fine, but I’m afraid I’ll have to report you to the Aging Police.” As I hoped, she asked why, and I was able to explain – quietly, I hope – why I found her greeting inappropriate. I think she listened and, I hope, did not repeat this greeting to other older patients.

With that, here’s what my admittedly self-selected group said. First, some introductions. Here are the people who kindly shared their time and expertise:

Ashton Applewhite is an anti-ageism advocate and the author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.”

Geriatrician, writer, educator, and professor Louise Aronson is the author of Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, and Reimagining Life.

The managing editor for more than a decade at Next Avenue, Rich Eisenberg is now podcasting, freelance writing and teaching digital media in “unretirement.”

Celebrated cultural critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a resident scholar at Brandeis University and the author of Ending Ageism, or How Not To Shoot People.

Kerry Hannon has written for major news outlets and is currently a senior columnist for Yahoo! Finance. Her latest book is In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in the New World of Work.

Tech industry veteran, writer, speaker and elder care advocate Laurie M. Orlov is the founder of Aging and Health Technology Watch.

And here is what they said:

Applewhite: I think the best, all-purpose answer to an ageist comment is, “What do you mean by that?” Ask it in a neutral tone — is your goal to shame or to change? — and then just wait. There’s always an underlying assumption on the basis of age, and you can always point out that plenty of other people the same age don’t behave like that/ look that way/ talk like that / etc.

You can find more examples on my Yo, Is This Ageist? blog.

Aronson: It’s hard to know where to begin, so some random thoughts:

Responding with anger or insult just puts people’s hackles up

Using “I” phrases helps since we all own our own feelings

Best to start by with a pause and some generosity: “Sorry to interrupt, but I just need to point something out. I think you know how much I like/respect/etc you and that’s why I want to tell you that what you just said felt hurtful/insulting/etc. And I know that’s not what you meant. Lots of people do the same thing and most mean well but most of us who are old find those comments offensive/condescending.”

Great if you can explain why: “I’m not a baby, speaking to me in a baby voice is demeaning.” Or “I have trouble hearing but my brain is working just fine.” Or “We both know I’m old, when you pretend otherwise you suggest that being old is a bad thing and it’s not. Bodily changes have their disappointments but, on average, older people are happier and more satisfied with their lives than young people.”

For other scenarios, there’s a similar start. “I’m sorry but I need to stop you there. I’m right here and it feels like you’re talking about me rather than to me. I know that was probably unconscious so I wanted to point it out since there’s no age at which being talked over like that feels good. Can we start again?”

Eisenberg: In my life, sometimes I am about to start interviewing someone who knows my background and who says: “I thought you were retired!” I respond that I retired from my full-time job, but I didn’t retire from life. I go on to say I am retiring the way many are these days: working part-time doing what I enjoy, using new free time to volunteer, mentor, travel and spend time with my wife. 

Gullette: Margaret shared links to three pieces she’s written that include many potentially effective responses and strategies, although they don’t lend themselves to snappy one-liners.

Ageism Ignores And Insults The Competence Of Adults.”

“Fight Ageism By Retiring The Offensive Metaphor, ‘Getting Old’ ”.

“Ramping Up,” about how building a ramp at my summer house solved a problem that went deeper than we knew.

Hannon: Ageism is alive and well in the workplace and deeply engrained in our culture. One of the best ways to fight back against ageism is to be physically fit. It’s a fact of life that we judge people on their cover. “Lookism.” I can’t tell you how many jobseekers over 50 ask me if they should get botox or dye their hair to hide the gray. It’s top of mind. I always say, sure if it makes you feel better and more confident. But the best way to fight ageism is to get physically fit.

I don’t mean bench pressing or running fast miles. But rather incorporate a fitness program into your daily life and eat with an eye to nutrition. That might mean walking your dog a few miles a day like I do, or swimming and so forth. When you’re physically fit, you exude a can-do attitude, you have energy and a positive vibe. People want to be around you. They want you on their team. They want to be your client. It is subliminal.

Orlov: I was in a medical office, and the receptionist spoke loudly to everyone who approached their desk, regardless of whether they gave any indication of being hearing-impaired. Just say – and not in a loud voice – there’s no need to shout. I have perfect hearing.

More evidence of how ageism affects our mental and physical well-being

Ageism affects how our minds and bodies function, and not in a good way. We’ve known that for a while, thanks in large part to the work of Yale’s Becca Levy, whose groundbreaking work, Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live, was published this spring.

So it’s exciting to see new data on the health effects of ageism from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, a survey of 2035 nationally representative Americans ages 50 to 80, published on June 15 by Julie Ober Allen in JAMA Open Network. Also, instead of focusing on well-researched contexts like healthcare or the workplace, this study is the first to confirm the near-universal nature of minor but pervasive forms of age discrimination, which the authors refer to as “everyday ageism.” A full 93% of respondents encountered some form of it in their daily lives, such as commercials for anti-aging products, “senior moment” quips, or what the researchers describe as “brief verbal, nonverbal, and environmental indignities that convey hostility, a lack of value, or narrow stereotypes of older adults.”

There’s a word for these derogatory behaviors:  microaggressions—indirect, often unintentional expressions of prejudice. There’s nothing “micro” about their effect on our well-being. Exposure to microagressions is associated with depression, anxiety, lower job satisfaction and poor self-esteem in targeted groups, and older people are no exception. Study participants were asked to assess their health in four ways: overall physical health, overall mental health, number of chronic conditions, and whether they were depressed. The investigators found those with higher “everyday ageism” scores—who reported more exposure to demeaning messages about aging—faced higher health risks on all four measures. Exposure was more common among people from socially and economically disadvantaged groups. 

I’ve written at length about how ageism harms our health. I frequently reference a study of Becca Levy’s that shows that more accurate age beliefs protect against Alzheimer’s disease—even among people who are genetically predisposed to the disease. I call often for a national anti-ageism campaign to raise awareness of the health consequences of negative age stereotypes. First author of this new study Julie Ober Allen, of the University of Oklahoma, Norman, concurs. Her findings, she writes, suggest that “anti-ageism efforts could be a strategy for promoting older adult health and well-being.” So does the World Health Organization, which launched its superb Global Campaign to Combat Ageism in 2021 with the goal of increasing healthspan along with lifespan. We’ve got that terrific model and we’ve got a growing body of solid scientific evidence. Let’s make it happen.