The Last “-Ism”: Author Activist Ashton Applewhite Offers a Radical New Take on Aging and Discrimination

Think of how many movies and TV shows have a joke, or a series of jokes, where an older adult wants to have fun, or swears, or goes out on a date. It’s usually met with a wisecrack putting them back in their place, or even general shock. It’s almost always played for laughs. The implication, of course, is that once you’re older, you should no longer want to have a life the way you once did. That your life, essentially, is closed to new experiences.

author activist Ashton ApplewhiteThink of how many movies and TV shows have a joke, or a series of jokes, where an older adult wants to have fun, or swears, or goes out on a date. It’s usually met with a wisecrack putting them back in their place, or even general shock. It’s almost always played for laughs. The implication, of course, is that once you’re older, you should no longer want to have a life the way you once did. That your life, essentially, is closed to new experiences.
When you think about it, that’s a terrible message, but it isn’t just a product of pop culture. The derision and jokes are actually a reflection of our society, and the way we handle aging. We draw a thick black line between “life” and “being old,” and once you cross that boundary, your horizons are limited. For author activist Ashton Applewhite, that’s nothing less than bigotry. Dangerous, demeaning, disgraceful bigotry. But she’s set out to change it.

Applewhite, long known as a feminist author, has turned her eyes on the way we treat aging in this country. Speaking at Institute on Aging, she told us that ageism was really “the last -ism,” because while there’s obviously a long way to go on racism, sexism, or religious bigotry, those are at least widely acknowledged as problems in most circles. But not ageism. “Old people are barely people” is still widely accepted as comedy—and as truth.
Applewhite is actively fighting this misconception. Her rollicking, passionate, often hilarious, and deeply insightful new book, This Chair Rocks, explores how we treat aging in America, why the way we do is dangerous and backward, and how to shift the status quo. We were honored to have her join IOA for an informal discussion.

The Internalization of Ageism

Speaking to a capacity crowd of over 100 people, (85% of whom were over 65), Ashton shared with us some surprising statistics:

  • Only 4% of the population over 65 is in a nursing home
  • 90% of the population over 65 is cognitively fit

Even with those facts in mind, we still have the impression of a doddering half-person and, as Ashton explained, that was something she internalized. As she started to age, she discovered ageism even in herself. There was no awareness for her at that time that this was an “-ism.” She had criticized and doubted herself for aging.
That’s something we may all be guilty of from time to time. We all think, “I can’t believe I’m 30! How did I get to be 40? 50? Well, I’m 60, my life is basically over.” Indeed, the great writer Anne Lamott said that before she read This Chair Rocks, she was mired in “confusion and sadness” over turning 62. Because, as Ashton explained, we “fear our own aging”.
We don’t want to talk about our age in the workplace, even though the rate of workers over 65 will be 23% of the workforce by 2022, because we fear we’ll be seen as dinosaurs. We don’t talk about aging in public because we don’t want to be seen as weak. We lie about aging when meeting others, because we fear to be seen as no longer a vibrant and sexual being.
And that makes an impact! We internalize the stereotypes. We trick ourselves, through constant internal and external reinforcement, into becoming “old.” But Ashton doesn’t think it needs to be that way. Lamott said that, while she never uses this word, This Chair Rocks “empowered” her to see aging differently. And that was the message for everyone present at her discussion hosted by IOA.

Activism to Stop Ageism

There are a lot of reasons to be an activist these days; it can seem like battling ageism is just something else on the list of things to fight. But Ashton told us today’s rising consciousness is actually the best time to organize. People are riled up against prejudice and bigotry like no other moment in the last 50 years. This isn’t the time to deal with one later; it’s the time to take on everything.
So what can one do? In her discussion, she talked about ways to be an anti-ageism activist, including:

  • Promote consciousness: When talking with acquaintances and community members, promote the idea that aging is a “dynamic, interesting, and unchartered territory.” It isn’t something to be feared. These are interpersonal conversations you can have, which make a difference. Changing individual minds is a great place to start. You can do this online, as well, by sending out uplifting and accurate messages like our Age On video.
  • Organize education seminars: Much like the one we had at IOA, participants were encouraged to get out and host classes, meetings, and more. Whether at homes for small groups or gymnasiums with the neighborhood, these are ways to raise more awareness of the issue.
  • Train the trainers: This is activism 101. Make sure that people in your circles go out and educate and organize more people. Teach them the issues, so that they can teach others. Intersect with other activists, and see how your missions can work together (for example, older members of the LGBTQ members [link to LGBT Laws article] tend to be worse off than their counterparts, and the same goes for older minorities). As Benjamin Franklin said, hang together, or we’ll hang separately.
  • Stay involved: IOA is a regional leader in helping people age with dignity, and in changing the way society views aging. We have a full calendar of events that can help you stay focused, stay organized, and stay involved. We’re always looking for people to join us.

Challenge Assumptions on Aging, Every Day

Ashton told an illustrative story about a shopping trip. She loves to dance, and wanted a comfortable blouse for that purpose. The younger saleswoman just assumed she’d want one with sleeves.  Instead of being apologetic about it, as we sometimes weirdly are when we’re the ones being wronged, Ashton made it clear she was looking for a sleeveless blouse. She didn’t make an excuse. She didn’t apologize for her aging arms. She asked for what she wanted.
That challenged the saleswoman’s assumptions, and maybe changed her whole outlook. That’s what we need to do, every day. We need to challenge the assumptions of others, challenge the assumptions of society, and challenge ourselves to change the way we view aging. We need to stop accepting aging as the end of something, but understand that it’s another part of the long and adventurous continuum of life. It isn’t even another phase. It’s just another step on a long walk, each one blending into the next, seamlessly.
As Ashton says, “Aging means living. Don’t confuse it with dying.”
Institute on Aging offers a wide range of programs, services, and online resources to fight ageism, and help older adults live independently, with dignity and adventure. Get in touch with us today to learn more.

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