41. Fighting Ageism with Activist and Author Ashton Applewhite

Published November 17, 2021

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Show Notes

At the Alliance for Aging Research, we are all about helping people live longer, happier, more productive lives. Unfortunately, ageism in our society can be a huge barrier to healthy aging. Here to talk about ageism is Ashton Applewhite, an activist and author who wrote This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hi, everyone, and welcome to This Is Growing Old, a podcast from the Alliance for Aging Research. I’m Sue Peschin, President and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. At the Alliance, we’re all about helping people live longer, happier, more productive lives. Unfortunately, ageism in our society continues to be a huge barrier to healthy aging.

Sue Peschin:

Here to talk about ageism is Ashton Applewhite, an activist and author who wrote a fantastic book called This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Ashton, thank you so much for joining us on This Is Growing Old.

Ashton Applewhite:

My pleasure.

Sue Peschin:

So you have a TED Talk titled Let’s End Ageism. Please tell us more about how ageism impacts the health of older adults and prevents them from getting the healthcare they need.

Ashton Applewhite:

Yeah, I really think that the most sort of powerful ideologically neutral argument for doing something about ageism in the culture is its effect on our health. Whether you think having more older people is a fabulous thing or a disaster, no one wants older people to be unhealthy, in pain, expensive. And of course we as older people don’t want those either. And there is a growing body of fantastic, fascinating research, much of it conducted by Becca Levy at Yale about how attitudes towards aging affect how our minds and bodies function at the cellular level.

Ashton Applewhite:

Diet change is really hard. Lifestyle change is really hard. Losing weight is really hard. Sticking to an exercise regime is really hard. Reading some stuff about aging is not hard, to do it with an open mind so that you might allow your preconceptions to be changed. Although I will say that unlearning is not easy either, especially when it comes to values. Most of the time, the media frames this as people with a positive attitude towards aging and the list is so long. Live longer, an average of seven and a half years longer, heal quicker from severe disability, walk faster. Have better handwriting, which is a surprisingly accurate indicator of all kinds of health functions.

Ashton Applewhite:

I frame this as people with a fact rather than fear-based attitude towards aging because this is not some happy gloss. This is not positive aging. This is not like pick the happy stuff and aspire to climb. Mount Everest at 80. This is simply educating ourselves about the realities of aging in the 21st century and looking around us at all the wonderful ways that older people can be in the world and letting that ease the stress and anxiety of living in an ageist world, which we all do.

Ashton Applewhite:

My favorite study of Levy shows that people with a fact, rather than fear-based attitude towards aging, wait for it, are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s even if they have the gene that predisposes them to the disease. So I hope you’ll back a public health campaign, an anti-ageism campaign as a public health campaign because that is of course why the World Health Organization has launched just such a campaign this spring, a fantastic campaign. And it’s not the World Old People Organization. It’s the World Health Organization because they realize that the biggest barrier to healthier long lives around the world is ageism both between our ears and in the world around us.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah, that’s very well said. Thank you. I love that. So you’re the author of This Chair Rocks which is also your Twitter handle which we all love at the Alliance, by the way. So tell us more about the book, what inspired you to write it and what can people learn from your story?

Ashton Applewhite:

I wrote the book because I had to. This Chair Rocks is my Twitter handle. One my many pet peeves, which you did not aggravate is when people leave off the full title of the book, because really the most important words in the title of the book are manifesto and ageism. I have written one other serious book. I don’t know how writers turn out serious fact-filled books all the time. I write slowly and miserably. And when I started thinking and writing about ageism, I did so in blog form at thischairrocks.com. All this stuff is available for my website and all my thinking over the last 15 years is available there for free.

Ashton Applewhite:

The book is not free, but it’s cheap. And really writing a book is for me really a hideous experience. But it’s funny. I actually self-published the book because I couldn’t get a mainstream publisher to pay it the kind of attention. I thought it deserved, the publisher that had an option. I met with the editor and she looked at me and she said, “We’re concerned no one else is writing about this.” And my face did this like scurry-uppy thing. And instead of saying the tactless thing that was on the tip of my tongue, I said, “Gee, I think you should see that as a feature and not a bug.”

Ashton Applewhite:

It’s a good story because I did a few years later sell it to Celadon Books, a new division of Macmillan, which is just doing a terrific job with it, which I’m very, very happy about. I mean, once I self-published the book even though we had no mechanism to let the New York Times know, so to speak, it did change things. It’s like you have more weight in the world somehow. And it is a really, really good book and I’m proud of it.

Sue Peschin:

Ah, that’s awesome. Well, you should be.

Ashton Applewhite:

Thanks. It’s fun to read. Say it’s fun to read.

Sue Peschin:

It is really fun to read. It’s very clever and I enjoyed it so I think-

Ashton Applewhite:

I think when people hear the word manifesto, they think there’s going to be a lot of fiber. And to be fair, there’s a lot of fiber, but it is I hope couched in an engaging way.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah. And I think part of what you try to convey is that it’s humor that helps you with your attitude towards how you approach aging. And that’s what you have a lot of in the book, which is why I think it’s so easy to get through.

Ashton Applewhite:

Thanks.

Sue Peschin:

So we also love your Tumblr that you have set up called Yo, Is This Ageist? Where you answer questions people have about whether something is ageist. A few of the questions are about generational and whether or not it’s ageist to refer to someone as a baby boomer. What are your thoughts on labels when it comes to age?

Ashton Applewhite:

Well, ageism is by definition stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of age. Stereotyping is thinking of all members of a group as the same. It’s always misinformed of course and problematic to stereotype any group, but especially when it comes to age because as I’m sure your research reveals in all kinds of ways that I don’t know about. The longer we live, the more different from one another we become.

Ashton Applewhite:

So the older you are, the less your age reveals about what you’re interested in, what you’re capable of physically and cognitively, socially, the works. When we label any group of people born within a certain period of years with a label, we inherently are stereotyping them. And there have been so many articles recently. If you look at my blog, thischairrocks.com/blog, you will see a link to an article that I wrote for Next Avenue called Let’s Climb Out of The Generation Trap.

Ashton Applewhite:

Since then, there have been five subsequent articles most recently this week in the New Yorker about why generational labels are misleading and problematic, the fundamental one being that they have no basis in science. No scientists can agree on the definition of a generation. Generational labels were basically invented marketers to sell us stuff. They are promoted by the media because they’re so catchy and they’re so convenient. And we all use generational labels. And in a narrow context, they are useful.

Ashton Applewhite:

Your parents are a different generation from your children, but we overuse the word because it is so convenient. And, in my opinion, the two biggest problems with generational labels which to answer the basic question are inherently ageist because they stereotype on the basis of age is twofold. It obscures the far greater role that other factors primarily class, but also gender, ethnicity, our life situation, where we grew up, et cetera. That the far greater role that those factors play in shaping our experience, age is actually much less significant than we think it is.

Ashton Applewhite:

And also as an activist against ageism, those labels are divisive. They are used and provoked by the media. Even those dopey clickbait like six things millennials should never wear or don’t make these boomer mistakes. And it’s really hard to resist clicking on them because we’re human. But all they do is foster this idea that people of a certain age are alike, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah. And I think it also contributes to a lot of divisiveness among [inaudible 00:10:07] age group. I was really struck when I first heard the okay boomer sort of insult because I was thinking to myself, “Gosh, when I was growing up, it’s not like we all said like, ‘Okay, greatest generation.'” I mean, it’s just such an odd thing. They’ve just piled on this negativity that there’s no context to it whatsoever. It’s just strange.

Ashton Applewhite:

Well, yeah and it’s inaccurate. I mean, you’re much likely to have something in common with older and younger people who share your class background or your educational background or your politics, whatever, pick an indicator than age. And it is indeed used to stoke division. We live in very troubling times and politicians everywhere are already exploiting divisions of class, divisions of gender, divisions of race. We simply cannot afford to add age to the mix.

Ashton Applewhite:

So I really urge people the next time you think of even using the word generation, think if there isn’t a different word you could use. Age group, age cohort, that’s a little dorky, but mixed age. Avoid the generational label. Are you talking about people who remember when such and such a TV show aired? That’s not ageist. That’s a point of popular culture, but some people your age listen to that show and some people didn’t. So refer always to the specific experience or the specific attribute or the specific feeling rather than attributing it to age because age is never honestly never the reason.

Sue Peschin:

Right. I like that. It’s like did you see it in real-time or in rerun, right?

Ashton Applewhite:

Yeah. I mean, my friends are also gun shy. They’re like, “Happy birthday. Ah, was that okay?” Age is real. It’s different. It does shape us. When we were born does shape us, but it does not therefore follow that we have nothing in common with and look down on or look up on people who weren’t born around the same time that we are obviously.

Sue Peschin:

Right. Well, so this is a good segue because you established Old School, which compiles resources about ageism. What are some of the resources that will help older adults fight ageism in their everyday life that they can find out on the site?

Ashton Applewhite:

Well, I’m going to lob that one right back to you and your listeners. I created with two wonderful colleagues the Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse is its big mouthful of a name a couple years ago because I thought, “Wouldn’t it have been amazing if the women’s movement had had a central repository of really good books and videos and you name it, charts, graphs, infographics, science papers, whatever about feminism and sexism?” Sort of a one-stop shopping where people could also connect and meet each other.

Ashton Applewhite:

So that’s why we created Old School and it has grown by leaps and bounds rather to our surprise in the beginning. We’re like, “This is really dorky, but it sounds like it might be useful.” And instantly the responses we got from people and all kinds of people, some academics, some teachers, some students, but also the general public journalists. They’re like, “If I want to find out what’s happening, I go to Old School.” So the website is oldschool.info.

Ashton Applewhite:

I couldn’t possibly answer your question because your listeners are probably older, but even if they’re not ancient, they’re probably pretty diverse. They probably have different needs. So noodle around Old School, everything is free except the books. It’s searchable. We finally got our search working really well. That was a whole saga. And enter the term that you’re interested in. We have been developing consciousness raising guides. We just released one the way ageism and sexism intersect. If you’re interested in women’s stuff or sexism, enter women, enter sexism.

Ashton Applewhite:

If you’re interested in kids, if you’re interested in language, I think language is probably a fantastic starting pool point for anyone who wants to think about, the first important step is to look at our own attitudes towards age and aging. And a really good litmus test for that is how do you use the words young and old? And there’s all sorts of different takes from many different organizations and people. So each take is a little different. The one that you might find most useful is not necessarily the one that your best friend would. So it’s all there. It’s really easy to browse through it. Everything from long dorky webinars to really short tip sheets.

Ashton Applewhite:

So whatever it is, look around and find it, download it. If we made it, if it’s an Old School resource, you are welcome to repurpose it, to adapt it. We have a fantastic workshop that we created called Let’s Dismantle Ageism. It’s an hour long. The script is up there. The slides are up there. The text is up there, take it, adapt it for your organization or start a group to talk about age bias. Take what we’ve done and use what you like, and don’t use what you don’t. It has to fit you.

Sue Peschin:

Very cool. So what has helped you personally get through times when you just aren’t feeling pause about getting older?

Ashton Applewhite:

When we think about, even that question, come to think of it and I’m not sure this is even accurate because I haven’t said it out loud before and I certainly don’t mean it as a gotcha. Your question when we don’t feel good about aging, aging is living, living is aging. Aging is not so something annoying old people do. So when a 15-year-old wakes up apprehensive because they’ve got a pimple on their nose, or they have a history test or whatever, they’re being apprehensive about aging arguably. They’re being apprehensive about the next stage of their lives.

Ashton Applewhite:

So I would say, first of all, think about whether the thing that you’re apprehensive about actually has to do with oldness, or just about some challenge ahead. Because again, we tend to attribute an awful lot more to aging than we should, and then try and break it down and think about one challenge at a time. One of the early facts that I came upon in my research which I flat out did not believe was the U-curve of happiness. My mother-in-law used to say, she said, “I just don’t buy it. And I used to say, “Ruth, so happy to happy you take issue with the best substantiated data point in my book, in my talks which shows that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives.”

Ashton Applewhite:

Especially in your 80s and 90s, we get better. This is a function of the way aging itself affects the brain. We get better at not sweating the small stuff. The knowledge that time is short does not fill us with dread, which was my totally ageist preconception. I was like everything’s going to suck about getting older, especially the grim Reaper getting closer and closer to my sad iron bedstead. And that’s not the way it works for most people.

Ashton Applewhite:

Of course, there are always exceptions, but to me as a think-y person, it comforted me. Although there’s still of course things that I fear, but knowing that the great majority of the pizza pie, if you will, that this changes and that I am statistically really likely to end up in the 90% of the pizza, not the 10% is a comfort to me. So I would say educate yourself about age and aging. And also look around at the older people around you. I have a passage in the book, which I appropriated from a geriatrician named Joanne Lynn, and she called herself an old person in training. And it’s really just a mental trick.

Ashton Applewhite:

Ageism takes root in denial and pretending we’re not going to get older. That isn’t a going to happen to us. We eat enough kale and everything will stay the same, nothing. Newsflash. Spoiler alert. Nothing stays the same. And if you become an old person in training, all that is is acknowledging that someday you’re going to get old. If you’re lucky and the older you can be as far off down the horizon as you need her to be. It’s just acknowledging that she’s there. And it’s really hard to imagine getting older, especially when you’re young.

Ashton Applewhite:

I don’t think that’s ageism. I think that’s being human. But if you can acknowledge that you are going to get old, then you don’t get on up in this hamster wheel of denial. I mean, part of that ideally is looking at the older people around you and instead of past them. And looking at the behaviors or attitudes they have that you like and the ones that they don’t.

Ashton Applewhite:

I mean, some older people are wise and happy and lots of older people are idiots and cranky. I’m shooting for a wise-ish and cranky because I’m never going to be one of those happy cheerful ladies rocking peaceably in the corner. Again, we have our own paths, but once you acknowledge that this will happen, it strips of this dread of this sort of myth like, “Ah, how do I keep it from happening?” Along with the knowledge that you’ll probably enjoy it when it does.

Sue Peschin:

That’s great. So we asked these questions of all of our podcast guests. The first one is when you were a kid, what did you imagine growing older would be like?

Ashton Applewhite:

I honestly don’t think I thought about it. When you’re a kid, you live in the moment because you don’t have the wherewithal to do anything else and that’s why kids are happy. I mean, little kids, they’re not looking ahead. I do remember like wondering why on earth these grownups just sat around. Like why would you sit in a chair and just go … all the time when you could be running around and scraping your knees on things?

Ashton Applewhite:

And then when I was an adolescent, I was so miserable. I think I just I couldn’t even … I mean, I do remember thinking to of myself at age 13, it was before the phrase, it sucks entered the vocabulary, but that was it. It was like this is really the pits. It’s got to get better. And it did, it did. I mean, I am lucky. I am privileged, but no one no matter how apprehensive they may be about what lies ahead and I just I want to say, make very clear that a lot of those apprehensions are completely justified.

Ashton Applewhite:

I’m not pooing or papering over the very real challenges of running out of money, ending up alone, facing physical challenges. We all face physical decline. I’m looking at you wearing a sling from having had my shoulder replaced 10 days ago. That stuff is real, but if we put that in perspective and look at the whole picture, we’re typically in much, much better shape than we think we are.

Sue Peschin:

And the second question is what do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Ashton Applewhite:

I feel much more confident. For me, it’s something of a gendered answer. There are so many voices around women telling us what we should look like and what we should do and all these pressures from living in a patriarchy, frankly, that expect women to conform to an impossible punishing standard. And as we get older, the way I’ve heard who lots of women express it is that we give fewer F’s. That’s true. You know, I am much less concerned with conforming to some role that society has for me.

Ashton Applewhite:

Not least, I have to say because the roles that society has for older people in general and older women in particular are not very rich. They’re not very many. It’s partly because of ageism in the culture, but it’s also because the longer lives that more of us will enjoy than ever before in human history are new. This has happened in the blink of an eye even in cultural terms, not to mention evolutionary terms and roles and rituals have yet to evolve.

Ashton Applewhite:

So I think we’re going to have a lot more. We won’t have to choose between the evil witch as women or the placid granny. So it’s up to all of us to create whatever role fits us and to inhabit it. And I will say to urge people to look at the way the unconscious bias, it’s almost, almost all of this is unconscious. The negative messages that have come at us about age and aging from childhood on have warped our perspectives, mine too. And that’s unpleasant. You go, “Oh crap. Like I’m really ageist” and it’s not pleasant to acknowledge that you are biased.

Ashton Applewhite:

We are all biased, but I will tell you that the step and I would love to hear if this is your experience. Once you see it in yourself, then like a genie getting out of a bottle, you start to see it in the culture around you. And that is really liberating. So it’s almost like a veil to stick your head through and start to come through the other side because it’s better.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah. Well, Ashton, thank you so much for joining us today. It was really wonderful talking with you and just a pleasure to actually finally meet you. So thank you.

Ashton Applewhite:

You too. Keep up your good work.

Sue Peschin:

Thank you.

Sue Peschin:

Thanks to everyone for listening to This Is Growing Old. Our intro and outro music is City Sunshine by Kevin MacLeod. Hat tip to Janelle Germanos, my partner in crime. We hope you’re enjoying listening to our podcast. If you are liking what you’re hearing, please give us a review on Apple Podcasts. Thank you and have a wonderful day.