Planet Talk: Writer-Activist Ashton Applewhite

Ashton Applewhite will speak at the Senior Planet Exploration Center on February 26, 2014.

Ashton Applewhite is on a crusade. A journalist and author, her mission is to raise awareness of ageism in America and get people young and old to join her in speaking out against it. Like the activists of the civil rights and women’s movements, Applewhite looks for discrimination and also self-discrimination, scrutinizing everything from media representations of age to her own responses to the realties of aging. Her radar is fine-tuned; she exercises it on her Tumblr, Yo, Is This Ageist, and on her longstanding blog This Chair Rocks (formerly known as Staying Vertical).

“This Chair Rocks” is also the title of a talk that Applewhite is touring. With empathy and humor, she explores our fear and loathing in the face of the inevitable, sharing a stew of statistics, personal anecdotes and stories from her research, which she began in 2007.

We spoke with Applewhite, 60, over tea in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where she lives.

You’ve said that you started researching aging – becoming what you call “an old person in training” – because of a desire to avoid repeating your own mother’s experience as she aged. But then it evolved.
My mother was not a happy woman. And when someone asked me once why I had started this project, I blurted out that I didn’t want to end up like her. What I realized after much head banging was that my own internalized ageism – my fear of aging –made me think that getting old was what made my mother depressed. It was really depression that made my mother depressed, but I projected my own fear about getting old onto her.

I think most people are afraid. One of my key objectives is to tell them, Listen and educate yourself, because then you will be less afraid.  If you can come out of your foxhole and look more neutrally at the landscape of aging, you are in a better position, because fear makes us stupid. Nobody ever does any smart thinking – or anything political – when they’re afraid.

Where do you think your fear of aging was coming from?
I think it comes from a society in which being old is viewed universally as being a dreadful thing. Ageism starts really young, when we’re kids – with an absence of role models, with making fun of older people, and with age segregation. If kids aren’t exposed to people of all ages in all their variety, then they don’t have those varied images to counter negative stereotypes.

A good analogy is with racism and integration. When people are separated from people who are not like them, it allows prejudices to build. Once you’re sitting next to someone who doesn’t look like you, whether it’s in a class or at a bar or a concert, you realize that they are just like you.

In your talk you describe going out to events where everyone else is young and being by far the oldest person there. Many older people feel awkward in that situation.
It takes courage. But if older people aren’t there in the room, then there’s no chance for younger people to go talk to them. If its something you want to do, it’s important as a political act to not stay home just because you’ll feel awkward.

There’s a phenomenal interest among younger women in Advanced Style blog – older women who are seriously into fashion. How much can this chip away at ageism?
People want alternative narratives about aging, because they are eager for something to not be depressed about. I think that the most important thing Advanced Style does is put significantly older women out there – it makes them visible – and second, it treats them respectfully. So it absolutely does combat ageism. But it’s a bit of an extreme example, because these are women who live for style. I would love to see style blogs about advanced scientists and advanced podiatrists, and advanced anything out there that shows older people doing whatever they’re doing. Because the absence of older people in the media is a huge problem.

There’s a lot of self-deprecating humor out there in the world of aging that trades in stereotypes but is often funny. What do we do about that? Don’t we need humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves?
I have no issue with jokes. I think humor is always good, and if you can’t laugh at yourself its all over. I think that deprecating comments used without the awareness that they’re deprecating – from other people or against ourselves – is the problem.

You talk about using stereotypes against ourselves without knowing that we are – which is a form of internalized ageism. Can you talk about that?
If all you see out there is that such-and-such a group is greedy or lazy or stupid, and you don’t grow up with other messages, then you do internalize those messages. Every marginalized population experiences this. It corrodes your identity and your sense of self.

With ageism, where I think it’s particularly problematic is around cognitive ability – the “senior moment” quip is classic. Memory does depreciate with age. I have a dark sense of humor and it’s going to get funny and I’d better laugh at myself, because it’s better to laugh than to cry. Laughing at yourself is different than other people laughing at you. And other people laughing at you is not inherently problematic as long as everyone knows it’s a joke.

This is still a profoundly racist and sexist society, and we all know racist and sexist jokes are not OK. That level of awareness has yet to occur around deprecating comments about old people.

How does ageism intersect with racism, sexism and issues of power?
There’s a Walter Mosley quote that says when you get old, you become black. That, of course, is about class. You can be a white American and never experience racial discrimination, but by the time you reach 50 or 60, you will start to experience becoming disenfranchised on the basis of your age. And of course age discrimination is a bigger problem for women because they make less money and have less power and live longer. And it’s even harder for black women. So all these converge.

On the site Quora, there’s a question from an 18-year-old girl who says, ‘Every time I express an opinion older people act like I don’t know anything because I have no experience; is this ageist?’
You bet! Ageism cuts both ways. Anytime anyone is deprecated or silenced or ignored on the basis of age, it’s ageism, and there’s tremendous ageism against kids. How do we guard against it? The fundamental answer is generational integration.

There’s a term that’s becoming something of a cliche in the aging world: aging gracefully. It usually denotes aging naturally, not worrying about gray hair and wrinkles. What does it mean to you?
As we age we do have to both push back and keep doing things, but also to acknowledge that the goalposts are shifting and we can’t do everything we used to do. And accepting that transition – which is a continuous, difficult transition – with grace is a tremendous aspiration. It’s hard and it’s real. That, for me, is aging gracefully.

I think the radical act – and it is radical act of the imagination – is to reject and revise our notion of beauty. A friend said, I think the most radical topic you’re writing about is sex, because the thought of a naked older woman is the most taboo thing in our society. We need to see ourselves as sexually active and as potential objects of desire, and not just absorb some cultural message that you’re not desirable. I mean, is a naked older woman more taboo than a photo of a person who was disfigured by Agent Orange? There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s a lot more subversive and a lot more scary and a lot more bad than a picture of a naked older woman.

Do you experience ageism in your life? Share your thoughts by scrolling down and adding them in the comments box below. 

Check out Ashton Applewhite’s blogs
Click here to read Yo, Is This Ageist?
Click here to read This Chair Rocks 

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14 comments
  • NFP Activist
    REPLY

    There is a large segment of the senior population that have multiple issues related to economics, physical health, mental health and various daily money management needs.

    Ageism should be addressing the full spectrum of the needs of the aging population. We need more creative solutions and of course funding to support the NFP’s that are in the trenches and helping to reduce the anxieties relating to daily living.

  • Taoistsenior
    REPLY

    I think the issue is health rather than aging. If you are healthy, active and engaged in life, you feel fully alive and appear so to others. If you think of aging as a decaying process then your body and spirit go along with your attitude.

    I teach seniors (up to 107 years old) Zookinesis chair exercises. At first they can barely move and within a few months they become very vigorous and active. Their attitude changes and becomes bright, engaged and positive.

    Our society is becoming more sedentary especially among young people. Many seniors I work with are a lot “younger” than people in their teens and twenties.

    • Ashton Applewhite
      REPLY

      Health is enormously important; we should aspire to health, not youth. It doesn’t make the issue of ageism any less central to the experience of growing old in the US, though.

  • Virginia
    REPLY

    Love this article. I often find myself the oldest person in a room and finally got comfortable with it and actually enjoy it. Went back to school in my sixties and got not one but two degrees, attend fitness classes at the university with all college age students and still working a full time job! It’s not like I’m trying to keep up or compete with the younger generation, but finally enjoying who I am and embracing my abilities. Thanks!

  • sara
    REPLY

    It’s all a state of mind. We have friends who range from age 30 to 72, and I don’t think any of us feel stereotyped. If you act old and obsess about age, you project “old.” My theory is…who cares? Live your life to the fullest and don’t let stupid people define who you are.

  • zusia
    REPLY

    Recently I shopped for a formal dress– first I’ve needed in nearly a dozen years and probably two dozen pounds. I stood watching pathetically as young sales help at Nordstrom passed me by, one after the other, refusing to help me or even answer my polite questions. This was a first, but I knew best to head to a private formal wear shop where I found exactly what I needed, with the help of non-discriminating staff.

  • pepperhobbes
    REPLY

    I find my self looking for my glasses and laughing about my forgetfulness along with my 50 year old veterinarian boss. A vet assistant at 55, I restrain 80 lb dogs and wrestle fractious cats. I assist surgeries and learn something new everyday. I wonder how many people my age can get down on the floor and back up again. I may not be twenty and I may not be able to restrain a 120 lb Rottweiler, but I know when to ask for help. Aging is all about acceptance. I if you are cool with it, so is everybody else.

    • Ashton Applewhite
      REPLY

      well said. and I bet you’re feeling pretty good about your “time horizon” too — unlike the only expert quoted in a recent front-page NYTimes article about the effect of the recession on boomers, Daniel Hamermesh, of UT Austin, who said, “It just doesn’t make sense to offer retraining for people 55 and older. Discrimination by age, long-term unemployment, the fact that they’re now at the end of the hiring queue, the lack of time horizon just does not make it sensible to invest in them.” I particularly like the fact that he uses the fact that these workers are discriminated against as a justification for continued discriimination.
      http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/business/americans-closest-to-retirement-were-hardest-hit-by-recession.html

      • pepperhobbes
        REPLY

        I have had trouble finding anyone to hire me after being let go from a full time office management position in 2008. Many months of unemployment later, I was lucky to have an old friend take me on part time. But my salary was reduced $3.00 per hour and I had to learn to make do on 20 hours a week. I suspect age or even a sniff of “maturity” in a business where a good percentage of employees are under 30 has something to do with it. On the up side, I’ve been able to spend more time on my portrait art business,competing to enter shows and selling commissions. Who says you lose flexibility as you age?

  • Charla Howard
    REPLY

    I, who am further advanced than even you in the process, who have to gear up with hearing aids and glasses to do my teaching class, and who does these things in broad daylight — including being very open about my chronological age — can totally relate to everything you say in this interview! My moher too has been depressed as long as I’ve known her. So, being 96 is not the reason. Combat the stereotype by becoming a new, hopefully improved version of yourself as you grow older. Winnow from your life all the crap that depresses you. I love what you are doing!

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