Society and the media make us think that ageing is bad and we must do everything we can to prevent it. But they are wrong! Join us in conversation with ageism activist Ashton Applewhite, who says that people get happier as they get older—as long as they embrace their age with a positive attitude. Enjoy the show!
My guest today is Ashton Applewhite who is an author and an activist against ageism. She has published a fantastic manifesto on the topic, a book called “This Chair Rocks.” Ashton is here to help us understand the stereotypes and some of the challenges we face where ageism is concerned. Hi Ashton, welcome to the show!
Thank you. It’s great to be here.
I have been reading your book and following your work for some time, and I know you really are an activist against ageism.
Somebody has to be. There’s no one else that has volunteered for the position.
You are doing a great job, especially since this is a passing topic in conversation. People want to talk about it when it’s raised, but sometimes you just want to put it under the rug and forget about its existence.
But you have written this amazing book, you express your feelings and concerns, and you explain how this issue is affecting our society. Tell us about the stereotypes and discrimination that you’ve observed during your work.
In western society we are bombarded with negative messages about late life. As a result, we have accepted that getting old means becoming pathetic, useless, incapacitated, ugly, etc. However, getting older is different from the way it’s portrayed in society.
What I try to do is close the distance between our actual experience and the way ageing is portrayed in the media. In this society we are brainwashed with messages stating that aging is a problem. It seems that if we have a wrinkle on our face or we’re not jumping out of airplanes, or we’re not constantly ascending the career ladder, we’re doing something wrong.
This way of thinking places the burden on the individual. It’s exciting that the women’s movement raised the consciousness of the community and thus was able to bring people together to share experiences and thus to realize that these are not personal problems—these are widely shared political problems that require collective action.
That is such a powerful comment. The Sixty and Me community consists of about 500 000 women around the world, and I’m happy to have provided this platform for all of us to come together. When I started the program though, all I had to share was my own journey. At the time, I had been working in a young environment, and I had been 59 for three years. I really didn’t want to talk about age.
I started writing about ageing because I was afraid of getting old. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my way of coping. The more you learn about ageing the less fearful you become.
It’s interesting that you compare this ageism fight to the women’s movement where people had a common message, a manifesto. Your book clearly serves as a manifesto for ageism. You mention that in 2025 the number of people over 60 will double. That’s a huge number.
That’s right. So, every one out of five people in the world, almost 2 billion people, will be ages 60 and up—which is amazing. Longevity is this unprecedented global phenomenon. It is a fundamental hallmark of human progress and a tremendous achievement on the part of public health.
The issue here is not a conspiracy against older people; but this is a new phenomenon at mass level, and institutions and roles have yet to evolve to catch up with it. The way we respond to that challenge will have an enormous effect, but there’s also an incredible opportunity we must recognize.
There will be millions more healthy, well-educated people in this late stage of life, and to shut them all aside would be a tremendous loss. In addition to the cultural and spiritual loss, how are we going to support ourselves if we’re forced out of the labor market? Obviously, we as a society need to figure out ways to take advantage of this new stage of life.
This is a really big issue in the workplace, which is where a lot of the discrimination takes place. An important thing you mentioned is that we are staying healthy longer and that ageism and discrimination make us unhealthy. Those things bring us down; they plant seeds of negativity that make us think, we’re not perfect, we’re not good enough, we’re tired, etc.
Yes, we blame ourselves when we think, “I’m too old.” There’s fascinating research that shows that our attitude towards ageing affects how our mind and body functions at the cellular level. A woman named Becca Levi at Yale has conducted really interesting research with her colleagues.
They took two groups of college kids: one was a control group and the other group was prime. They briefly flashed on the screen a sequence of negative messages—Florida and Bingo were two of them that I can recall—and then measured the time that it took the two groups to walk to the elevator.
The college kids who had been negatively primed walked more slowly. It was not because anything was wrong with them, but because the script had primed them with the idea that you will get old and it will be a period of debility. Those messages flood us all the time.
People who learn more about longevity and reject that mindless script walk faster; they also do better on memory tasks. They are more likely to recover completely from severe disability, they live longer—an average of seven and a half years longer—and it seems self-evident that they live better because they are not oppressed by this needless dread.
It’s not that there aren’t things to worry about with getting older. We are all worried about this stage in our lives—running out of money or ending up alone—and those fears are legitimate and real, but they are hugely out of proportion to the actual threat.
Another thing that depresses us is that society tells us how to behave, how to look and even how to participate in the world. This fuels the stereotype about being afraid of ageing and dying. In my experience though, I get happier every day.
The longer people live the less they fear dying. It is surprising, but there are scientific studies showing that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. When I first heard that at the beginning of my research I thought, “Well, somebody must have cornered two 80-year-olds and given them a hooky and said, ‘How are you doing?'”
Then I learned that there are actually lots of studies around the world that prove this. Then I thought that perhaps it pertained to the healthy and rich. But that curve is actually independent of class or marital status everywhere in the world. It is a function of the way ageing itself affects the brain.
We should remember though that ageing is living, and stereotyping is the root of all prejudice. It’s the assumption that all members of a group are all the same and other than you—therefore, their human rights become less important.
The weird thing about ageism is your prejudice against your own older self. As we age though, we become more different than one another. Stereotyping is wrong in general, but stereotyping about older people is absurd and the least likely to reflect any factual basis.
I want to make a point though: A lot of women are very tired of fighting some battles—we fought in the women’s movement in the 60’s and the 70’s, and we had the political dramas in the 80’s and 90’s. We needed someone to raise the issue of ageism, to educate people and bring about change in society. You do that through your message, and I’m happy that you’re waving the flag in that direction.
I don’t love the term battle, because it’s binary and hostile. I was struggling with what to title the book, but it’s always better to be pro than anti. So I like to think of it in terms of being pro-ageing, but anti-ageism.
The way it’s cast in society though, it’s battle against ageing, and that is a losing battle—after all, it’s a natural process. Then we are taught that when we can’t open the bottle or we can’t go down the stairs without a railing that is in some way a personal failure. That is not a failure; it is ageism that makes those natural transitions shameful.
We should not be ashamed of our wrinkles or the fact that we lose muscle strength. We should look instead at the discrimination that makes those barriers acceptable—for instance, the lousy design and the unacceptable public policy of no railings on the staircases or no public transportation.
Let’s do something about the things we can improve upon instead of obsessing about trying to stop the clock on a natural, powerful process that we are all inevitably hostage to.
We like to call it positive ageing. It has to do with creating an environment where we can age positively, where we can see there is a purpose to our lives. Have you ever read James Hillman’s “The Force of Character”?
I have not, though I have heard his name. Is he a workforce motivation person?
No. He was a psychologist, and he wrote a book called “The Force of Character.” In it, he posed the question “Why do we age?” He stated that it was because this is a time in life to create character, to shape our character. Ageism is actually preventing us from that.
Yeah. Beyond midlife, the message in the society is cast in terms of success or failure, and that you are succeeding in the degree to which you can look and move like a younger version of yourself.
Clearly, we are all doomed to fail as this is an impossible standard. How can we grow and adapt personally when we wake up in terror, because the inevitable is happening? There is power and growth in ageing, enjoy it!
And it leads toward peace with yourself. It gives a sense of perspective about your life and the value that you carry. It doesn’t end when you stop being young, and it doesn’t depend on what society considers purposeful or meaningful.
This has been a great chat, Ashton. Could you give our community some final, inspirational words to help them think differently?
My favorite verse is, “Push back.” Push back in whatever way works for you. Women are constantly being judged for being too fat, too thin, too lazy, too active, too whatever. We are all going to do this in our own way at our own time at our own speed.
I would urge people to work on your own attitude towards ageing; you are just yourself, start there. This is the focus of my book, which is really fun to read. It’s got over a hundred five-star reviews, and it starts by describing the embarrassing journey that I took from being an apprehensive baby boomer to being a radical.
Not everyone wants to be radical, but it takes as little as just looking at your own attitudes—like your vocabulary—around everything. Just start there.
Like saying, “I’m too old to this or that.” Your website is thischairrocks.com, and you’ve got a fabulous section about sharing experiences that’s called “Yo, is this ageist?” I encourage you to pick up a copy of Ashton’s book and read it. Is it available on audio and kindle?
It’s available on audio recorded by me and in all electronic formats, including Kindle. You can get a print copy from Ingram, anywhere in the English speaking world.
It’s a fabulous book. We are all on this journey together; we can be stronger and support each other. Thank you for being here, Ashton. It’s been wonderful chatting with you. Thank you so much.
Can you think of a situation where you felt depressed by the negative messages about ageing? What is one step you can take today toward thinking positively about your age? Which area of public life for older people needs improvement in your part of the world? Please join the conversation!
Tags Getting Older