Ashton Applewhite on the fight against ageism: “It’s within our power to change things and we already are”

Writer and Activist, Ashton Applewhite, first turned her hand to writing in her 40s. A decade later in her 50s, it was her fear of ageing which led her to explore the question; what really happens when we get older?

At the time, she could see nothing but depression, diapers and dementia on the horizon, but after delving deeper into the research, it became clear that almost everything she’d assumed about what it was like to get old, was actually wrong. Naturally, Ashton wondered how it was possible that society could still be bound by these common misconceptions of ageing, when the data to prove otherwise was staring us in the face. “The answer?”, she says, “is ageism.”

A decade later, and Ashton is a leading voice in a movement designed to dismantle the ageist beliefs that silence and sideline older people. At 67, she is the author of book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, the voice of blog Yo, Is This Ageist? and has been recognised by The New York Times, National Public Radio and the American Society on Ageing as an expert on ageism. Ashton, who is based in New York, says, “It’s within our power to change things and we already are.”

“Once we realise that the problem isn’t us (it’s not our fault we have wrinkles!) and that the problem is a society that discriminates against us, it’s actually f***ing liberating!”

With ageing populations being a global phenomenon, it’s becoming more important than ever to bridge the gap between young and old if we are to create a world where we can prosper at any age. Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) predicts that by 2050, there will be 2.1 billion people on the planet, aged 60 or over.

Ashton reminds us that whilst older people often bear the brunt of ageism in a youth obsessed society, ageism is about the judgement of any person or a group of people on the basis of age – including dismissing or belittling people for being too young.

She says, “The ageing population does present real logistical challenges, but it’s not this unilateral, terrifying thing. The voices in society that frame it like that are ageist. Ageism pits old against young, which benefits those in power who like it when we buy expensive face creams and buy into diet plans and are constantly competing with one another to be what society considers to be acceptable. To those ageist voices, the very young and the very old are disposable and it works better if everyone in between is left scrabbling around like crazy. Now that’s not the world that I want to live in and it’s certainly not the world that I want to grow old in.”

A rallying cry for equality has been present since the beginning of time. But the rapid yet significant progress made throughout the 1900s, following the LGBT, womens and civil rights movements has made Ashton even more determined to make ageism as socially
unacceptable as other forms of prejudice, like racism and homophobia. She suggests that often the first and most uncomfortable step in tackling ageism is to consider our own beliefs around age and ageing, through the process of conscious reasoning:

“Looking hard at your own attitudes toward age and ageing can be hard and unpleasant because it can make you realise that some of your own ideas are in fact ageist. You may even sit there and think ‘Oh cr*p, I’m part of the problem. I’m prejudiced!’ But once you do that you will become more conscious of what’s going on around you – in advertising, in the things people say, in popular culture – and be able to see ageism for what it is.

“We are baraged by advertising, films and everything else that tries to convince us to purchase products to retain our youthful appearance and vitality, and we notice that older people in movies and TV are often either not there, or are incapacitated. These attitudes end up becoming part of our identity, so it’s critically important for us to challenge that and to reject these terms. Once we realise that the problem isn’t us (it’s not our fault we have wrinkles!) and that the problem is a society that discriminates against us, it’s actually f***ing liberating!”

“Ageing is living. It’s a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all - not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured.”

Ashton argues that although coming to terms with ageism can be difficult, it is a necessary step in changing the societal narrative that has been laid out for older people. She urges people to first recognise that prejudice – in all of its forms – is not our fault, but that we can come together to change it.

She continues, “We’re all biased and we can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it. Negative attitudes towards ageing are bad for us physically, cognitively and socially because it pits us against each other and makes us feel dread when we think about the future. These attitudes force age segregation. Do you head for people your own age when you arrive at a social gathering? Almost all of us do, but it’s a good habit to break.

“It’s really important to come together in mixed age groups because if older people spent more time with younger people, they would remember how hard it is to be young and be more generous. And younger people would see us older people in all our strength and not only be more generous, but be less afraid of ageing and realise how much of our youth we waste worrying about getting old.”

In her straight talking TED talk in 2017, Ashton says, “Ageing is living. It’s a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all – not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured.” She continues, “There is no line in the sand between old and young after which it is all down hill. And the longer we wait to challenge those ideas, the more damage it does to ourselves and our place in the world – like in the workforce where age discrimination is rampant.”

“I don’t enjoy the arthritis or losing my physical strength! But I feel so much more self-possessed, confident and self-aware than I ever have”

Over the last decade, the disconnect between what Ashton had imagined it was like to get older and the reality of it has come into full focus. In This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism she gives a very candid view of what she once thought her future might hold. Among her assumptions were those that older people became depressed, never had sex and were destined to end up in a care facility. She admits, “My darkest nightmare was the possibility of ending my days under a bad botanical print in some ghastly institutional hallway.”

However, speaking to Rest Less last week, she revealed how different she feels about her future now that she is conscious of her own ageism and aware of the way age bias operates in society. Although the goal posts are moving, she is still very much in the game. She says, “I don’t enjoy the arthritis or losing my physical strength! But I feel so much more self-possessed, confident and self-aware than I ever have. I think that later life can be a time of enormous liberation, especially for women. What could be better than feeling like we are less invested in what other people think of us? I don’t know anyone who actually wants to be any younger. Think about it. We know that our years are precious and they’re what make us who we are.”

Ashton reveals that she’s a generalist who could never really decide what it was that she wanted to be when she was older! Ageism emerged as a theme early on in her career as a writer, but it took her a long time to find her way and her voice with it. She says, “It snuck up on me like everything in my life. I’m someone who never has a plan going forward!”

But, one thing she knows for certain about the future is that her fight against ageism is far from over. She will continue to educate and empower people to help change the way that people see the rest of their lives. She is working hard to debunk myths about ageing, and is inviting others to do the same. She says, “It is the work of a lifetime, but I do think we can do it.”

You can buy This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, on Amazon here.

As regular followers of Rest Less will know, we are on a mission to challenge negative stereotypes of age in both society and the workplace. For us it’s been a real pleasure and a great privilege to speak with Ashton and we look forward to continuing to drive change on such a crucial issue. Can you relate to Ashton’s interview? Do you feel passionately about challenging the negative stereotypes of age? We’d love to hear from you at [email protected] or on the community forum.

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