Older Americans Month: An Interview with Ashton Applewhite
May is Older Americans Month, a time to celebrate older adults and their contributions to society. Despite being important members of our communities, older Americans still face many stereotypes around aging which can affect their health and ability to live fulfilling, independent lives.
To learn more about ageism and how we can help create a culture that is welcoming to people of all ages, we talked to Ashton Applewhite, anti-ageism activist and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, published in 2019, who is on a mission to challenge our existing attitudes about aging. She began writing about ageism in 2007, and has since been awarded fellowships by the Knight Foundation, the New York Times, Yale Law School, and the Royal Society for the Arts for her work. She is a main-stage TED speaker, a founder of Old School, and answers your questions about ageism on her blog, ‘Yo, Is This Ageist?’ In 2022 Applewhite has appeared on HelpAgeUSA’s inaugural 60 Over 60 list of Americans “who are making significant contributions to society at the local, national or international level; Fe:maleOneZero’s first international edition of 40 over 40 – The World’s Most Inspiring Women, a group of “extraordinary women who have one thing in common: they change the world for the better;” and received the prestigious Maggie Kuhn Award from Presbyterian Senior Services [PSS] as a “visionary leader, author and advocate in combating ageism.”
What is ageism?
Applewhite says, “We are being ageist anytime we make an assumption about someone based on how old we think they are. The dictionary definition is the stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of age. […] Anytime someone says to another person “oh they’re still” (fill in the blank) when it is an ordinary activity…why would we say “still” just because you woke up a day older?” We are being ageist whenever we assume that age defines what we can or can’t do, or what’s acceptable for us to do.
Because we’re surrounded by ageist messaging in our daily lives, it’s easy for us to hold those beliefs about ourselves as we grow older. As Applewhite notes, “We are all hostage to a set of negative beliefs about age and aging because the culture is full of negative messages. And unless we stop to question them, they become part of our identity.”
Why does it matter?
When we internalize the idea that becoming older leads to frailty and poor health, we learn to be afraid of aging and actually treat ourselves worse. According to research, when we hold negative beliefs about aging we are less likely to exercise, seek new experiences, or even seek treatment for health problems because we think that negative outcomes are simply par for the course.
Ageism also impacts the care that people receive as they get older. Medical professionals might treat older adults as less capable, reinforcing negative views and keeping older adults from seeking help when they need it.
How can we counter ageism?
Recognize the diversity within older adults
The first step to countering ageism, Applewhite says, is to remember that older people are individuals. “This whole idea that old people turn into “the elderly” is false. Nothing could be further than the truth. The idea that we become one homogenous bunch. The longer we live, the more different from one another we become.”
Interact in mixed age groups
When we interact in mixed age groups, we can unravel many false beliefs about aging. Applewhite says, “The minute you hear “generation” you start to put people in buckets and that's a problem. [...] One of the reasons we are so convinced that age shapes affinity and who we want to hang out with and what we have in common is because society is so age segregated. [...] Making a friend significantly older or younger than you is in itself an anti-ageist act. It helps break down age stereotypes.”
Women also face additional prejudices around aging thanks to sexism, but making friends of different ages can help to counteract these stereotypes, “because when older women have younger friends, we remember how hard it is to be young. And if younger women hang out with women who are older and enjoy the freedom and power that age brings, they can be less afraid of aging. And can see how much time we spend worrying about it needlessly [and] corrosively when we’re young.”
Embrace a fact-based rather than fear-based attitude towards aging
We also need to counter our fears with facts. People often think aging equates to frailness and cognitive decline, but the truth is far more nuanced. “We do lose physical function and most of us lose some cognitive function, but not much.” Applewhite points to researcher Becca Levy’s work showing that people with negative views about aging tend to have worse health outcomes, but that by changing our own beliefs we can stay active and continue to enjoy our lives as we get older, and even increase our overall health and life expectancy.
Understanding what is inevitable about aging and what we simply expect based on negative stereotypes can help us combat our biases and take better care of ourselves and others. “The point is not that our fears are not real. I don't like gray washing. [...] That's why I say a fact rather than a fear-based attitude towards aging rather than a positive attitude towards aging.” When we look at the facts, Applewhite says, there will inevitably be challenges as our bodies get older, but “...we age well by adapting to those changes, not by pretending they’re not going to happen.”
This month, try challenging some of your own stereotypes about aging. Talk to your friends who are significantly older or younger than you about what stereotypes they face, and remember that no matter what our chronological age, we are all individuals with different experiences that have shaped who we are. As Applewhite notes: “It's not about age. It's almost never about age. That's the thing–that's the paradox. It's really important to name our age, to say, this is a real number and it’s a crucial part of who I am. But it’s also important to push back against any fixed associations people may have with that number. The longer we live, the less our age reveals about us.