In 2012, Ashton Applewhite was invited to speak at a performance festival whose theme that year was so scary that friends of the organizer warned she would lose all her subscribers.
The topic? Aging.
As it turned out, the naysayers were wrong. Subscriptions to the festival tripled, confirming what Applewhite already knew from her work as a public speaker, performer, and the author since 2008 of “This Chair Rocks,” an anti-ageist blog. This month she published a book of the same name; a self-described manifesto that she hopes will transform the way Americans think of aging in the same way “The Feminine Mystique” helped catalyze the women’s movement half a century ago.
The goal, she admits, is “absurdly ambitious.” But Applewhite, who travels the country trying to reverse negative stereotypes about growing old, believes America’s anti-ageism moment has arrived.
“People are hungry for a narrative that rings true to our experience of growing older,” she says. While much of American society now considers it unacceptable to be openly sexist, racist, or homophobic, “old people are still fair game.”
Applewhite rails against greeting cards that make fun of saggy skin and lost keys – the view of aging as nothing but decline. “Why should I accept the notion that the present-day me is inferior to the younger me?”
Born in 1952, smack in the middle of the baby boom generation, the former book editor says she was as terrified as anyone of old age.
“If you had told me ten years ago that I would be passionately interested in aging, I would have said you’re delusional,” she says. But a project about people over 80 who still worked spurred her to rethink common stereotypes – that old people were weak, boring, or incompetent – and to dig more deeply.
“I started learning about longevity, and everything I heard was so much more positive than the common wisdom.” Like that there is a U-curve for happiness – it declines in young adulthood and increases for people over 50. Or that only 4 percent of people over 65 live in nursing homes. “The scary stuff about aging is real, but our fears are hugely out of proportion.”
She calls it a prejudice against our future selves, and like any prejudice, it is mired in ignorance.
But it is one she herself has struggled against. “I know in hindsight that I started writing because I was afraid of getting old,” she says.
With her angular features and stylish mass of still-brown curls, her appearance does not scream, “63-year-old grandmother.” But that is her point: that the older a person gets, the less easy it is to define that person by looking at chronological age.
“Geriatricians say, ‘You’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.’ We have this idea of aging as loss, when it’s really a process of accretion. It’s additives.” Looking back, she says, “I miss my cartilage, but I really don’t miss anything else.”
She is no stranger to writing about herself (her first book, about women who end their marriages, came in the wake of her own divorce). After raising four children together, she and her longtime partner moved ten years ago from Manhattan to Williamsburg, Brooklyn – a magnet for young people – and, perhaps not coincidentally, became passionate about ageism.
The movement’s time has come, she says, in part because baby boomers, who begin turning 70 this year, can no longer run and hide from the fact that they are getting old.
“It turns out that, no matter how much kale I eat, no matter how many memory exercises I do, I’m actually not going to dodge this whole aging thing, the same as every mortal in the world. So there is an awareness beginning…My cohort seems to be realizing that, ‘Dang, I put on the brakes but I’m still slipping down the road.’”
The book, written in a conversational style, explores the origins of our cultural biases against growing old, examines the role of the “medical-industrial complex” in perpetuating stigmas about old age, and offers tips on how to change one’s attitude about aging.
“The field needed a public intellectual, and Ashton, it turned out, was really great at it,” said Margaret Gullette, author of Agewise, Fighting the New Ageism in America, and a mentor to Applewhite. “She’s a dynamic speaker, she has a succinct story about how she changed her thinking about aging, and she is charmed to be happier about getting older.”
Applewhite wants others to be charmed as well. One way to get there, she says, is to simply spend time with people of different generations.
“It’s shocking how age-segregated American society is,” she says. She blames urbanization, which enabled young people to move far from their families, and the printing press, which took away older people’s role as the repository of knowledge and passers-down of wisdom.
“That used to be the natural order of things, and it’s pretty wacky that it’s been subverted,” she says. “Our society is so ageist that younger people don’t want to sit next to older people because they think they’re boring, and older people might think they have nothing to say to younger people. Nothing changes if we stay in our silos, and one of the really, really important things about living in society is having friends of all ages. It connects people empathetically, and that’s critically important.”
Ageism cuts both ways, and Applewhite has no sympathy for “olders” who think they deserve the microphone simply because of their age. “There are older people who think, ‘Well, I don’t have a thing to learn from those whippersnappers,’ or ‘I hear everything I need to hear.’
But often, she says, ageism can also cause older people to turn against themselves.
“People don’t use hearing aids. People don’t use walkers and stay in their apartments because of the stigma. They would rather not walk or hear than look old.”
Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of encore.org, which focuses on second careers, praised Applewhite’s change-from-within approach.
“We can’t tackle ageism if those of us on the older side of things are internalizing it ourselves–feeling like we’re over-the-hill, irrelevant,” he said. “Ashton’s brilliant at stunts and quotable lines — and very funny (telling college students to become ‘old-people-in-training’, dyeing her hair white while continuing to look hip) — all of which a subject like ageism needs. In these ways, she reminds me of Gloria Steinem.”
A second Applewhite blog – “Yo, Is This Ageist?” – invites people to submit examples of ageism in daily life. Some recent examples: an ad offering to “Make an Android easy enough for even Grandma to use;” or a list of “boring cities,” so determined by the percentage of old residents.
She encourages people to speak up when they see such examples. If they don’t, she warns, they will one day find themselves on the wrong side of history.
“You can aspire to stay healthy, and you should,” she said. “But aspiring to youth is self-destructive and futile. You cannot stay young; it’s a dumb goal.”