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Ashton Applewhite: Influencer of the Year

The revolution against ageism begins now


Part of the Transforming Life as We Age Special Report

Ashton Applewhite, our 2016 Influencer of the Year, dares you to tell her she “looks good for her age.” She practically begs the cheeky shop clerk to say, “Can I help you, young lady?”

For Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, longtime blogger, and voice of the “Yo, Is This Ageist?” blog, these are teaching moments. After all, she is at the forefront of a new movement — a revolution, really — that challenges all of us to examine the ageist stereotypes and language that have gone unquestioned in American culture until now. This past fall alone, Applewhite has addressed the United Nations as a keynote speaker on the International Day of Older Persons, published a buzzy op-ed in the New York Times and spoke to a dozen audiences at conferences and book-signing events about her work.

We believe her writing and speaking has, in fact, sparked this revolution, and that ageism affects the mission of every influencer on this list. That’s what makes her our choice for 2016 Influencer of the Year.

Next Avenue:  Mass movement, culture change, social justice — you use these words when you talk about ageism and what to do about it. What does this movement look like?

Applewhite.Credit: UNSDN
Applewhite addresses the United Nations as a keynote speaker on International Older Persons Day in October 2016.
Ashton Applewhite:  A movement takes millions of faces and voices. My book is a manifesto, which is a call for social change and as such, it’s up for appropriation.

Even if all the readers of my book do is reflect upon their own experiences with aging, and as a result think a little bit differently about it, that’s huge. Only a small percentage is going to take the next step, which is to think about where all the negative messages about aging come from and what purposes they serve, and to seriously question them. And then only a few of those people are going to take that change outward into the world.

But everyone is aging, so the number of people who are open to thinking about this is enormous, and that’s the base of a movement. They could be butchers, they could be astronauts, they could be young and they could be old. Ageism cuts both ways and affects everyone, which is fundamental.

What will the revolution look like? I think the best model is probably the women’s movement, which was catalyzed by consciousness-raising. Women came together and started comparing notes, and realized that feeling depressed — or oppressed — wasn’t a personal problem. It was a widely shared political problem that required collective action. So I’m going to guess this movement will assume some of that form, although we have a lot to learn from all the movements that preceded this one.

Since we’re at the very beginning of this movement, we have an incredible opportunity to make it truly inclusive, to try and ensure that no one, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, socioeconomic status — all of these things — is left out of this conversation. Everyone ages, after all. Ageism intersects with and compounds all other forms of discrimination. The flip side is that when we make the world better to grow old in, we also make it a better place to have a disability, to be gender-nonconforming, to be non-white, and so on. Ageism is the perfect target for collective advocacy. That’s very exciting.

Ageist messages seem to be ubiquitous once you start noticing them, but where do they originate?

Well, you can’t monetize satisfaction. If aging is a problem, then they can sell us stuff to “fix” it. Who gets to say that wrinkles are ugly? The multibillion-dollar skin care industry is who.

Worse than making aging a problem is making aging a disease. You see this in the medicalization of normal changes—like perimenopause, like lower testosterone, like mild cognitive impairment, if there even is such a thing—which are pathologized so they can sell us stuff to “cure” these natural transitions.

It’s very compelling when people cop to being ashamed of aging. That shame comes from an external culture that wants to convince you that there’s a “right” way to age, which is basically to deny that it’s happening, and try and conceal its effects. What if you swap that age shame for age pride? That allows you to see that you’re not failing at anything. If you wake up in the morning, you’re aging “successfully.” Aging is an accomplishment.

But by its sheer numbers, the baby boom generation should be able to call out and stand up to ageism in a way that previous generations couldn’t, right? Or at least demand better treatment by the advertising industry?

The baby boom, by the virtue of our sheer demographic clout, is going to change things. I’m dead center, at 64, and I think we’re finally acknowledging that we’re going to get old. (P.S. it’s already happening.) But I also think that as the healthiest, best-educated and historically most fortunate generation in history, there’s a lot of denial going on.

We don’t look and act the way our parents and grandparents did at our age, and I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking that somehow we’re going to slip the noose entirely. I think that’s a lot of what’s powering the aging in place movement — which should really be called ‘staying in place,’ because aging is lifelong — the idea that we can somehow keep on living the way we always have. It makes a lot more sense to acknowledge the inevitability of change and plan to grow old in community, wherever that community ends up being.

Bill Thomas (one of your last year’s Influencers, and I’m a huge fan) has a beautiful phrase in his book, Second Wind: the “tyranny of still.” It describe the notion that long as we’re still running, or still driving, or still dating younger people — we all have our stills —we can stop the clock. As if that would be a good thing! Why on earth do we celebrate the all-important ability to change and grow through life until we hit late middle age? Why should the measure of “successful aging” become how much like younger versions of ourselves we can still move and look like?  It’s a punitive and stupid metric and we’re doomed to fail.

Are there larger cultural or public health consequences related to ageism? 

We know, thanks in large part to the work of Becca Levy at Yale [a 2016 Influencer in Aging], that attitudes towards aging affect how minds and bodies function at the cellular level. When I first learned a number of years ago that the brains of people who were cognitively sharp to the end could be riddled with Alzheimer’s-type plaques and tangles, I had a hard time believing it, but it’s true. What did those people have in common? They had a sense of purpose. They were engaged in life. They never bought into the stereotypes that getting older means becoming useless, or incompetent, or helpless. We know that people with positive attitudes towards aging have better memory, they walk better, they’re more likely to recover from disability. Becca did a hallmark study that shows they live an average of 7 1/2 years longer. And they live better.

They have what is known as a “sense of purpose” or a “sense of engagement” in life. They are people who have not bought the idea that getting older means becoming useless and incompetent and helpless and marginalized. They haven’t accepted it — for whatever reason. Maybe they’re lucky or maybe they’re clueless. We know that people with positive attitudes have better memory, they walk better, they recover completely from certain odd disabilities and they live longer. Becca did a hallmark study that shows they live 7½ years longer.

Whether you’re progressive or conservative, whether you love old people or hate old people, everyone agrees that the biggest factor that affects how well we age — and how much it costs — is health. So if attitudes about aging have a measurable effect on physical and mental function, how about kicking off an anti-ageism campaign as a public health initiative? And while we’re at it, when kids in elementary school are learning about sexism and racism, why don’t we teach them about ageism?

You feel that people of all ages should learn to recognize ageism and learn to combat it — not just the older people who experience more of it.

Ageism casts a shadow across our whole lives. I urge people to become an “old person in training,” and the sooner the better. It’s just a mental trick, a way of connecting empathetically and imaginatively to your future self, at whatever remove you’re comfortable with. It’s a way of getting off the hamster wheel of age denial, or, ideally, not getting on it in the first place.

The earlier sooner we make that leap, the sooner our lives are stripped of the reflexive dread that makes aging in America so much harder than it has to be. You glimpse the territory ahead with an open mind, and you’re off and running. I think that’s powerful.

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