Ashton Applewhite did not want to be like her mother. Though an indefatigable activist for political causes and incredibly kind, June Applewhite suffered from crippling depression and a fear of aging.
So at 80, she crushed a handful of Seconal into a bowl of Häagen Dazs coffee ice cream and, surrounded by her husband and children, said farewell to this world.
Along with her mother’s high-fashion sense and passionate nature, Applewhite inherited an image of aging that haunted her. “Old age meant drooling under a faded Van Gogh print in some institution,” she says. It also implied “isolation, dementia and puffy white shoes,” she adds.
But her mother also left Applewhite determined to live longer and better as an older woman. She soon found, however, there were scant models of happy old folks and nothing that made “the golden years” look golden. “People are really hungry for this conversation, but no one knows how to stick their toes in the water,” she says.
(MORE: How Long Do You Really Want to Live?)
Aging Is Not a Death Sentence
After five years of reviewing the scholarly literature on aging, Applewhite, 61, a science writer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, has taken the plunge into that discussion. As a result, she is not merely accepting of getting older — she’s excited about it. “The more I learned about old age,” she says, “the less terror it held. The anxiety about it is the real epidemic.”
In fact, Applewhite is on a mission to ease that anxiety. Her one-woman show, the TED talk-style This Chair Rocks, is “a crusade," she says, "to get people of all ages to wake up to the ageism in and around us, cheer up and push back." She has performed around the country, in venues ranging from living rooms and college auditoriums to dive bars and the Geriatric Mental Health Alliance of New York.
Applewhite wants to start a movement, akin to the civil-, women’s- and gay-rights movements. Age isn’t the enemy, she says — ageism is. And she’s created a website, Yo, Is This Ageist?, based on Yo, Is This Racist?, to support the cause.
Her talk is the first step in fomenting this movement and it is intimate, entertaining and eye-opening. Senior citizens, she’s learned, are the happiest cohort overall. Based on their findings, researchers have graphed a U-shaped happiness curve, in which people are happier in their earlier and later years and generally least satisfied in their 40s and 50s. Many people reported feeling better emotionally at 70 or 80 than at any other time in life. Only 4 percent of people over 65 are institutionalized in nursing homes and 80 percent of people over 85 live at home, almost 40 percent of them on their own.
Applewhite herself defies the stereotype of an aging boomer. She still lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (aka Hipster Central), while plenty of 45-year-olds feel they’ve aged out of the area. She takes her AARP card to electronic-music festivals and drags her sore knees into clubs. She admits she can’t dance as long as she used to — but she can still dance. “We see old age only through the lens of loss,” she says in her show. “From the outside, what people lose as they age is more obvious than what they gain.”
(MORE: Why We Should Look Forward to Living to 120 and Beyond)
Those gains are plentiful. Flying in the face of the cliché of the neutered senior citizen, older adults are still having sex; many retirement communities are hotbeds of such activity. The proof, while hardly a good thing, is the rising rate of STDs among seniors.
Many report feeling more comfortable in and accepting of their bodies than they did when they were young. “Getting older has made me a lot more forgiving of my physical shortcomings, which is really welcome,” says Applewhite. “My butt and thighs used to be a source of endless misery. Now I look down in the shower and think, Not bad for 60.”
According to those who’ve researched the U-shaped happiness curve, worry and sadness decline after middle age, as do anger and conflicts. The older you get, the more likely you are to have some control over your emotions and some acceptance of your situation.
Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, told The Economist that older people are better at living in the present and at knowing what’s most important. “Young people will go to cocktail parties because they might meet somebody who will be useful to them in the future, even though nobody I know actually likes going to cocktail parties,” she said. Older people would skip the party and do something they actually enjoy.
But losses are an inevitable part of getting older, Applewhite says, and extremely painful. One in eight Americans over 65 has Alzheimer’s, which she calls an evil disease. They key is to learn about old age in all its glory and sadness so you’re prepared for it — even looking forward to it. “There are monsters,” she acknowledges. “Your body betrays you, you lose your friends, you die. But just looking — under the covers, to see the reality of aging — makes you less afraid, even if you see the monsters.”
Applewhite says 98 percent of her audience reports feeling better about aging at the end of her performance. (One spectator noted a “99.2 percent improvement.”) And she herself feels better, one huge lesson being the realization that her mother “wasn’t good at being old… in fact she wasn’t good at just being.”
Old age does not have to be depressing, Applewhite insists. But in order for more folks to revel in its upside, the culture has to shift. That means, among other things, we need to develop more age-integrated housing and communities and encourage intergenerational activities and friendships. (At the show, she gives a door prize to whomever is accompanied by an audience member furthest away in age.) On top of that, she advises, it’s up to us to do whatever we can to keep our minds sharp. “If you knit, don’t just stop at scarves,” she suggests.
Perhaps most importantly, older adults, as well as those of us who plan on getting old, need to let go of the idea that dependence at the end of life is any more shameful than at the beginning. We need to admit and face our fears. “I’m still worried," says Applewhite, "about ending up in those puffy white shoes.”
Catch Ashton Applewhite in This Chair Rocks at the following venues:
Panel: Purpose and Fulfillment in Mid- and Later Life: Can It Be Found Online?
November 6, 2013, 5:50 p.m.– 7:30 p.m.
New York Public Library, main branch
South Court Auditorium
Corner Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, NYC
Free and open to the public
West Side Interagency Council on Aging
November 21, 2013, 9:30 a.m.
Jewish Home and Lifecare
Friedman Conference Room
120 W. 106 Street, NYC
Free and open to the public
Lisa Selin Davis writes about architecture, design, aging and parenting, and lives in Brooklyn, NY.