Ashton Applewhite is the acclaimed author of This Chair Rocks. A Manifesto against Ageism, and she runs the blog of the same name. She has given various Ted Talks and has at spoken at the United Nations.
Q. You have a very unique perspective on ageism. Why don’t you start with that, and tell us about what you’re passionate about.
If you had told me ten years ago that I would be fascinated by aging, I would have said: “why do I want to think about something so yucky?”. Honestly, I started reading about it because I was getting older. I’m a bull-by-the-horns kind of person, so even though I’m not an academic, I do my research.
The catalyst for the project was learning that the percentage of Americans in nursing homes is 2.5% and dropping, and I thought it was at least 30%. That’s the fact which I start my main talks with. Also the “U” curve of happiness — that we’re happier at the beginning and at the end of our life, was a very important discovery. There where so many facts that were such a complete discrepancy from what I assumed aging would be like. I started a project about people over 80 who work, where I interviewed older workers.
Those facts are very different from what I expected. This light bulb went off in my head, and I asked myself “why don’t we know these things?”. We don’t know them because we live in a society in which, because of ageism, of sexism, because of patriarchy and capitalism, we see aging as a problem. We can be persuaded to buy things to fix it, or look at it as a disease or a health issue, and try to cure it.
Aging is not a problem, or a disease — it’s a journey we embark on the day we’re born, and it’s the one universal human experience. There are, of course, difficult things about it, but it’s also the source of a lot of strength and experience.
Q. Everything you did before starting to think about aging and ageism, did it lead you here? How did it prepare you?
I’ve never had a plan for my life. I was never able to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I didn’t set out to be a writer, for example. I actually don’t like writing.
One of the reasons I’ve never had a plan is that I’m a generalist. And aging is the biggest generalization there is, it is how individuals, collectively, in our personal roles and institutions evolve. There are many ways into it, it is incredibly and intrinsically interesting.
Also, I am an activist, so I got upset that so many of us were agreeing, colluding in our own disempowerment as older people. We were agreeing to this narrative that was, at least partially, false. It’s not well rounded and doesn’t tell the whole story.
Q. You are the voice behind the “Yo, is this Ageist?” blog, which is a great idea. Where did the name come from?
First of all, it was not my idea. I went out for drinks with a friend, and we talked about a preexisting blog called “Yo, is this racist?”, which is really smart.2 That’s where you can ask those questions that you might be afraid to ask in other circumstances. My friend wrote me the next morning saying she’d started the blog: that was six years ago. The premise was that ageism is the same as racism, in the sense that it’s a socially constructed idea: we make it up. It’s not about how we look, it’s about what people in power want our appearance to mean; and this is a new idea for a lot of people.
I receive questions and I thought it was going to be easy to answer them. It’s really complicated, but I try to give thoughtful answers that address whether or not a behavior — or a road sign — is ageist, and why or why not.
There’s still a long way to go. Go down the greeting card aisle at your local drug store, and the cards say disgusting things. Someone just sent me one: it pictured a wine glass that said “I’m sorry you’re old”. And the [6:05] was a catalog for subscribers of public TV, so this cuts across class, and across geography. We ourselves are huge purveyors of these attitudes — when we don’t think about the language we use, the gifts we give, the color of the balloons we buy, we’re part of the problem.
Ageism is different than a lot of other “isms”, because it’s so ingrained in culture.
A lot of the other types of discrimination are ingrained in culture too. Look at the incredible change in rights for gay and trans people just in the last few decades. Look at women: when I was born, husbands had the right to rape their wives; women couldn’t get credit cards. Basic stuff. It was illegal for a black and a white person to marry, for example. I’m not that old, I’m 66, and those ideas all seemed natural at that time. We have this idea that discrimination is natural because it seems like the way it’s always been, but it’s not; there’s nothing natural about it. It’s made up of socially constructed ideas, which we make up, and so we can unmake them.
Q. You’re trying to take ageism into the spotlight.
I often ask people what they think of as criteria for diversity. People usually reel off gender and ethnicity, leaving outage, but when I mention it nobody says “that’s a dumb idea”. It’s just obvious, from an intuitive, political and social justice point of view. Just like any other characteristics that we cannot change, it should not be the basis of discrimination. Also, all prejudice is based on stereotyping, which is always false and absurd.
Other prejudices don’t make more sense than ageism, but there are two reasons why ageism is particularly illogical. One is that the longer we live, the more different we become. For example, every seven-year-old child is unique, but they have a lot more in common than a group of 27-year-olds, who are in turn way more homogenous than a group of 47 year olds, and so on. Yet, we have this nutty idea that when you’re past 65 you fall into this category called old, or become one of the “elderly”. Prejudice lives on what sociologists call othering. Turning a group into something other than yourself —other color, other race, etc.—; and the other, when it comes to ageism, is our own, future, older self.
If enlightened self-interest worked, we wouldn’t have the man in the White House that we do now. I’m trying to use logic, but it’s especially absurd to discriminate against your own future self, when you know it’s going to come and bite you in turn.
Q. You came up with tools to identify traits of ageism in yourself, before starting to looking at others.
This is the hardest, most unpleasant, and of course an essential part of the path, and it has to come first. It’s about, counterintuitively, looking at the ways in which you are ageist instead of evidence that you’re not. Ageism is everywhere, we’re simply not aware of it. I think and say ageist things all the time. When you see it in yourself, a fantastic thing happens — I just discovered a term for it which I love, because it speaks to the activists in me and the wonky policy person in me –: cognitive liberation.
You start out thinking that’s just the way it is, that nothing can be done; then you see it as a problem in yourself, and after you start to see it in the culture. It’s like a genie coming out of the bottle, you can’t get it back in and you come to see it as a problem that we can address, if we want to, on a collective level. Things can change. That’s incredibly liberating, especially if you’re someone with my temperament. It’s also the linchpin of movement building.
It’s critical because it stops the hacking on to generations of something that you have not made yourself aware of, or that you don’t even control. Why do you think that stereotyping is so powerful and so ingrained in society?
Until very recently, in terms of human existence, we weren’t confronted with people different than ourselves. We lived in one small spot on the globe, and we didn’t have to deal with phones, different languages, etc.; if our baseline function is to stay alive, someone or something that sounds different, that looks different is a potential threat. Stereotyping is a mechanism for judging whether something or someone is safe and known, or falls into the category of the lesser known. In which case, from a purely cognitive, antisocial point of view, if I walked into a rally where a bunch of people were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, I would assume we’re probably very different from each other ideologically. We all do it. In an ideal world, however, we would look at each human being independently of their skin color and their age and whatever they were wearing, and figure out a way to connect to them as individual human beings. We’re not going to heal the rift in the globe or address global warming, or any number of other threats, unless we learn to do that. But it doesn’t come easily.
Q. You empower to look at things in different ways. Especially the ones that we’re used to, that we’re programmed into.
We’re programmed by a lifetime of living with this, so no one has to feel guilty about being ageist.
Q. So what do you think is the difference between consciousness and empathy? The word empathy is being used a lot regarding inclusive design, for example.
On my website there’s a free downloadable guide to consciousness raising called “Who me, ageist?”. Consciousness raising is the tool that launched the women’s movement, because it enabled cognitive liberation. Women came together, shared stories and realized that what they thought were just personal problems, were in fact widely shared political issues that required collective action. That’s a powerful tool, and it’s what we need to do around aging and ageism. A woman who was working with me on this had thought of the working title “Empathy Building Guide”. It’s clear to me, from what I just said, that empathy is critical to that. But I put it in a political, activist framework. What your take on this, from a design point of view?
Empathy is essential as a first step. You cannot get to consciousness before you experience empathy. You start relating to someone.
It reaches that othering.
Exactly. So at least there’s an awareness and there’s some connection.
I talk often about becoming an “old person in training”, which is a phrase I appropriated from a geriatrician named Joanne Lamb. I hear you talking about it the exact same way. Ageism takes root in denial, in pretending we’re never going to get old, even though every human being knows they’re either going to die young or get old. If you can make a connection to your future older self, that’s an act of empathy. It’s hard for younger people, of course, because it’s hard to imagine getting old. That’s just human. You can place that future older you on the horizon, as far as you need it to be, but the important thing is to acknowledge that you will, someday, become that person. Then you don’t get on this hamster wheel of denial, and it is an act of empathy with your own future older self. Part of that is often to look at, and talk to, the older — and younger — people around you with an open mind; that’s empathy too.
Q. What do you think of the intersection between ageism and all the other types of discrimination?
I think about that all the time, and it’s a question with a million different answers. I do not want the movement against ageism to consist entirely of middle class white women like me, and I especially do not want to repeat the mistakes of the women’s movement ignoring the issues faced by women of color. That’s what caused the schism that has rippled into this day, and that’s why gave us the term intersectionality — it means inviting women of color to the table, obviously; but racism is embedded into the culture in a much more terrible way here. There’s no “badness” contest, but racism is more bad and in a way that ageism is generally not, except when it’s compounded by economic insecurity and lousy medical care. I think about that all the time, and I’m reaching out to women of color who want to talk about it.
Another intersection that I’m really interested in is the one between ageism and ableism. The disability rights activists, a lot of whom are young, queer women of color, are extremely intersectional. On every other vector you can imagine, and age is not on their list yet. But I don’t think it’s intentional, and I’m trying to reach them.
People in the disability community are ageist, just like everyone else can be, and people in the aging community are understandably leery of the equation of aging plus disability. It’s true, they are different — aging is not a disease; but to ignore the intersection not only deprives us of the chance to learn from each other, it compounds the stigma. “I may be crippled, but at least I’m not old”; “I may be old, but at least I’m not going to use a walker”. There are older people who won’t use walkers or wheelchairs because of the stigma — even if it means never leaving home.
I’m always looking for people to come to the table because, in my rainbow, high-in-the-sky universe, aging is universal. I hope to create some sort of gathering, where we come together against ageism as a form of oppression. Where everyone brings their own identity, their own issues, and we don’t have to choose. Because when you make the world a better place to get old in, you make it a better place in which to be a woman, to be a disabled person, etc. Also, if we have all ages at the table, in a sense, that is the organic way to end ageism.
Q. More people are migrating to different places as they get older. Which are, in your opinion, age-friendly cities?
The age-friendly city is actually a World Health Organization designation. They heard of this initiative. Portland, Oregon is one. [21:00] New York City, where we are right now. It’s any place with good public transportation, accessibility, decent social services and medical care. It’s a place where people of all ages can be together and of course [21:14] diversity across all, etc.
I would like to change the designation “age-friendly” to “all-age-friendly”. These things are often framed in an “old versus young” way — “why should we spend all this money paying [21:38] for old people?”. Well, it helps anyone who’s pushing a stroller, pushing a delivery car; disability features like large print are very helpful, vision impairment can come to all ages.
I’m preaching to the choir, but it’s better for all of us. They’re not expensive things that [21:59]. Both young and older people will benefit.
Q. What are some antidotes for ageism?
The number one antidote for ageism is to make friends of all ages. This seems easy to me because I do have friends of all ages, but it’s not always easy. For example, when I look around in my circle, I’ll admit it’s still pretty white. I need to work harder reaching across that line. Think of something you’d like to do, and find a mixed age group to do it with. It’s worth remembering that this was the natural order of things. It’s the way people do it in a lot of the world.
Technology, urbanization and global capitalism subverted the way we all used to live. Which was, of course, in a community where all ages were together, and everyone had their role. Neanderthals, I think, were the first humans to start living long enough that they could have a third generation. Grandparents came into being, and that’s when art and music started to happen — there was more social capital, more knowledge to build on, and older people were the keepers of that valuable knowledge for the tribe. Until the printing press came along.
Technology happens. There’s always been a new “app” to learn. We used to plow by hand, then we used horses. Then we invented a tractor, and now that tractor is a supercomputer. The rate of change is faster now, but we’ve always had to learn new things, and older people are just as good at learning as anyone else — it might take a little longer, but not if it links to something we already know how to do, and definitely not if we need to use it. I would venture to say that any older person could master nuclear physics in a weekend, if that’s what stood between them and being able to support themselves, or care for someone they love.
Q. Then, just to connect it to what I do, is that design with all kinds of people in mind. If you design for somebody who’s just like you, and you do not investigate for the ultimate users of your product.
And that way makes less money. Ageism really hurts the bottom line. People over 50 in the United States have 70% of the national disposable income, and no one wants to sell us things. Part of that is caused by our own internalized ageism.
People don’t want to buy things that are for old people, but what does that mean? Older people like to do the same things that younger people do. There’s not a point where you start wanting to wear ugly shoes, for example. That doesn’t happen.
Q. Since you started digging into this, have you seen any change, any trends? Signals that were going in the right direction.
Yes, I have, and it feels very good to be able to say that. I spoke at the United Nations two years ago, which was an amazing privilege. My talk was called: “End ageism or the rest is [26:07]”. Whatever area we’re involved in — health care, housing, etc., if we don’t look at our own attitudes towards the older population, and population aging itself — which is a permanent, global phenomenon, and it’s not going to go away. The way we adapt to population aging is going to be very different if we see it as the opportunity that it is. It would be an amazing triumph for public health, a hallmark of achievement of so many ways. Of course it’s a challenge — there are a lot of challenges that need to be met –, but it’s also an incredible opportunity.
Two years later, the World Health Organization is developing a global anti-ageism initiative, because attitudes toward aging affect how our minds and bodies function, so we should have it everywhere in the world. Public health initiatives. This organization called AGE Platform Europe launched a 70-day, very well orchestrated, anti-agism campaign that’s going on right now, with the hashtag #AgingEqual.
That’s going to culminate in the International [27:22] of Human Rights campaign, which has a slightly heartrending slogan that in my opinion is incredibly obvious. Australia, on the other hand, also launched a national grassroots campaign against ageism.
Those are three major campaigns, and in the United States the situation is starting to change too. Americans are slower, I don’t exactly know why, but there are all sorts of grassroots campaigns and organizations coming up. I see a lot of change.