In 2019 one of my sisters gave me a copy of the book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, by Ashton Applewhite.
Perhaps it’s because I’m creeping closer to turning 60 that I finally decided to read it, or perhaps it’s because I’m creeping closer to 60 that I kept it at bay for so long, collecting dust on a shelf for the better part of a year. Either way, I’m elated that I finally read it and I’m ready to make noise about this!
Ageism, like other forms of discrimination, becomes more noticeable and intolerable once it’s painstakingly brought to one’s attention. Painstakingly because Applewhite takes the time to expose ageism in all the ways it manifests in our culture, the damage it inflicts, and ways to change course.
This is the sort of book that insists on copious pages of notes and oodles of colored sticky flags; so bear with me if I’m quotation-heavy, because no one speaks to ageism better than Ashton Applewhite, said to be “the most prominent anti-ageism activist today”(Baum).
Also, since she covers so much territory in This Chair Rocks, I was forced to select only a handful of her illuminations and arguments, so do yourself a very serious favor and read the book! She paints the complete picture, where all I can offer here are glimpses.
According to Applewhite, ageism is:
“discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of a person’s age. We’re ageist when we feel or behave differently toward a person or a group on the basis of how old we think they are…Ageism isn’t a household word yet, nor a sexy one, but neither was “sexism” until the women’s movement turned it into a howl for equal rights”(8).
She continues, providing a broader, more inclusive scope, from the intersectionality of ageism to our complicity in it:
“All ‘isms’ – ageism, racism, sexism – are socially constructed ideas. That means we make them up, and they change over time. Like all discrimination, ageism legitimizes and sustains inequalities between groups, in this case, between the young and the no-longer-young. Different kinds of discrimination – including racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and homophobia – interact, creating layers of oppression in the lives of individuals and groups. The oppression is reflected in and reinforced by society through the economic, legal, medical, commercial, and other systems that each of us navigates in daily life. Unless we challenge the stigma, we reproduce it”(9).
Although we may own some of the blame by not challenging ageism, Applewhite places the bulk of the struggle where it belongs, on policy and budgetary decisions with competing priorities:
“A big GDP is less important than political will and long-term planning. Resources are not inherently scarce; the United States spends almost as much on its military as all other nations of the world combined. This “scarcity” is the result of policy decisions in a society whose oldest – and youngest- citizens are demeaned and disregarded”(34).
There has to be a shift in national priorities if we want to improve the quality of our longer lives.
Ageism is unique in that it’s
“a prejudice against our own future selves, as Todd Nelson and many other age scholars have observed, and has the dubious distinction of being the only “ism” related to a universal condition. It takes root in the denial of the fact that we’re going to get old. That we are aging…
“That’s the nature of prejudice: always ignorant, usually hostile. It begins as a distaste for others, and in the case of age (as opposed to race or sex), it turns into a distaste for oneself”(16-17).
This statement hit me hard and I am now keenly aware of when I experience this distaste for my aging self. When I experience this, I turn it around to an appreciation of this stage of the life span, one where there is no shortage of ambition, joy, and beauty, if we chose to see it, as we do in the other phases of life.
It’s incumbent on each of us to recognize and reject “the incessant barrage of messages from every quarter that consigns the no-longer-young to the margins of society. In our mindless absorption of those messages and numb collusion in our own disenfranchisement,”(9) we allow ageism to undermine our experiences.
Let’s get one thing straight, aging not a bad thing! It’s not something you can or should try to avoid! It is the natural process of life. How basic is that?
Applewhite challenges our notion that the majority of olders languish in facilities: “Only 2.5 percent of Americans over sixty-five live in nursing homes,”(40) and she challenges our notion that olders no longer have an interest in sex: “Sex and arousal do change, but often for the better, especially for women”(5).
I can attest to the U-curve of happiness.
Applewhite, armed with research and in the company of scholars, bust other myths too, such as: “Society will be swamped by all these old people!” and “An older population will bog everyone else down in caring for the sick and the frail,” and “Olders are a drag on the economy,” and “One generation benefits at the expense of another,” and “Social security bankrupted! Medicare exhausted!” and “We can’t afford longevity.”
Wow, all that ugly negativity. But Applewhite debunks these notions and as she does, I sense a veil lifting, revealing the truth and the way it should and could be.
Working on a college campus, I’m well aware that ageism goes both ways and I speak up when I hear ageism being hurled toward the youngers:
“If someone assumes that we’re “too young”: ageism cuts both ways, and young people experience a lot of it. That’s what’s going on when people grumble about lazy Millennials or complain that “kids are like that”(9).
It’s not hard to see that ageism doesn’t make any sense either way. We were young once and living in the world we inherited, and we’re getting older day by day, living in that same world, slightly altered by our own doing! The vast majority of people are not lazy as children, not lazy as adolescents, and not lazy as adults at any age. (Can we get rid of the word lazy since it seems like a cover for disappointed, deflated, sad, bored?)
Can we accept and embrace that people at all ages are worthy of recognition and respect? There is nowhere along the age span where you were a better, more valuable person than you are now. This goes for the baby who is now 5 and the 30-year-old who is now 50. Do we know things now we didn’t know then? Yes. Could we do things then that we can’t do now? Perhaps. But this has no bearing on our worth and how we should be treated. Ever.
One of my favorite sections of the book is where Applewhite addresses the potency of intergenerational living. For a number of reasons, none of which are healthy, we’re a society hell-bent on segregation which hinders our quality of life in so many ways.
We can do better and we’d ALL benefit if we did do better!
As Applewhite says:
“A social compact for longer lives would opt for integration over age apartheid, in the form of affordable, multi-generational housing, adequate and accessible public transportation, and universal compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It would provide families – defined not by biology but by long-term mutual commitment- with subsidized caregiving at decent wages, and treat those workers with dignity. It would enforce the Elder Justice Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act”(237).
Are you feeling an urge to make noise yet?
“not only because segregation impoverishes our lives but because the exchange of skills and stories across generations makes sense in so many arenas, from kitchen to conference room, from learning a language to mastering a sport, from art to astronomy. The list could go on forever, because it’s the natural order of things. In the United States, ageism has subverted it, impoverishing youngers as well as olders. And when people aren’t visible, whether ghettoized or homebound, whether by choice or reluctantly, so are the issues that affect them”(192).
Let’s process that one again, “And when people aren’t visible, whether ghettoized or homebound, whether by choice or reluctantly, so are the issues that affect them”(192). The motives, dangers and short-sightedness of segregation in a nutshell.
And let’s hear it for UNIVERSAL DESIGN, a concept that’s been around since at least the 1980s!
“Age-friendly communities aren’t just wheelchair- and walker-friendly, they’re gurney- and skateboard- and stroller- and bus-passenger- and delivery-guy- and tired-person friendly. Let’s call these programs what they are – all-age friendly. Let’s acknowledge the need for helping hands, and reach for them gratefully and without shame”(180).
A final point I want to highlight is a hobgoblin that shows up in so many of our social constructs: the big ol’ binary.
“Reject the bogus old/young binary”(50). When someone asks “How old are you?” Tell the truth. Then ask what difference the number makes”(52).
Applewhite provides numerous practical ways we can respond to questions and comments we receive and overhear about age, as well as edit the ones we ask others. When we question ourselves and others, we’re all forced to stop and think. Then we can see that ageism isn’t in anyone’s best interest, and we can call and work for change.
A couple of parting quotes from Applewhite’s manifesto to further entice you to read and share it:
“It’s harder to unlearn than to learn, especially when it comes to values. The critical starting point is to acknowledge our own prejudices…Acknowledging bias is an uncomfortable task and an ongoing one, as I’m reminded on a regular basis. Make the effort and the rewards are real- you can’t get that genie back in the bottle.
“I hear regularly from people who’ve begun to reject age shame that they instantly feel relieved and empowered. As we travel this path- from accepting stigma to perceiving it as unjust and realizing that we can challenge it through collective action – we experience what sociologist Doug McAdam calls “cognitive liberation.” It’s a fantastic feeling, and it is the linchpin of movement-building”(226-227).
I have made a personal commitment to combat ageism when I see it, hear it, and ignorantly perpetuate it. I am ready to make noise, not only because I’m turning 60 and am on the receiving end of this prejudice more often, but because after reading Applewhite’s book, I can see how entrenched it is in our culture.
To me, ageism seems an extension of a consumeristic society, a culture that views almost everything as disposable. It’s the same cultural mindset that is destroying our planet and keeping sexist, racist, and other oppressive systems in place.
“Like the ongoing movements that continue to challenge entrenched systems of racism and sexism, overcoming ageism is going to take a lot of determined people of all ages working to overturn “the way things are.” That means a lot of uncomfortable reassessments, difficult conversations, and outright conflict, not just over healthcare and housing but about when we stop valuing people, and why – not because we grow old, but because we do so in an ageist world. That struggle is essential if we want to create a world in which people can find meaning and purpose at every stage of life”(Applewhite 241).
Ashton Applewhite has tackled the big issue of ageism head-on and compellingly. She has done the heavy lifting, exposing the many facets of this prejudice and for that I am very grateful.
I agree with Anne Lamott, one of my all-time favorite writers, who says, “I never use the word empower, but this book has empowered me”(Hill).
Ashton Applewhite is a #Nasty Woman Writer and Activist!
© Maria Dintino 2021
Applewhite, Ashton. This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. New York: Celadon Books, 2019.
Baum, Caroline. “The ugly truth about ageism: it’s a prejudice targeting our future selves.” The Guardian, 14 Sept 2018.
Hill, Amelia. “I refuse to regret waking up a day older’: Ashton Applewhite’s fight for age pride – The activist on her manifesto to empower older people, how to challenge age prejudice – and why she dyes her hair grey.” The Guardian, 17 June 2019.