Awakin Calls » Ashton Applewhite » Transcript


Ashton Applewhite: Anti-Ageism Crusader

Guest: Ashton Applewhite
Moderator: Pavi Mehta
Host: Birju Pandya

Pavi: It is a pleasure to be here. What a provocative and in some ways poignant subject to be reflecting on. I was laughing this morning remembering a very bad poem that I wrote when I was in my first years in college. It was titled, "When I Am Thirty." Of course, at that time thirty was a really out there age. It was all about how I was going to trade in my blurred outlines for sharp definition and my vagueness for knowing exactly where I was going. "Be as unerring as a compass," I think was the phrase I used.

Then I remember re-reading that poem the day before I turned 30 and thinking, "Oh my goodness!" The goalpost had suddenly moved, and I realized how hilarious to recognize that I didn't feel like the 30 I had described and that I remember looking out my window at the hills and mountain ranges in the distance and thinking, "I never look at a mountain and say 'you're so old' in the way that I think of old age."

I realize I have an inconsistent view of old age in my own mind. It's not just one thing. But just recognizing that this mountain had been here for millennia, and at the same time every morning, I don't get bored of it. I don't get tired of it. It looks different. It has different moods. It has different perspectives where I can view it from.

There was something in the inarticulate feeling of that moment that I think contained a little whiff of how to approach this adventure of aging that we are on. That it isn't just one thing. That it has different lights. That it has its own majesty. It is that mountain, and yet we can rob it of that grandeur, of that richness that it contains. And when we do that we are the ones who are the poorer for it.

I've had the pleasure of reading through some of Ashton's writing and her blog and some of her interviews. It is amazing to look at my own ignorance to see how many insidious prejudices and biases that I, and many of us have unwittingly built up around this notion of aging, which is such a beautiful built-in part of what it means to be human.

I feel like this is a very important topic that we are entering into. And to have someone like Ashton here with us to help dialog our way through it is a real privilege.

A quick introduction of Ashton: Over her career New York based author and activist, Ashton Applewhite has written about wide ranging subjects. She has written about Antarctica, astrophysics. She has written about a village in Laos that got access to the internet via a bicycle powered computer. She is, under pseudonym, the creator of the popular Truly Tasteless Jokes Series.Also author of a book called Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well. Since 2007, she has been writing about aging and ageism at

She has been named a Knight Fellow, a New York Times Fellow, and a Fellow at Yale Law School. She's also the voice of Yo, Is This Ageist. Applewhite has been widely recognized by the New York Times as an expert on ageism and her book on the subject will come out next year. She is the first woman to have four books on the New York Times Best Seller List. She is also included along side Arundhati Roy, Naomi Klein, and Germaine Greer and others in Salt Magazines list of 100 Influential Women committed to social change.

It is a pleasure to have her with us today. Thank you, Ashton.

Ashton: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Pavi: Let's just jump right into it. There is so much to discuss. I think what would be great for our listeners to hear is to get a glimpse of the journey that brought you to where you are today and what drew you to this mission that you are on.

Ashton: From my nutty biography, it is blindingly obvious that I am one of those people that could never figure out what to be when she grew up. So if I had written a poem, it would have been even worse at prognosticating what lay ahead.

You know I wrote a book about women and divorce, because I was getting divorced. Then twenty years later, it dawned on me that I was well past the midpoint of life and I realized I was afraid.

I'm kind of a bull-by-the-horns kind of person, so the catalyst for the project was a comment of my partner's mother when she was in her eighties. She and her husband are booksellers. She said, "People are always asking us when are you going to retire."

I liked the idea. It was very tangible and upbeat, and I started interviewing people over eighty who worked, who were all over the place. And learning about longevity because that is my nature to just dig in and start reading. Everything I learned about these remarkable people I was meeting and from my own research completely contradicted all these notions I had about what it would like to be that old, about immobility, about the way you move through the world, the way you see yourself.

For example, I assumed that older people were depressed because they were really old and because they were going to die soon, which is an incredibly embarrassing thing to admit at this point. In fact, older people have better rates of mental health than young or middle aged people because of neurological changes that occur in the brain for the most part.

It was hard for me to believe that people were less afraid of dying as they got older. I had just assumed that it must get scarier and scarier to feel the shadow of the grim reaper across your shoulder. I didn't really believe it until I learned why. It is a function of the fact that the awareness that time is short doesn't fill people with dread; it makes them spend their time more wisely, and more able to live in the moment.

If all you do that day is have a moment with your grandchild, or have a wonderful conversation, or sit in the sun, or look at the mountains. We are able to take more satisfaction in that. That enables us to live in the moment the way children do because they don't know any other way to be. And that is what makes people happier.

There were just a thousand things that took me by surprise in a positive way, partly because my perception of old age was so grim. I thought why don't we know all this. The obvious one word answer was ageism--just pervasive discrimination against older people and ignorance in our own heads. Much ageism is internalized. It is our attitude towards our own age and aging that our society has yet to question. So we just grow up thinking well that is just the way things are, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Pavi: That is interesting. I think there is a comic-tragicness to it. In your writing you talk about how it doesn't make sense to discriminate against the group that we aspire to join. The thought that everyone would prefer not to die young and everyone would also prefer not to grow old.

For many of us ageism is a new word. Can you explain it a little bit more?

A: The dictionary definition is stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of age which I would broaden to say it is ageist anytime we constrain or judge what we thing someone is capable of doing or interested in or like as a person on the basis of age. It is any judgment on the basis of age.

Ageism also affects teenagers a lot because people often think teenagers are reckless and can't be trusted. Those are ageist preconceptions. It's ageist when we make any kind of assumption about what a person is capable of on the basis of age because the older we get the more different from one another we become.

Stereotyping is at the root of all discrimination. That you think a certain group of people or religion or nationality is this way. Any generalization about a group of people is of course inherently false, but especially when it comes to age because as we get older and are shaped by more and more life experiences we grow more and more different from one another.

P: Can you bring it to life for us in how that prejudice plays out in the world?

A: It plays out in a thousand ways. In the internalized way, it plays out when we think we are less deserving. For example, it is one of the reasons why so much elder abuse goes unreported. Something between 1 in 9 or 1 in 12 cases, they estimate, goes unreported. Part of it is because older people are segregated from us. Part of it is because older people internalize--older people can be the most ageist of all because they have had a lifetime of these messages. In the media, in television, the idea that older people are less interesting, less worthy, less mentally vigorous, less physically vigorous (and most of them are less physically vigorous. That is absolutely true), but somehow less deserving of attention. That somehow they have become second class citizens in this society.

It is very conflated with sexism. Many women talk about reaching a certain age and feeling like they have become invisible. If you look around at our advertisement and billboards, we very much equate youth with beauty which is pretty crazy because we have a lot of life to go through. Why do we think wrinkles are ugly? Wrinkles are the road map of your experience etched on your face.

Workplace discrimination is huge. I can't think of an arena where it doesn't take place. Movies and television--look how few roles there are for older people, older women in particular.

Give me an arena, and I can think of a specific example. I bet you can too. Look at dating sites. I'm referring specifically to the statistics from OK Cupid, that men always want to date 18 years olds even when they are eighty, which is kind of unfair to say the least. Men are missing out on an awful lot if they are only looking to date very young women.

It is a huge subject.

P: You use the phrase, "youth is equated with beauty." I think I remember reading a statistic that the prime age for marketers to target is the 15-35 year old.

A: I love that fact because it becomes more and more absurd. People over 50 control something like 70% of the disposable income in the United States, and yet, marketers are still marketing to younger groups. That is a rare case where prejudice trumps the bottom line.

Another example are those marketing checklists where you check off "are you 18-24?" or 24-32. They stop at 65. So everyone over 65 buys the same thing. Most of those people will live to be 85 and 90. Can you imagine making a set of assumptions about a group of people from 20 to 45? They are all going to buy the same stuff.

P: I want to come back to this idea of marketing, but before that maybe we can lay some groundwork for our audience. Can you walk us through some of those assumptions. I remember reading in one of your interviews, you talk about the percentage of people who are in homes in America.

A: I've been thinking about what my most terrible fears were. Of course, there is this classic cliche that you are going to end up drooling in some hideous linoleum hallway with a whole bunch of other people in wheelchairs.

The actual number of people over 65 in nursing homes, not assisted living, but nursing homes, is four percent, down from five in the last decade. Those statistics are dropping. Most of that four percent are people who have very bad dementia so they need institutional care.

Fear of dementia remains my number one fear. Again, the real epidemic here is anxiety over memory loss. 20% of the population experiences no cognitive decline at all. Most of us do. Especially in that maddening tip-of-the-tongue can't remember the name of someone, and we lose a certain amount of processing speed, but the vast majority of people can think just fine, and get through life absolutely perfectly on the brain power that they have. But when you think that dementia lies ahead when you can't find your keys. You think, "Oh my God, I'm coming down with Alzheimer's."

It is just very, very, very rarely the case. I used to make senior moment jokes because I thought they were cute, until it dawned on me, when I lost the car keys in high school, I didn't call it a junior moment. Ageism means that we blame on age all sorts of things that are not aging related.

When your back hurts, well maybe it is because you gardened. Maybe it is because you moved and all the young people who helped you move are stiff and sore as well.

P: So when we are talking about those types of assumptions. We have this whole narrative around the horrors that are to come. I thought what was so interesting. I've studied about blindness in my own work. In India they found an interesting and horrifying correlation between when someone went blind, especially in rural India, it is not just their sight that they lose, it is often their livelihood, sometimes they place in their family, sometimes their relationship to the rest of the community. It becomes a loss of dignity. It becomes a loss of social status, a loss of relationship. They found that life expectancy after blindness could be reduced as much as to two or three years after blindness set in.

It was a fatal disease. A blind person was looked upon as a mouse with no hands. Connecting this to our idea or our prejudices around aging, does it have a feedback loop?

A: There is a new study out just this week that attitudes towards aging have an absolute, actual measurable effect in how our brains and our bodies age. People who think that growing old is going to be a consignment to uselessness and loneliness actually recover less slowly from severe disability. They don't have as good handwriting. They don't walk as fast. And, of course, they don't take good care of themselves.

When it comes to blindness or other disability, age and disability are very conflated, legitimately so. In a way that our society does not want to look at. Much of this prejudice also operates against people with disabilities of any age. A lot of that has to do with the extreme generalization in the United States of independence. There are myths that people are self-reliant when no one is ever self-reliant.

I have to say it is chastening to hear the story take place in India where I have a romanticized view that perhaps in rural society there would be more community care and looking out for people because in the US asking for help of any sort is profoundly stigmatized. It makes it much harder to get through life.

There is this idea that if you just have a stiff upper lip and a positive attitude, you are going to do OK. A positive attitude is a great thing, but it is not going to help you get around institutional discrimination. And it places the burden back on the individual for how he or she is coping, when we all need all kinds of help every single day.

As you know, giving help is also a remarkable experience. It is not a one way transaction.

P: Thank you Ashton. I feel like we need to be re-educated or unlearned things because in so many -isms language plays this insidious role. The way we frame things. In ageism are there any language related things we've been unaware of.

A; There are. There's a lot of ugly things we call older people--coots, old farts, and geezers--that go completely unremarked because we haven't yet really started thinking about ageism as a society. We are aware that it is not OK to say racist or sexist things, but people literally don't realize that it is no more OK to criticize someone on the basis of age than on the basis of anything else about themselves.

I think the most important thing to think about in language is because we live in a youth oriented society, we tend to use young to equate with good things and old with bad things. People say, "Oh , I feel so old." What they mean my knee hurts or I feel invisible. Or at work, if people are not paying attention to them or asking for their ideas, you feel useless. You feel insignificant. These are very specific things. You can feel any of these things when you are a teenager, and you are working with older people and they are not asking for your opinion. So that is also ageim, but it is not a function of being old.

And when people say, I feel young or all these sayings like "forever young" or the zillion things that promise that. No stays young and that would be hideous and a nightmare from science fiction if we could. When we say "I feel young," we mean I feel energetic; I feel sexy; I feel beautiful. These are all properties that we can possess at any age.

I would urge people to watch out for that way of doing it and speaking about things, because it is false. You will notice if you read my stuff is that we don't have good words to describe older people, partly because we have gained thirty years of life in one century. It is not our ageism; it's a huge social change that we haven't figured out yet how to deal with, how to come up with new roles and names and things.

Really the only acceptable thing to call older people is older people, and that is pretty clunky. So I've shortened it to a noun. I call older people olders, and younger people youngers. I'm weary of neologisms as a writer, but it is very clear. It is non-value related. i don't like elders. I don't like seniors because it implies that younger people are junior or lesser, and that is not OK.

Also, when you have the -er at the end, it reinforces the notion that age is a continuum, which, of course, age is a continuum. We know now that gender is a continuum, yet we are hung up on this bogus, punitive, false old/young binary. Everyone is terrified of being on the wrong side, which is, of course, the old side, of some imaginary line on the sand. And it segregates us. And it fills us with dread.

This is completely unnecessary because you are always older than lots of people and younger than lots of other people. It is really important to break down the old/young binary because binaries, as in every walk of life, are not our friends.

P: I like that I remember being a friend introducing another speaker and referring to her as an elder which within a lot of indigenous communities they are thought of as the keeper of the wisdom and it's meant as a term of honor and yet...

A: it's meant as an honorific, absolutely

P: and yet the person receiving the term took it as old

A: it shouldn't be an insult. It's like when you see people cringe when you mention how long we've known each other for example. Why on earth wouldn't you take enormous pleasure in how long you've known each other?

P: I wonder, so you know we talked about the marketing and how that's targeted toward the youth and equating it to beauty and I wonder about the aesthetics of aging why is that like something we haven't created language to or we haven't created a narrative around. Because I don't think it's just a marketing problem, we're putting a dollar value on things that are priceless.

A: It's marketing driven in the narrow sense there's an enormous market for anti-aging products. If they can convince you that you look fat or you look ugly or you look old, they can sell you a lot of stuff to remedy it. Same with medication. If they can tell you you need to do brain training games because you couldn't remember the movie you saw last week that's a market. Aging is modified like an illness.

So that's one factor behind it. But you raise a very important question, my biggest ask is to widen their notion of beauty. We have not evolved a language around it. We also desexualize older people. Of course sexuality and beauty are wrapped up together. Oh well it's the fertility thing. Fertility for women does end around age 50 or so. And that's a real thing. And it doesn't end for men and that's not fair but that's life. But I thought of it recently, let's think how much sex we have and how much of that sex is for procreative purposes. Not very much. So same for beauty if you will.

Grey hair can be the most gorgeous stuff. And yet we cover it up, it's one of the main ways women makes themselves invisible. I have this fantasy of letting our hair go grey. So that women can do it as an act of solidarity. And men go grey too. I'm talking about people who cover their grey and don't like doing it. But that's the only reason they're doing it. Imagine how liberating to look around and say 1) whoa we are legion and second of all, we're beautiful. Why are we so terrified of this basic signifier. And of course if I have grey hair no one waits on me, no one looks at me. If I come up to a counter and I can't get attention. That needs to change on the part of the beholder.

P: Is it true that women have more anxiety around their age and that they do more to deceive people around their age?

A: I think there's no question about it. By the way I dyed my hair white. I still have brown hair but I dyed it white last year just to see what it was like. I figured I should walk the talk.

P: What was that like?

A: Ya know I have to say it was a wacky girl experimeny because I'm one of those women who has never dyed her hair and it was like really cool to change my appearance that way. I didn't notice any difference in the way people treated me but that might be because I just don't expect it. I'm just kind of clueless in that regard. Now it's sort of white on top and brown on the sides because I like to keep it confusing because I don't want to make it easy for people to make judgements about me in that way. I'm going to make it as hard as I can. Sorry I lost track of your preceding question.

P: No that's okay. This is great. Can we jut talk a little bit about how there are so many similarities between the older people and people just starting out their lives, very young children. In the sense of the way economics views them -- as in, that they are not economically productive.

A: Oh yes they are not economically productive in a conventional sense and therefore our society has no use for them. Same as people with disabilities are lumped into that category. Not because they don't want to work. They can't find work. Same with old people. It's very important to remember that they are perceived as a drag on our economy but desperately want to find work and are capable of work but are prevented from doing it by either physical obstacles or institutional obstacles or other forms of discrimination.

P: I was reading a chapter where you talk about the kids versus the canes debate and how that's almost the wrong framing where it's a zero sum game where if you take care of the olders then you can't afford to send your kids to school.

A: And the big picture is resource allocation. We have no resources, we spend almost as much on our military as all the other nations of the world combined. We don't restore our highways either. The resources are not inherently scarce, we are an enormously wealthy nation. It is how we choose to allocate them. Thing about how we have enough money, we have to spend money on kids or older people. And hanging in the air is they're going to die soon. And whether they're going to die soon or not is utterly irrelevant from an ethical point of view. People have the right to stay alive no matter how old they are and have the best quality of life. Children too. But we live in a society that places more value on youth than olp .... I never use that word, that was just a joke, I promise. You hear this cropping up around health care a lot. And if you think about it we would never ever say, well we have this resource corn flakes, money whatever it happens to be, we can give it to the black people but not the white people, we can give it women but not to men. Why on earth would it be acceptable to allocate resources according to age? It's absolutely not. And we should call it out every time we see it.

P: Are there movements to sort of like shift this structures that underly this? Because like you said we are moving into uncharted territory here. Our life spans have increased, we have more active and able older people than ever before in history and yet our structures are still dated to the old reality.

A: Part of that is what sociologists call structural lag, it just takes time for culture to catch up with change. You know we have this idea that you go to school and then you have kids and work and then you retire. Aside from the fact that's 40 years of retirement arguable if you retire at 65 which no one can afford. It just doesn't make sense anymore. What we need to do and it's going to take time and there's a lot of smart people thinking about ways to do this. I think to take longer to get into full time work, ideally, to not have to work full time when you have children at home.

Perhaps take longer to complete your education and figure out what you want to do and then your peak hours would be later when your children are older and out of the house and don't need hands-on care. And then move out of working much more gradually so you can pass on what you know so you can continue to have the meaning and social contacts that are so important at work and you can continue to save towards the retirement that will eventually lie ahead of you. But I will say that you can have all of the policy wonks and all the educators but you know schools aren't very friendly to older people. Continuing education is not really integrated in a good way into universities and that needs to change. If we don't change our underlying attitudes towards age and aging all these other changes will be band-aids and that change starts between our ears.

Think about the women's movement women moved into the work force looking forward to getting equal wages any day now. Think about what really happened was that the women's movement which started with consciousness raising which is all about unlearning which is hard work and acknowledging bias in ourselves which is not fun. But once you get there once you start to see ageism, then you see it everywhere. It's kind of a daunting but thrilling awareness. Because you realize oh it's here and we can change it.

Back to beauty if I can make an analogy. Because yes it's a big act to broaden our notions of beauty but beauty is very like fashion and here's something I came across very early in my research that hit me over the head like a ton of bricks. In early America there was a gerontocracy where older people held all the power and that's not a good thing either. You want a balance of power. But of course men were held among that among that power. The older men were the most powerful. Think about what people wore in Colonial America--white wigs, stiff frock coats, and stockings that exposed the lower legs. Those are fashions the flatter the younger [older] body. So fashion now with its spandex and crop tops, flatter the younger body. The point not being that one is better. We can have both, but that they are malleable. That these ideas change. And that we are capable of revising these ideas in a more sensible and egalitarian and entertaining way.

Pavi: Quite fascinating to think about how history shifts and how power dynamics shift, and how I could imagine older cultures when you look at tribal cultures and indigenous cultures, the older people were the keepers of wisdom.
There were no books. There was no internet that you could go to Google stuff.

Ashton: Yes, things happen. Things change. That took a tremendous hit when it became possible to record information in other ways. Those are the breaks.

P: And yet, information isn't necessarily a replacement for wisdom and for lived experience.

A: It is not. It is absolutely not, although I will say that wisdom is a bit of a troupe that I'm a little leery about because I really don't like any value-labeling language around aging. Aging confers experience, indubitably. The more experience you have, the more likely you are to be wise in certain areas. Just experience beats you over the head.

You learn for example that you really can't change people, but I still learn that one every five minutes, speaking for myself. You learn certain things, but that does not necessarily translate into wisdom. And we have all met the wise child. You know when you meet that kid with a shiver.

So again, it is not inherently a function of chronological age. I think that we should respect everyone. Little kids get no respect, and they deserve to be respected and listened to as well. But what we need to do ideally is create a society where the unique attributes are valued. Where older people's experience is valued.

There is a ton of research showing that diverse teams function better. You draw on a broader variety of experiences and also diverse groups listen to people more and pay more attention to what people say. They ride a consensus less readily.

Every time you read an article about diversity, it says race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, blah blah, and age isn't on the list yet. That is crazy. Why isn't age a criterion for diversity?

We are going to make it one. And that is one of the things that is going to provoke the kind of larger structural shifts that you are talking about. Because when you have older people in the team thinking about it and being consulted, then the solutions people come up with work for them as well. That is a little ageist to say as well because it is not just older people can only understand their own experiences.

I saw a hilarious cartoon the other day of a mom saying to her teenager slouched on the sofa, "No, it's you who don't understand ME, because I've been 15 and you have never been 45." [laughter]

P: I want to book mark the diversity thread and just go back. I love how this conversation is shining a light on my own inbuilt prejudices that I do have this unconscious bias that elders are the keepers of wisdom.

A: Some are, but not just because they are old. Because they are wise, not because they are old.

P: Exactly, and that attaching any kind of value labels to the aging process is a slippery slope. People talk about successful aging or people who have aged well. We do make judgments on the process. Is that problematic too?

A: If you look at those values they have to do with being conventionally youthfully attractive and physically active and cognitively super sharp. Those are not values that are hospitable to the aging process. If you want to be able to come to really good decision, which is certainly what makes thinking valuable, older people are better at that as a rule. It may take them longer to come up with a decision, but they are literally sifting through more information. They are more likely to be aware of social cues in the environment than younger people.

I would never say older people make better decisions than younger people, but age confirs those attributes that make that possible some of the time. And that is really valuable.

P: In the process of your research, you've seen people aging in all different ways.

A: Sure, but no more so than anyone who walked down the street or attends a family reunion. We've all seen aging in all different kinds of ways.

P: What has it equipped you with when you want to approach the adventure of the years that lie ahead?

A: Needless to say, I'm something of an outlier. At the very beginning before I figured it out, before I started speaking in public and before I had to write a book, which I really tried to avoid doing because it is so hard, I thought, "If all I get out of this is that I feel so much better about my own age and aging, that is huge."

So that is what I hope to bestow upon people. I have written a manifesto. I also have a consciousness raising guide on my website which downloadable called "Who me ageist?" which is a tool. I hope that some small percentage of people will download it, and will start consciousness raising groups. Activist are always of course a minuscule proportion of the population. Of course, I hope that my words or people will arrive at on their own with no help from me towards an awareness that this is a social justice issue that needs to be confronted the way we are starting to confront sexism, racism and homophobia.

But if all I achieve, and all the people who listen to me, is that we stop being so afraid, and instead, look at old age in a more informed way because most of the cliches are not true. The reason I'm optimistic about that is because I'm 63. We are brainwashed to dread every birthday after 30 for God's sake. And when you reach those birthdays, it is a drag that aspects of your body perform less well, but there is a lot about getting older that is really, really wonderful and so much fun and so delightful. I think everyone knows this, even people who haven't thought about it politically at all, which is most people.

They are like "Gee, I hit 50 and you know what, I'm still getting laid. You know what I can go on a longer vacation. You know what I have this fantastic network of friends that I have known all these years." Whatever it happens to be. Life isn't this hollow version of all the fun I used to have when I was young.

So why are all those messages around me saying something different? And when you realize that they are wrong, that is hugely liberating, and it makes you really happy.

P: I'm thinking about how our experiences with aging and our perspectives on aging connects to our ability to meet impermanence. Can you speak to that a little bit?

A: That is a huge question and my first answer is that I think it depends a lot on the individual. Everything changes, of course. There is a wonderful geriatrician named Bill Thomas who talks about the tyranny of still, as in still walking, still running. That's another ageist bit of language. Try cut "still" out. When it refers to something like driving, like working, which most people do. She's not still driving; she's driving.

this tyranny of still, that we get to a certain age and we rightly respect the attitude/the ability to adapt to and learn from what life has to teach us, and all of a sudden because of ageism the objective shifts in our consumerized society to cling on to everything so that it stays the same. And that is just nutty.

I think a tremendous amount of the anxiety and dread around whether you are aging successfully is "Oh my God, things are slipping." And that means I am failing; instead of acknowledging and embracing the fact that it is not slippage. It is a natural process. It is beautiful Aging is living. It happens everyday of our life. It is not just something old people do to be annoying. That is another annoying thing, is the adjective "aging." Like why are Boomers aging and no one else? Why are movie stars aging? Everyone is aging. [laughter[

P: The baby is aging.

A; I have bad news: your baby is aging right before your eyes. The point is our life is transitory and when we stop denying aging and acknowledge that it is inevitable and it even has some kind of good things about it. Then you are not wasting this tremendous amount of energy and money on stuff that isn't going to work and makes you feel bad about yourself.

P: I like it. I have an 86 year old friend. I remember being so impressed by the fact that she was like: "You know when I was 45 I thought 45 was the best age to be. When I was 50, I thought that was the best age to be." Like every year has been the best year of her life. Every age has been the best age.

A: Very early on, I went out to New Mexico and interviewed this wonderful artist named Marsha Muth. She was tethered to an oxygen tank. She couldn't teach anymore, but she had discovered folk art painting in her 50s. She said, "I have to say that I think my 80s were even better than my 70s were. And I tell people, don't fear aging."

And there I am with my little reporter's notebook, very new to this, and the thought that your 80s could be first of all OK, second of all, better than your 70s. Her life was pretty constrained. She couldn't teach because of the shortness of breath. And that was a real loss to her. And yet, to realize that that was absolutely the case for her and lots of others. And that the possibility had never even dawned on me was really eye-opening.

P: One of the things that comes up for me is that we are already lagging behind in catching up to the changes that have transpired in terms of having more people living longer and healthier lives into their eighties. We have it figured out on so many fronts, and on the other hand, we have Google trying to solve death. Have you thought about that far out?

A: All ageism takes root in denial of aging. That you are going to get old. Denying that you are mortal is the extreme form of denying that you are old and that you are aging. Ratzinger wrote a super conservative post in which he said that not dealing with dying is the way of not dealing with living. I was really startled to agree with him about anything, but I thought that was a really good way to put it.

It is true. It is the fact that life is finite that gives life meaning. The fact that your days are growing ever shorter that enables the old old to live in the moment and take such pleasure. This whole testosterone driven, science driven "we are going to beat this sucker [death]" is just wrong-headed philosophically and biomedically as well. We don't even understand the basic cell functions. We do absolutely need to learn more about the biology of aging; it is incredibly important, because so much old age is new and also because of aging, research into aging is underfunded, and that needs to change as well. We are learning all kinds of ways to slow the aging process and to stay healthy longer, but that is very different from pretending that we are staying young and from pretending that we are going to die.

Birju: I'm curious on your thoughts or research on aging in previous cultures and perhaps in indigenous cultures and perhaps get your thoughts on how different folks have had an evolving relationship with aging perhaps at the level of inuits or aboriginal tribes. Is there health or value in that nostalgia approach or is it a move towards progress across the continuum of time?

Ashton: No, I think there is no march towards progress. I would say the march of global capitalism is very much a pernicious global force that as long as our ability to contribute economically in conventional forms, if it is the most valuable thing about us then the old and the young are disadvantaged.

I have not researched native cultures, so I speak with no expertise. I think wherever there is actual physical community in any kind of a village or a smaller community, there are useful tasks for older people to do right to the end of their lives until they become bedridden and they are not segregated. And everyone has contact with people of all ages. Of course, when you aren't segregated and have contact with other people, prejudice can't crop up. So as we become more urban, that is probably not a positive factor. Segregation in terms of housing is also not a good thing.

If we can make sure to make and keep friends of all ages and to value each person's contribution and be tolerant and embrace the different forms of contribution. Older people contribute an enormous amount of volunteer services--many millions of dollars. It is not counted. Literally, not counted. It is not counted economically and it is not counted in terms of value. We need to work on changing those values too.

Mish: What a wonderful call. I'm a 68 year young woman who embraces her gray hair and wrinkles and I just want to salute you for dispelling the myths that exist around aging. Thank you, thank you, thank you. So much of what you said resonates for me. I'm constantly to post at the joy that has come into my life as I'm aging. I just wonder who perpetuated all these myths?

A: There are aspects of aging that are really hard. We are afraid of running out of money and getting sick and ending up alone, and those fears are legitimate and real.

Mish: Yes, they are and I can't say that I'm happy about all the aches and pains that I'm experiencing, but all the bad press about just puts people in that mindset of dread.

A: The bad things are real. The point is that the good things don't get equal time.

Mish: I'm just braver, more courageous, more comfortable in my skin. I'm still learning. Thank you so much.

A: Can I ask you a favor?

Mish: Yes

A: Consider calling yourself 68 years old instead of 68 years young? Because it sounds like a denial of age.

Mish: Oh, I didn't make that connection. OK, this 68 year old woman bids you goodbye.
A: I will just say for everybody that my website is I have a blog there where all this research is available. I also have an appearances page, so check it out. You can come hear me talk. I travel a lot. So hope to get to meet you some day.
Birju; The next question comes from online. "What is your advice for those who are ashamed for exhibiting child-like tendencies such as being called "not acting their age?" This is from Vasu in Washington DC.

A: Ageist language--"age appropriate, act your age." We all age differently--mentally, physically, socially, so there is no such thing from an absolute literal point of view as acting your age because some 80 year olds are running marathons and some are bedridden.
Act your age is also a way to constrain behavior. I have this "Yo, is this ageist" tumblr. You can send send stuff in, and the questions I get a lot are like "should an older woman wear short skirts?

Older women should wear whatever the hell they want to wear, and so should younger people. That specific example also has an aspect of sexuality--that it is not OK for older people. If an older man looked at porn or says that younger women are staggeringly attractive, all of a sudden he's being creepy. That is not creepy. It is creepy if he is being a creep, but you can be a creep at any age. You should do and be the way you want to be. The inverse is that I think it is a mistake to try and act "young," because if you going to a rock concert is not fun for you anymore, don't do it. But if that still sounds like tun and you like that group, do not not do it, because you're the oldest people in the room. It is really important to stand up and represent something that feels right to you and something that you want to try or keep doing regardless of age. So throw all that language out.

Alissa: I'm Alissa in Seattle and I'm 61. I really love everything that you are saying. I have experienced so much ageism in our culture, and it is so much more insidious. I was listening to what you were saying about words. It's comments, tiny innuendos. Some friends have a first Friday of the month party. I was telling a friend this a couple of years ago, and his comment was "Oh that is great. I want to do that. We've got a lot of young people in my neighborhood." I was like, "Eric, the people at this party are like infants to 80 year olds. It has nothing to do with age."

I also was thinking about people who have traveled to China who have aches and pains and feel elderly stopped feeling that when they were there because of the view of age is so different in China. It is that insidious and that deep.

I agree with you. I think there is so much worry about what other people think. You wear what you want to wear. You do what you want to do.

A: And that gets easier as we get older and more self-confident.

Alissa; In some ways, yes, but there are so many, like I have an elderly friend who would apologize because she is so old. I actually heard myself doing that. It is so insidious.
I've been recently listening to a book called, Thrive. It was talking about how in Denmark the fears of not having money and being thrown out are so real. I think the ageism is tied to the money and the self-reliance. I don't think there is anything wrong with self-reliance in itself. It is that there is a combination between taking care of yourself and being aware that you are with other people.

A: And that there is no shame in asking for help.

Alissa: Right. And that we are all in it together.

A: That is the bottom line. Everyone is going to get old. When you discriminate against an older person, you are discriminating against your future self. I want to commend you about the block party, on saying something to the guy, because nothing changes unless we call it out.

I have a really good suggestion for people. What you want to do is get the person to reflect for a minute, to have a painful unlearning moment. So when someone says, for example, I went into a store to get a shirt to go dancing in and she said, "Oh, with sleeves, of course."

I was like, "No, I'm going to get sweaty," which was not a learning moment for her. What I should have said is "Why would you think that?"

So just say to the person, "why would you think just young people?" Just throw it back on them, so they have to think why they made that assumption.

Alissa; But at the same time, you can always go back. You know because a lot of times you don't think on your feet. My mom's partner was training to go to the Galapagos and he fell on the treadmill and he got a brain injury. He's 86, and he was at UCLA hospital, and they were going to take him off life-support. There was a doctor that said he won't get better. Well, now he is getting better. He's talking.

A: We didn't even touch on ageism in medicine. If a doctor ever says to you, "what do you expect at your age," get a new doctor. It is important to know that even aggressive medical interventions are just as effective on older bodies assuming underlying basic organ functions.

Birju: The next question is online from Vasu in Washington DC: My sense is that the LGBT community has been able to resist the pressures of ageism far better than the rest of society. What are your thoughts on how the LGBT community has influenced society regarding ageism?

A: I am not an expert in this arena. My daughter happens to be gay and I remember saying to her hopefully, "Is there any chance that there is less lookism which relates to age?" And she said, "Absolutely not. Gay girls all want to be the cute girl at the bar just like everyone else."

I know that ageism is a bigger problem for the LGBT community because before gay marriage was legal and more gay people had families, they tend to have less of a family support system to fall back on. And of course, homophobia in combination with ageism is a double whammy. I think the most fantastic thing that the gay rights movement has done for us is to show in an incredibly short amount of time you get people thinking differently. Look how far the gay rights movement has come in just 15 years. I think that has done a lot to raise the idea of fairness. Marriage equality--I say why not age equality?

So I think the gay rights movement has done a lot to pave the way and show ageism activists strategies and give us hope that people's ideas about something so squirm inducing as sex can change in our society. We have a tremendous amount to learn from them about how to raise a struggle for civil rights.

Birju: Can you share a bit more about your own journey with this aging process and how you have transformed through the inquiry that you are holding?

A: I would say that I really did go through a tremendous change. I've been working on this for a long time. At the beginning, it was a project about older people who worked, and i did a book proposal about how work helps you in all these different way. And it was boring. And I knew it was boring.

I really spent several years still reading and still researching stuck at this point where I thought if all I get out of this is if I feel so much better that's got to be enough. But just to acknowledge that those feelings I was having were legitimate, were not anomalies, but it was obvious early on that ageism was the reason that society at large didn't know these things. And I got angry. I guess I'm an activist by temperament. I don't know if we are born or made.

The turning point for me professionally was really sort of coincidental. A friend of mine that runs an art festival has a theme every year and she picked aging because she had been listening to me whine and moan. All her friends said don't do that or you'll lose your whole subscriber base because aging is so depressing. She ended up tripling her subscriber base, because people are so hungry for this conversation. It affirms something they know in their guts. They know that the way aging is represented in society isn't true to their experience.

So she asked me to give an opening monologue. I had practically never spoken in my life. I certainly thought I would never become a public speaker. And I put down all the smart things I had come across or had written into a talk. And it became the germ of a talk that I continue to give. That was really transformative for me was to say, "Oh, I get it. I can be an evangelist. This is what I'm here for."

I'm not going to reform social security or medicare or make doctors less ageist: I'm going to sound the horn for the need for all of us to question these views. I feel incredibly lucky to have such a strong sense of purpose now because the other thing that correlates very strongly to preventing cognitive decline or forestalling it is a sense of having a purpose. That bodes well for all you listeners who I would describe as a very purpose driven bunch of people. And if you don't have a purpose, feel free to embrace mine.

Birju; The next question comes from Albert. "Thank you for your sharing and work. Do you have any insights or referrals regarding the work men are doing for themselves and each other to address this issue?"

A: That is a good question, and I have to say I have not broken out men's experience. I know that for many white men, ageism is the first form of discrimination that they encounter which is pretty eye-opening. I know that men are at a disadvantage in the sense that the most important factor in aging well is having a strong social network. And women tend to be more the gatekeepers of that, and, I would also say, they tend have a stronger circle to network. They tend to share stuff with more people, and that really stands you in good stead as you age.

I think men have an advantage tactically in that men grow distinguished while women get ugly. Men do not feel the devaluing of their physical selves and sexual selves in the social sphere anywhere near as rapidly or as cruelly. But honestly, that is just a stop-gap, because it may enable you to pretend that you are not getting older. It will trap you longer in the "tyranny of still." That you can "still" x-y-x; things aren't going to change. In fact, the sooner we all acknowledge that it is inevitable. The phrase I use is "becoming an old person in training." To acknowledge that the older you is out there and to form an empathic link to that rather than do what we do when we put on anti-aging creams or have cosmetic surgery. We pretend that older is somehow other than us. Old people are separate from us which is irrational if you think about it. But prejudice is not about rationality.

If you become an "old person in training," you say, "Oh, in training!" It is still however far off I need it to be psychologically, but it is still there. It is real, and I'm going to acknowledge that. That is going to be part of my identity as I move through life.

Birju: What are your thoughts on this idea of bias. The thought that youngers who may hear your message and say, "Oh, that's coming from an older." How would you want to break through that perceived bias that prevents that message from being received?

A: Well, there is logic which is not the most effective way to break down bias, sadly. Which is "Dude, you're going to be old someday." Or "do you really think that I've never rode a skateboard?" You can try that, of course, because it is true.

It is very hard to look ahead. We are engineered to live in the present. Our human life span ended at 30 until the Paleolithic era. We are bioengineered to avoid present threat. It is hard to save money. It is hard to be sensible. It is really hard to imagine that your skin will wrinkle and that you will totter.

So what I would say to a younger person is "have you ever felt discriminated against on the basis of your age? How is that different from judging someone on the basis of the color of their skin or whether they sleep with men or sleep with women?"

The next generation are much more ethnically diverse in the United States which is fantastic. The whole concept of diversity is much more ingrained. People are aware of it. They don't need it explained to them. I think age is just as legitimate a criterion for diversity as all those other things. It is no more right to discriminate on the basis of it. Of course, we could tie it to someone's experience. If you ever felt that you didn't get an opportunity or someone didn't entrust you with a responsibility because they didn't think you could handle it, that is not right. That is ageism. And we need to work against it all our lives for the benefit of people of all ages.

Birju: Thank you.

Pavi: I read in one of your interviews that "ageism has the dubious distinction of being very universal."

A: It is one prejudice we will all face, although it makes it a little harder to narrow the effects sometimes. If you feel like you are the only queer goth cat lover in your town, it is easier to feel the prejudice rather than something as vague and as huge as age that is happening to everyone all our life long. But we really need to mobilize against it especially in view of the global aging of the world population. There is this unprecedented enormous demographic shift that represents this amazing accumulation of social capital. We need to know how to use it.

Pavi: I think you have enthused all of us. We've all joined the ranks of "old people in training."

Just as a closing question, what can we do to support the work you are doing in the world?

A: Thanks for asking. I would say the best thing you can do is download the consciousness raising guide and also to read the manifesto against ageism. It will be published in March. On my home page which is at the bottom you can subscribe to my email list. I only send out about 4 or 5 emails a year. That way you can find out about the book because it is a really good book. It is funny. It is interesting. It is not dense and dry. It really has everything I know about how ageism operates--where it comes from and what we can do about it. It is called This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.

I also have a very active This Chair Rocks Facebook page. Where I post all kinds of stuff and you can track what is happening there.

Pavi: Wonderful. Thanks so much, Ashton. I just wanted to close with a quote from you: "All aging is successful because otherwise you are dead. Living needs aging. There is no best or right way to age. Each of us will make different accommodations and find different meanings."

I love that and feel like all of us have learned a great deal from this call and will continue to follow and participate in your work with great interest.

About Awakin Calls

Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...


Subscribe To Newsletter

To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.


Archived Conversations

Or search by date or through tags like:

Contact Us

If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.


  • img
  • img