Ashton Applewhite is an author and activist based in New York City. Ashton’s book “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism” debunks myths about ageing and explains the roots of the prejudice towards older people. Ashton is a speaker and activist; over 1.5 million people have watched her TED talk online. She is the co-founder of the Old School Clearinghouse, an online repository of free, vetted anti-ageism resources from around the world. You can find loads of information about Ashton’s anti-ageism campaign at www.thischairrocks.com
Ashton’s work was hugely influential on the team at Time to Shine. “We set up theAge Proud Leeds campaign after being inspired by Ashton’s work around ageism,” says Linda Glew. The Age Proud campaign is focused on changing the negative perceptions around ageing and encourages people to start talking about the issue. “A lot of this came from looking at what Ashton was doing and making our version of in Leeds,” says Linda.
Ashton made time to talk to Shine about ageism, her campaign to combat it and how she thinks everyone can make a difference.
Try and break the habit -
which we all do – of associating
ageing with negative things & youth with all good things
Where did your interest in campaigning around ageism come from?
I started writing about ageing in my 50s. I was afraid, I was apprehensive about it. I am a bull-by-the-horns kind of person. I started researching longevity and interviewing older people who work. In a matter of weeks, I came across the facts that I’ve used to kick off my TED talk, over a decade later. It’s not that our fears aren’t real – getting sick, running out of money, ending up alone – those fears are all legitimate. But our fears are so out of proportion with reality. The media feeds the negative stuff because, yes, you read about scary stuff how forgetting a phone number means you’re going to have Alzheimer’s tomorrow.People are more likely to read that story than the truth: that you’re likely to remember that phone number the minute you don’t need it any more. That minor cognitive glitch is typical of ageing. Dementia is not!
I just got a bee in my bonnet about how so few people know these things, and why we only hear the negative side of the story. I suppose I am an activist by temperament. It made me angry. Fear is profitable. If we can be persuaded that by buying something, we can fix it – our wrinkles, or our memories – things that actually aren’t fixable and in large part don’t need to be fixed, well, someone can profit from us. And fear makes us stupid and pits us against each other. Prejudice operates to keep us worried and arguing with each other: Old vs Young, Men vs Women, Working Moms vs Stay- at-home Moms. Instead of joining forces to address the larger social and economic factors, that benefit from inequity. When we’re all fighting amongst ourselves, the status quo goes unchallenged. That’s what got me going. And here I am fifteen years later.
When did you start writing?
I’ve never had a plan. I became a writer in my early 40s, when I realized I could not stay married. I had this image of a sad, lonely divorcee sat on a bar stool, drinking herself to death. Her children, of course, are juvenile delinquents and she never has sex again ... But I looked around me and that wasn’t my experience, that wasn’t what I was seeing. So, I wrote my first serious book called “Cutting Loose: Why women who end their marriages do so well”. As with ageism, it serves the status quo if women remain silently obedient in marriages in which they are exploited. Cutting Loose isn’t an anti-man book, it’s an anti-patriarchy book. Writing is really hard. My daughter said, “Mom, why do you write if it makes you so miserable?” Because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as reading something smart that I’ve written, and because what I have to say seems important. Writing Cutting Loose was so awful I swore I’d never attempt it again!
How did the My Chair Rocks book come about?
I began with a blog with precisely zero readers. I thought, “I’ll be a modern writer. I’ll just blog and tweet and I’ll never have to write another goddamn book.” I am lucky in that I’m a privileged white person. I had a wonderful half-time job at the American Museum of Natural History, which supported me while I worked at this project. I am by nature a very dogged person. A British fan said, “you just keep beavering away”. And I do! Eventually enough people said, “you should write a book”. So, I cleared the deck, sat down every damn day and made myself work on it. Getting it published was no fun either. The publisher who had an option said, “we’re concerned no-one else is writing about this”. I managed not to say, “Are you f-ing kidding me?!” I ended up self-publishing it, with the help of my partner. The minute the book was published, it changed things. We did a beautiful job, if I say so myself, and sold over 20,000 copies. Two years later I sold the rights to Celdon Books, a new division of Macmillan. And it’s still “beavering along”. I know it sounds hubristic, but I do think the book will establish itself as a seminal book in the history of a movement.
It’s certainly influenced the Time to Shine project! A lot of people we work with had never heard of ageism.
Age is to ageism as race is to racism. Ageism is the last of the major prejudices to leak into the public consciousness. These ideas are new to people but the minute you put it out there they smack their heads and say, “why didn’t I think of that?” Just the idea that age is a criterion for diversity. We think of gender, race, ethnicity – age isn’t always on the list, but it's getting there, thanks in no small part to campaigns like Age Proud Leeds, led by Time to Shine.
What do you hope the impact of the book and the blog could be?
My goal is to help catalyse a grassroots movement. Like the Women’s Movement. So, people are aware of ageism, then what they can to about it. How we dismantle it between our ears – that’s the first task. Then tackle it out in the world if you feel like it. It is a fast growing, global movement.
What can we all do to combat ageism?
The key step is to talk about it. To get it out in the world. The most important thing is that all change starts from within. Individuals thinking about their situations and doing the internal work to say this is not acceptable, this is not just “the way it is”. That’s what consciousness raising did for the women’s movement. So just think about your own attitudes. Have you ever bought those gruesome ageist greetings cards – they can be funny, right? But we wouldn’t make fun of what colour someone’s skin was or who they love, would we? And think about your own language. How do you use the words “old” and “young”? If I say, “I feel so old...!” it probably means I ache, I have arthritis. But some older people don’t have arthritis; some young people ache all the time. Try and break the habit - which we all do – of associating ageing with negative things and youth with all good things. It’s all mixed up. Also, to eliminate ageism, we need to eliminate racism and sexism and homophobia. All prejudices reinforce and feed on each other.
It’s unpleasant to look at our own bias. The comment I get most is, “Oh Jeez, I am really ageist. I had no idea these ideas were stuck in my head.” But the good news is that the minute you look at that honest reckoning, the next step happens. You see it out there. It’s in there how your boss treats older staff. In the Greetings Cards. In the media, which is full of older men but older women get shunted off the moment they hit 30. Once you see it in the culture, you realise it’s not my fault. I didn’t do something wrong here. It’s not my fault I have allowed myself to develop wrinkles! The problem is I live in a world that discriminates me on that basis. And that’s liberating! You don’t have to turn your life into being an activist. Just open your ears and start to notice it in the culture. That’s doing your part.
How do you feel about how Covid has had an impact on older people?
This stuff is really complicated. We saw a lot of people in the US going out and about to prove they weren’t “elderly”. That’s an awful word. But it is double edged. I’m 68, my partner’s 74. Our immunity works less well, our lungs work less well. Age is often irrelevant, but not in this case. Age makes us more vulnerable to Covid. It makes sense to take more precautions. To avoid doing so is a form of ageism because you are denying your own age. That’s where ageism gets its claws into us. However, while biology explains to a large degree why most of the deaths are amongst older people, it does not explain the sheer numbers. That is a function of ageism – and ableism, which is discrimination against people with disabilities. The idea that those lives are less valuable. We need to see those cultural forces at work and mobilise against them – and not devalue the lives of people who don’t happen to be thin, white, young, non- disabled, and so on. There’s no easy answer. But things are going to change.
Why is combatting ageism so important to you?
If I could put one fact into every head, it would be that the longer we live, the more different from one other we become. Everyone ages in different ways and at different rates. If I had 10 seconds on the world stage to justify an ageism campaign, I’d point out that the World Health Organisation—not the World Old-People Organisation!— is launching a global anti-ageism initiative. They realise that ageism is the biggest global threat to health and well -being – to making the most of long lives. Attitudes towards ageing have a measurable effect on how our brains and bodies function on the cellular level. When we are ignorant about age and unduly fearful it’s harmful. We don’t invest in preventative medicine, we enable hospitals and doctors to say, “what do you expect at your age?” If your doctor says that to you – get a new doctor! It is completely variable! I stopped blaming my sore knee on being 64 – my other knee doesn’t hurt and it’s just as old. Let’s have facts not fear. Read my book! It’ll keep you healthy and it’ll make you feel a lot better about the years ahead.
Can you tell us something that you think is great about getting older?
I know myself better. I’m more confident. Women, in particular, are always judging ourselves. As you get older it gets easier to cast that off and be less caught up in what other people think of you. And be more liberated. I am finding that and it’s very welcome.
Thanks to Ashton for talking to us – and for inspiring us to fight ageism with the Age Proud Leeds campaign. Hopefully you feel motivated too!
You can buy Ashton’s book “This Chair Rocks” for £12.99 at Waterstones, WHSmith and other bookshops.