Ashton Applewhite is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, from which this essay is adapted.
I’ve never lied about my age – I have no problem saying “I’m 66” loud and clear – but I sure know a lot of people who do. People who’ve lied on résumés and on airplanes and on dates. There was the opera singer who fudged upward at the beginning of her career so she could get cast as Norma, but was holding at 39. And the woman who loved passing off her granddaughters as her kids, and who was regularly connected to her bank’s fraud department because she couldn’t remember what birth date she was using.
I would never have been able to keep my stories straight either – one reason I told the truth. Another was because the typical response wasn’t so terrible: “You look great for your age!” I inherited my mother’s no-grey-hair genes, I’ve always had plenty of energy and no plans to slow down, and I certainly never felt like any of the labels out there – “senior,” “cougar,” “woman of a certain age” – applied to me. But if I was so cool with it, why didn’t “You look great for your age” feel like a compliment? The fact was that the hazy prospect of growing old filled me with something between free-floating anxiety and stomach-churning dread. I didn’t want to think about it until I had to, and when it crossed my mind, I flipped the channel. Why not, as long as I could “pass” for younger, right?
That wasn’t a very solid strategy. When I was a writer for the American Museum of Natural History, birthday cards circulated regularly around the charmless cubicles of the office where I worked with a guy named Ray for 15 years. Ray and I don’t have much in common. He handled the accounts; I write. He lived in the suburbs; I don’t own a car. He’s conservative; I’m progressive. With his fringe of snow-white hair, if he gained weight and wore red, he’d make a perfect Santa Claus. He was proud of being cantankerous, was always muttering about his aches and pains, and couldn’t wait to retire to Florida. So when I learned that Ray and I were exactly the same age, I panicked. I thought, “What if everyone finds out? They’ll think I’m old too.”
That wasn’t just condescending and mean-spirited of me; it was idiotic. My museum coworkers, Ray included, were an intelligent bunch. They didn’t have any trouble telling the two of us apart. Why, then, was I so flipped out about landing with Ray on the same side of some hypothetical old/young divide? Why did I imagine that this would erase our individuality, and diminish me so frighteningly? Was I driven by fear of losing my looks? Of growing frail? Of my own mortality? Wouldn’t I be better off making my peace with the passage of time than waging a battle no one could ever win?
I wish I could report that I found the answers in one blinding epiphany. Instead, it’s been a gradual awakening over the past twelve years. There have been many glum days at the keyboard, and some sleepless nights dictating brilliant insights into my phone, most of which were a lot less brilliant in the morning light. I had the good fortune to be able to meet several times with Dr. Robert Butler, coiner of the term “ageism,” before his death in 2010. I attended seminars for journalists who cover the “age beat,” inhaled countless books and articles, and started thinking out loud in blog form. I delved into a world of advertisements and movies, policies and bylaws, and products and promotions that had shaped my unconscious beliefs with one overarching message: old = no good. Or, as the Twitterverse might put it: It sucks to be old.
A chance dinner conversation in 2007 with my partner’s mother, Ruth Stein, got me started on this journey. In their eighties at the time, she and her husband, Bill, were booksellers, and that night she said, “I think you should write about something people ask us all the time: ‘So when are you going to retire?’” The idea of interviewing older people who remained on the job was upbeat and sound-bite friendly. I started learning about longevity, interviewing people over 80 in the workforce, and blogging about it.
I headed to Santa Fe, where I had family to stay with. My first interview was with 88-year-old folk artist Marcia Muth on the porch of her little adobe house, shaded by a tree festooned with shiny compact disks and surrounded by her hubcap collection. Ms. Muth had been raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, by her grandparents, to whom she was “a disappointment, because I liked classical music, I liked Shakespeare, I loved poetry. To them, work was having a store.” She went on to become a law librarian, poet, publisher, and, in her fifties, a successful folk art painter and teacher. A newspaper clipping on the wall quoted Ms. Muth’s advice to her Elderhostel students: “You are never too old, and it’s never too late.”
Embarrassed by her lack of formal training, Ms. Muth painted in secret for 10 years. When a local artist dropped by and caught her scurrying to hide her brushes, he offered her some advice: “Don’t take any lessons. Just keep going.” She did, and it became a way of life that she was grateful to have found in her middle years. Chronic bronchitis had ended her teaching career a few years earlier and tethered her to an oxygen tank, but “it doesn’t interfere with the painting, that’s the important thing,” she said. “Your life does change as you get older,” she told me. “You get into what’s important and what’s not.” She and her partner went out less and moved more slowly, but her work continued to improve as she got better at listening to herself. “Don’t fear old age,” she advised. “Your years can be just as wonderful as you get rid of some of the anxiety people suffer from. And I find my eighties have been even more fun than my seventies were.”
The possibility that life could become more fun in your eighties had never crossed my mind. Nor that growing a little shorter of breath each year would fail to terrify. Nor that an ever more circumscribed life could be an ever greater source of personal growth and specific pleasures. Nor that such joyful clarity would be rooted in awareness – not denial – that time was short and therefore to be savoured. After this first jolt of fresh old air, I kept going. From pediatricians to park rangers, people of advanced years and all stripes told me about their work behind steering wheels and desks and band saws and television cameras and how they’d gotten there. It came as no surprise that they were as different from one another as could be, not to mention from the stereotype of the doddering ancient. But something did surprise me: the discrepancy between what I’d simply assumed it was like to be 80 or 90 and what I was encountering firsthand. The more I read and the more experts I talked to, the clearer it became that these older workers were typical of a large and fast-growing cohort of older people, more of whom are working – and working longer hours – than at any time since the turn of the century.
Why the disconnect between what I had imagined about old age and the reality that was coming into view? Had I bought into some kind of party line? What were some of my assumptions about what the future held? My darkest nightmare was the possibility of ending my days drooling under a bad botanical print in some grim institutional hallway. If asked what percentage of Americans over 65 lived in nursing homes, I’d have ventured, “Maybe 30?” I’d never have arrived at the actual number: 2.5 per cent, down from 5 per cent over the last decade, during which time aging has turned from a taboo topic into a something approaching a trendy one. Even for people 85 and up, the number is only 9 per cent. (In Canada, 92 per cent of men and women aged 65 and over live at home.)
What about being sick and helpless? I soon learned that more than half of the “oldest old” – ages 85 and up – can go about their everyday activities without any personal assistance. Probably not shovelling their driveways or doing Costco runs, but dressing, cooking and wiping their own butts. People get chronic illnesses, but they learn to live with them. The vast majority of older people live interdependently until they come down with whatever kills them.
What about the spectre of dementia? Everyone seemed to know a horror story. My memory’s never been any good, so maybe I won’t notice if I develop Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a terrifying prospect. But even as the population ages, dementia rates are dropping. The real epidemic is anxiety about memory loss. Remember the 2.5 per cent of people over 65 living in nursing homes? Ninety per cent of the remainder can think just fine. The vast majority of older people will land in the rest of the pie chart, slowed somewhat but fully capable of finding their slippers sooner or later and making their way in the world.
How about my assumption that old people no longer have sex? It’s true that sexual activity tends to decrease with age. It’s equally true that retirement homes are hotbeds of lust and romance, as evidenced by skyrocketing sexually transmitted disease rates in people over 50. Sex and arousal do change, but often for the better, especially for women.
I also figured that old people were depressed. After all, they were old, and they were going to die soon. Their droopy faces were all the evidence I needed. It turns out that older people enjoy better mental health than the young or middle-aged. Who knew? Here’s the kicker: People are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. If you don’t want to take my word for it, Google “U-curve of happiness.” Even as age strips us of things we cherished – physical strength, beloved friends, toned flesh – we grow more content.
The more I learned, the better I felt about the years ahead – no small accomplishment in itself. I had to acknowledge that the goalposts were shifting, but also that I remained very much in the game. I’ve always loved bicycling in the city, but now I wear a helmet and stay in the slow lane. I still barrel along the sidewalk, but recently had to slow down in order to keep pace with a 74-year-old friend whose knees were killing her. Arthritis. She marvelled that time and cartilage had waylaid her in this way, and I realized that I, too, will marvel when it happens to me. Like her, I’ll figure out how to deal with it. I’ll buy a cane just like she did, and keep on going. Just not as fast.
Specific concerns replaced nameless dread. I was onto something. Clearly, hitting 90 was going to be different – and way better – than the inexorable slide toward depression, diapers and puffy white shoes I’d once envisioned, although I’m still worried about the shoes.
Things started looking so much rosier that I graduated to what I came to call I’m Not Ray–Stage Two: trumpet the fact that Ray and I are the same age, because see how much younger I look! Sliding happily to the other end of the spectrum, I spent several years chasing the idea that enough spinach, sudoku and positive thinking could “put old on hold.” This approach goes by all kinds of peppy names, like successful aging and productive aging, and it moves a lot of product aimed at keeping us “ageless.” It sounds comforting and it feels empowering.
But a question tugged at my sleeve. Was I actually coming to terms with what it meant to grow older? Or had I merely swapped my don’t-want-to-think-about-it foxhole for a hamster wheel to keep uncomfortable reckonings at bay – and Ray at a distance? Replaced dread with denial, in effect?
Hitting 60 felt just fine. I knew the years were bestowing more than they took away. I knew it from my own experience, and my research continued to confirm that I was no exception and that the years ahead had even more to offer. But I had yet to internalize that knowledge, to integrate it into my beliefs and attitudes, to embed it into my sense of self and my place in the world, to make it my own. I had to acknowledge and start letting go of the prejudices about aging that had been drummed into me since childhood by the media and popular culture. Wrinkles are ugly. Old people are incompetent. It’s sad to be old. Absorbing these fallacies had been effortless. Banishing them is unsettling, and infinitely harder. Present tense because I’m still at it, as I’m reminded on a regular basis.
What was the hardest prejudice to let go of? A prejudice against myself – my own future, older self – as inferior to my younger self. That’s the linchpin of age denial. Whatever form it takes, from a cutesy “Just say I’m over [fill in the number]” to faces frozen by needle and knife, denial creates an artificial, destructive, and unsustainable divide between who we are and who we will become. Concealing or disavowing our age gives the number power over us that it doesn’t deserve. Accepting our age, on the other hand, paves the way to acknowledging it with ease, even pride.
I am not saying that aging is easy. We’re all worried about some aspect of getting old, whether it’s running out of money or getting sick or ending up alone, and those fears are legitimate and real. But it never dawns on most of us that the experience of reaching old age – or middle age, or even just aging past youth – can be better or worse depending on the culture in which it takes place. And North American culture is grotesquely youth-centric. Depictions of older people tend to be extreme. At one end of the spectrum, a silver-maned dude, beloved of marketers, surfs a turquoise wave. At the other end, beloved of the aging-industrial complex, a tiny woman withers in a hospital bed. These people exist, but they are hardly typical. The vast majority of us will end up in the middle, muscles and memory slowed, but out in the world and able to enjoy our lives to the end.
I had to make my way to I’m Not Ray–Stage Three: I’m not Ray. Ray retired to Florida when he turned 65, where I bet he’s happy as a clam; it’s the old age he wants. I’m making my way toward the old age I want, and it won’t look like his. I too left the museum at 65, in order to become a full-time activist. I’m not planning to take up pole dancing or marathon running, and I feel just fine about that. All aging is “successful” – not just the sporty version. Otherwise you’re dead.
A bunch of pieces fell into place with that realization, but a fundamental, underlying question remained: Why had my vision of late life been so out of sync with the lived reality? Why had I bought into an unexamined narrative for all these years instead of taking comfort and guidance in the evidence around me? These facts were easy to come by, so why didn’t more people know them? What Kool-Aid had we drunk? What was it in the culture that had me and so many others so freaked out about the prospect of living to 80 or 90? The answer, which grew into an itch that I had to scratch and ultimately a new career, is ageism – the relegation of older people to second-class citizenship, along with the disrespecting of youth. Here’s the formal definition: 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.
As with all “isms,” stereotyping lies at the heart of ageism: the assumption that all members of a group are the same. It’s why people think everyone in a retirement home is the same age – old – even though residents can range from 50-year-olds to centenarians. (Can you imagine thinking the same way about a group of 20- to 60-year-olds?) And the longer we live, as more experiences inform our uniqueness, the more different from one another we become. Think about it: Which group is likely to have more in common, a bunch of 17-year-olds or of 77-year-olds? As doctors put it, “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.”
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 stigma, we reproduce it.
Like racism and sexism, ageism is not about how we look. It’s about what people in power want our appearance to mean. Ageism occurs when a group, whether politicians or marketers or employment agencies, use that power to oppress or exploit or silence or simply ignore people who are much younger or significantly older. We experience ageism any time someone assumes we’re “too old” for something – a task, a relationship, a haircut – instead of finding out who we are and what we’re capable of. Or 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.”
Now I see ageism everywhere. When old pals cringe at public mention of how long they’ve known each other instead of happily acknowledging their shared history. When men and women feel compelled to lie about their age on online dating sites. When people bridle at being kindly offered a seat on the bus. On billboards and television, in hospitals and hotels, over dinner and on the subway. (“At age 80, who doesn’t need a facelift?” a poster announcing a station renovation asks brightly.) In 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.
I’ve learned that most of what I thought I knew about the aging process was wrong. That staying in the dark serves powerful commercial and political interests that don’t serve mine. And that seeing clearly is healthier and happier. We know that diversity means including people of different races, genders, abilities and sexual orientations; why is age typically omitted? Racist and sexist comments no longer get a pass; why do eyebrows barely raise when older people are described as worthless, or “out of it,” or even repulsive? As age bias bleeps onto the cultural radar, this is beginning to change. Next year, after all, people aged 65 and over will outnumber those under age five for the first time in human history.
Suppose we saw hurtful, even hateful, age stereotypes for what they are – not to mention the external policies and procedures that put the “ism” after “age.” Suppose we could step off the treadmill of age denial and begin to see how ageism segregates and diminishes our prospects. Catch our breath, then start challenging the discriminatory structures and erroneous beliefs that attempt to shape our aging. Until then, ageism will pit us against each other; it will rob society of an immense accrual of knowledge and experience; and it will poison our futures by framing longer, healthier lives as problems instead of the remarkable achievements and opportunities they represent.
A good place to start is by jettisoning some language. “The elderly”? Yuck, partly because I’ve never heard anyone use the word to describe themselves. Also because “elderly” comes paired with “the,” which implies membership in some homogeneous group. “Seniors”? Ugh. “Elders” works in some cultures but feels alien to me, and I don’t like the way it implies that people deserve respect simply by virtue of their age; children, too, deserve respect. Since the only unobjectionable term used to describe older people is “older people,” I’ve shortened the term to “olders” and use it, along with “youngers,” as a noun. It’s clear and value-neutral, and it emphasizes that age is a continuum. There is no old/young divide. We’re always older than some people and younger than others. Since no one on the planet is getting any younger, let’s stop using “aging” as a pejorative – “aging boomers,” for example, as though it were yet another bit of self-indulgence on the part of that pesky generation, or “aging entertainers,” as though their fans were cryogenically preserved.
It always drove me nuts when some clown called me “young lady” and expected me to feel complimented, but I didn’t know why until I started thinking deeply about it. Made to our face, comments like these are disguised as praise. We tend to ignore them because the reference to being no-longer-young is embarrassing. And it’s embarrassing to be called out as older until we quit being embarrassed about it. Well, I’m not any more. When someone says, “You look great for your age,” I no longer mutter an awkward thanks. I say brightly, “You look great for your age too!” When it dawned on me that one of the reasons older women are invisible as older women is because so many dye their hair to cover their grey, I bleached mine white to see what it was like. When my back hurts, instead of automatically blaming it on my osteo-you-name-it, I stop to think whether shovelling or weeding could be to blame. I started a Q&A blog called Yo, Is This Ageist? where people can ask me whether something they’ve seen or heard or done is offensive or not.
Although we age in different ways and at different rates, everyone wakes up a day older. Aging is difficult, but few of us opt out, and the passage of time confers very real benefits upon us. By blinding us to those benefits and heightening our fears, ageism makes growing older in North America far harder than it has to be. That’s why I’ve embarked on a crusade to overturn American culture’s dumb and destructive obsession with youth, and challenge the way people at both ends of the age spectrum are devalued and disrespected.
As I’ve gone on this journey from the personal to the political, it’s become clear that ageism is woven deeply into our capitalist system, and that upending it will involve social and political upheaval. No one gives up power without a struggle, as the backlash against the #MeToo movement attests, delivering a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court this fall to a man accused of sexual misconduct and hostile to women’s rights. Yet change is both necessary and possible. What would the U-curve look like in world that values people of all ages equally? How would age equality transform the world of longer lives we now inhabit?
Ageism, unlike aging, is not inevitable. In the 20th century, the civil rights and women’s movements woke mainstream North America up to entrenched systems of racism and sexism. More recently, activists have brought ableism and homophobia and transphobia to the streets and the courts of law. It is high time to add ageism to the roster, to include age in our criteria for diversity, and to mobilize against discrimination on the basis of age. It’s as unacceptable as discrimination on the basis of any aspect of ourselves other than our characters.
If marriage equality is here to stay, why not age equality? If gay pride has gone mainstream, and millions of North Americans now proudly identify as disabled, why not age pride? The only reason that idea sounds outlandish is because this is the first time you’ve encountered it. It won’t be the last. Longevity is here to stay. Everyone is aging. Ending ageism benefits us all.
Why add another “ism” to the list of oppressions when so many, racism in particular, call out for action? Here’s the thing: We don’t have to choose. When we make the world a better place to grow old in, we make it a better place in which to be from somewhere else, to have a disability or be queer or non-white or non-rich. Just as different forms of oppression reinforce and compound each other – that’s intersectionality, a term coined by feminist and civil rights activist Kimberlé Crenshaw – so do different forms of activism, because they chip away at the fear and ignorance that all prejudice relies upon. Ageism is a perfect target for compound advocacy because everyone experiences it. And when we show up at all ages for whatever cause tugs at our sleeve – save the whales, the clinic, the democracy – we not only make that effort more effective, we dismantle ageism in the process.
What ideas about aging have each of us internalized without even realizing it? Where have those ideas come from, and what purpose do they serve? How do they play out across our lives, from office to bedroom, in muscle and memory, and what changes inside us once we perceive these destructive forces at work? What might an age-friendly world – friendly to all ages, that is – look like? What can we do, individually and collectively, to provoke the necessary shift in consciousness, and catalyze a radical age movement to make it happen?
You might not think of yourself as an activist. But I hope you’ll start seeing the ageism in and around you, embrace a more nuanced and accurate view of the years ahead, cheer up – and push back.
About the artist
R.O. Blechman is an 87-year-old American illustrator, animated filmmaker, designer, and author. A pioneer of the graphic novel, his first book, The Juggler of Our Lady (1953) was, as Maurice Sendak wrote, a “blueprint for things to come.” His signature nervous line is instantly recognizable and pulses throughout his work in all mediums, from his numerous New Yorker covers to his television commercials. The stark simplicity of his style seems inseparable from his sensitivity as a storyteller and from the sharp intellect he applies to his commentary on the human condition. His animated feature of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale for PBS earned an Emmy award. He has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which mounted a retrospective of his animated films in 2003. In 2012 he was inducted to the Illustrators Hall of Fame.