By Ashton Applewhite
Aging is life itself. That’s what makes it so damn interesting. But you wouldn’t know it from all the hand-wringing on the part of most Americans when it comes to the prospect. “Hey, it beats the alternative,” we mutter reflexively. What does that saying actually mean? The only thing worse than being old is being dead.
I used to feel that way, too. Then I began interviewing people over age 80 for a project called So When Are You Going to Retire?, and started learning about longevity. I talked to doctors and janitors and artists and Walmart cashiers, and the strangest thing happened: The more I learned, the greater the discrepancy that emerged between what I had simply assumed it would be like to be that old—many interviewees were in their nineties—and the reality.
These men and women had endured plenty of loss and had all kinds of health problems, but they weren’t depressed. They weren’t afraid of dying. They were engaged and content. And they were typical of the fastest growing cohort of older Americans (Carstensen, 2009; Pillemer, 2011; Powell, 2000). Abundant data show that people are happiest at the beginning and end of their lives (Blanchflower and Oswald, 2008; Yang, 2008) and that physical and cognitive decline do not keep the vast majority of older Americans from enjoying independent lives (Butler, 2008).
The more I learned, the better I felt about my own impending dotage, which was no small accomplishment. I had to acknowledge that I remained very much in the game, and also that the goalposts were shifting. Now, for example, though I wear a helmet and let the hipsters whiz past, biking remains one of my favorite urban pleasures. It became clear that hitting age 90 was going to be different, and way better, than the inexorable slide I’d once envisioned toward depression, diapers, and puffy white shoes. Although I’m still worried about the shoes.
Confronting My Own Bias
I knew the years were bestowing more than they took away. I knew it from my experience, and research continued to confirm that I was no exception, and that the years ahead had even more to offer. But it took awhile to integrate that knowledge 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 the media and popular culture had drummed into me since childhood. “Wrinkles are ugly.” “Old people are incompetent.” “It’s sad to be old.” Absorbing these fallacies had been effortless, and usually unconscious. Banishing them was unsettling, and infinitely harder. I use the present tense because I’m still at it, as I’m reminded on a regular basis.
What was the hardest prejudice to let go? The one against myself—my future, older self. That’s the cornerstone of denial—that we will age, that we are aging—where ageism takes root. Whatever form it takes, from a cutesy “Just say I’m over [fill in the number]” to the Real Housewives frozen faces, denial creates an artificial, destructive, and ultimately 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 it, on the other hand, paves the way to acknowledging aging as an accomplishment.
Unlearning is difficult, especially when it comes to values, and it doesn’t come naturally. A baby elephant tied up with a rope soon learns it is captive. The same rope does the job even after the elephant grows to the size of a Volkswagen; untested, the lesson stays learned.
Social psychologists have a graceless name for these sorts of assumptions: premature cognitive commitments. Until we challenge such commitments, we remain tethered like that elephant. The rope pulls tighter over time. As age-related stereotypes grow more relevant, people tend to act as though these are accurate, creating self-fulfilling prophecies (Golub, Filipowicz, and Langer, 2004).
I began to see all the ways in which I and other older people collude in our own diminishment and marginalization. We make “senior moment” jokes, as though we’d never misplaced the car keys in high school. We rule out activities or outfits or relationships preemptively because they might not be “age-appropriate,” especially any that hint at sexuality (a double taboo). When seats are hard to get out of, handrails are missing, or containers hard to open, we think, “I should be more limber,” or “stronger,” or “better prepared.” We blame our aging instead of blaming the ageism that makes these natural transitions seem shameful, and the discrimination that makes these barriers acceptable.
Seeing the Damage Ageism Does
The more clearly we see these prejudices at work—in ourselves and the world at large—the easier it is to envision alternate, more accurate narratives. The benefits are real and significant. People with more positive feelings about aging behave differently from those convinced that growing old means becoming irrelevant or pitiable. They take better care of themselves (Levy and Myers, 2004). They do better on memory tests and have better handwriting (Levy, 2000). They can walk faster and are more likely to recover fully from severe disability (Levy et al., 2012). And they actually live longer—an average of seven and a half years (Levy et al., 2002). Think what a national anti-ageism campaign would do to extend not just life span, but “health span.”
Now, I see ageism everywhere. When old pals cringe at public mention of how long they’ve known each other instead of savoring the shared history. When singles feel compelled to lie about their age on online dating sites. When people shun walkers and wheelchairs because of stigma, even if the alternative is never leaving home. 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 consign 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. That seeing clearly is healthier and happier. Yet age bias has yet to bleep onto the cultural radar; it is the last socially sanctioned prejudice. Racist and sexist comments no longer get a pass, but who even blinks when older people are called confused or pathetic (or younger ones admonished for being lazy or self-centered)? The implications for a society of longer lives are disastrous.
Suppose we could see these hurtful stereotypes for what they are—not to mention the external policies and procedures that put the “ism” after “age.” If we could step off the treadmill of age denial and begin to see how ageism segregates and diminishes our prospects. If we could catch our breath, then start challenging the discriminatory structures and erroneous beliefs that attempt to shape our aging. Until then, like racism and sexism, 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 they represent. So I’ve embarked on a crusade to overturn American culture’s dumb and destructive obsession with youth.
It’s a long way from age denial to acceptance, and an even longer journey to embracing aging. That’s why I smiled when I came across geriatrician Joanne Lynn’s description of herself as an “old person in training” and realized that that’s what I had become. I know I’m not young. I don’t see myself as old. I know an awful lot of people who feel the same way, and the earlier we make this imaginative leap, the better. Becoming an old person in training bridges that illusory us-versus-them divide, and undoes the “otherness” that powers discrimination. It makes room for empathy. It makes it easier to think critically about what age means in this society, and to push back against the discriminatory social structures and erroneous beliefs that attempt to shape our aging. It derails shame and self-loathing, and frees us to become our full selves—ageful, not ageless—at whatever age we make this leap.
In the 20th century, the civil rights and women’s movements woke us up to America’s entrenched systems of racism and sexism. More recently, gay rights and disability rights activists have brought ableism and homophobia into 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 anything other than the content of our character.
If marriage equality is here to stay, why not age equality? If gay pride has gone mainstream, and millions of Americans now take pride in identifying as disabled, why not age pride? The only reason age pride sounds outlandish is because this is the first time you’ve encountered the phrase. It won’t be the last. Longevity is here to stay. Everyone is aging. Ending ageism benefits us all.
Author and activist Ashton Applewhite has been writing about aging and ageism since 2007 at This
ChairRocks.com. She has been named a Knight Fellow, a New York Times Fellow, and a fellow at Yale Law School. The voice of Yo, Is This Ageist?, Applewhite has been recognized by The New York Times as an expert on ageism, and in 2015 was included in a list of 100 inspiring women, along with Arundhati Roy, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Germaine Greer, Rigoberta Menchu, Naomi Klein, Pussy Riot, and other remarkable activists. Her booklet, Who Me, Ageist? Click here to download How to Start a Consciousness-Raising Group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: This article is taken from the Fall 2015 issue of ASA’s quarterly journal, Generations, an issue devoted to the topic “Ageism in America: Reframing the Issues and Impact.” ASA members receive Generations as a membership benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions or single copies of issues at our online store. Full digital access to current and back issues of Generations is also available to ASA members and Generations subscribers at Ingenta Connect. For details, click here.
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