Jan. 27, 2021

#7) The Creatively Engaging- Ashton

#7) The Creatively Engaging- Ashton

Ashton Applewhite, author and activist, is my guest today. Join us for a vibrant conversation about ageism.


Ashton Applewhite, author of "This Chair Rocks" and activist, is my guest today. Join us for a vibrant conversation about ageism.

Transcript

Ashton:

When enough people wake up to the fact that this prejudice is socially constructed, is the fancy way to put it, what that really means is we make it up. We make these, they are not based in biology, they are not set into stone. And by pressure from the people, eventually changes enough collective consciousness, and that in turn provokes activism and legislative change.

 

Bruce:

Well, we made it to January 2021, and the latest episode of The Creatively Engaging. And today I'm very pleased to have as a guest, Ashton Applewhite, an anti-ageism author, an advocate. Ashton has been recognized by the New York Times, National Public Radio, The New Yorker, and the American Society On Aging as an expert on ageism. She's an accomplished author who made publishing history by occupying four of the 15 spots in the New York Time bestseller list. Along with being an accomplished author, she is an accomplished speaker. Check out ted.com for her talk titled Let's End Ageism, and join the 1.6 million people who have already listened to this powerful presentation. Her latest book is titled This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. And, as Ashton would say, if you live long enough, and many of us do, you will face ageism, but you will also have the opportunity to create change.

 

Bruce:

Welcome, Ashton. It's very exciting to have the opportunity to finally get to chat with you. When I was preparing for our conversation, I must confess that as I started to look more into ageism and ageist attitudes, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the insurmountable challenges that seemed to create change, but I also felt empowered by the work that yourself and others that are doing to try and work towards changing ageist attitudes and changing ageism.

 

Ashton:

That's wonderful. No better compliment.

 

Bruce:

In your book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, you dedicated it to the memory of Robert Neil Butler. You saw him as a mentor, an activist, a physician, a humanist, who "kicked the whole thing off". He seems like an incredible individual. And I'm just wondering if you were able to share a bit more about who he was from your perspective and the relationship that you had and how he inspired you.

Ashton:

I will. Yeah, with pleasure. Bob Butler was the person who invented the term ageism in 1968, I believe, a deliberate coinage to piggyback on racism and sexism as the second wave women's movement and the civil rights movement were in full cry. And I had the acute pleasure of meeting him when he ran something called the International Longevity Center, the New York chapter. And they hosted a couple of seminars in partnership with the New York Times for journalists working and covering aging. And at that point, I was just starting out. I had this tiny blog with a readership of probably three, and they accepted my application and it was a fantastic way to meet many of the luminaries in old land, as I sometimes refer to it, and I also got to meet Bob a number of times.

 

Ashton:

And at the time, this was a blog called So When Are You Going To Retire? Which focused on older people in the workplace. And Bob was in his 80s and was, he has since died, I'm sorry to say, but he was very much working and I interviewed him and met him a couple of times. And he was a fantastic presence. Just the way he was in the world-

 

Robert Butler

And developing first a declaration and then a convention for the human rights of older persons. There is no more abused group in the world than older women, for example. And there's so many aspects of age discrimination, discrimination in healthcare, and the media, and so many other facets of the human experience. That must be-

 

Bruce:

So Ashton, how did you decide on this as your focus, that you wanted to take it on as a career, as an ageism activist?

 

Ashton:

So I got started on this because I was afraid of getting old in hindsight. But the near-term catalyst was a comment by my partner's parents who were booksellers, in their 80s at the time, and they said, "Why don't you write about what people ask us all the time, which is, so when are you going to retire?" And again, in hindsight, being 2020, this was a very safe way for me to venture into the territory of old age and later life. But the image that came to my mind probably years later was like venturing out into a river. And if I was talking about older people who were at war, it was a way to think of them as active and continuing to do the things they have always done and be in the culture and be productive, if you will.

 

Ashton:

And it was a word that I have since come to learn has problematic connotations in a very capitalist achievement oriented society, where it tends to have to do with making money and being physically active and so on. When in fact there are many, many ways we can be productive in a larger sense, and many of the ways in which older people do it, even when we are not at work anymore or not in the world in the same way we used to be, are enormously productive of support, of enabling others to go make money, and of supporting our communities and our families.

 

Ashton:

And I remember asking Bob a question about productivity, and he said gently, "You know, if you wake up in the morning and you get yourself dressed and get out of bed, you're being productive." And at the time I remember thinking like, my ocean liner had just received a very helpful little nudge and it was enormously helpful to me. And he himself was just a gentle hind person. And I do consider him my mentor because I'm very lucky I got to know him a bit, and he really helped set me on my path. And as nice to me, as wet behind the ears, a woman who knew nothing, I had no credentials, no professional credentials, no affiliations with any schools or organizations, and he was as generous to me as if I was Albert Einstein.

 

Bruce:

So, wet behind the ears, as you say, and without any credentials, how did you know which trajectory or pathway to take once you got started?

Ashton:

I think my trajectory was a fairly common one for people who want to sort of look aging in the face. And another metaphor I came up with early on was look and see if there's a monster under the bed. I mean, I don't know about you, but there was a period in my childhood where I would launch myself onto my bed from as far away as possible so that the monster underneath didn't grab my ankles. And I know now, not just from my own hunches, but from research, that if we look under the bed, what we see is always less scary than not looking, because our fears are always inherently larger than whatever reality is under there, which is not to say that there are not things ... That there are monsters.

 

Ashton:

When it comes to aging, there were two inevitable bad things, only two, that some part of your body's going to fall apart, and people you've known all your life are going to die. And those are real, often terrible, losses, but just looking enables us to overcome this terror of the unknown and render it less fearsome and enable us to begin to come to terms with them in whatever way and at whatever speed we can.

 

Bruce:

That looking that you're referring to makes me think of the research that you spoke about during your TED Talk. Those statistics were quite enlightening.

 

Ashton:

There is research that I came across, a study by AARP and the University of Southern California that says the more knowledge about the aging process correlates with less anxiety about it. So once I started to dig into it, I discovered in a matter of months, if not weeks, that pretty much everything I thought I knew about getting older, which was that it was all going to be awful pretty much, was flat out wrong or way off base. And I started my TED Talk off a decade later with some of those facts. I thought the odds of ending up in a nursing home were pretty good. And it turns out that the percentage of Americans over 65 in nursing homes, this is not all senior residences, at the time it was 4%. It's down to two and a half percent. It's three point something percent in Canada. It's tiny. The fact that people were happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives, it wasn't this downhill slope.

 

Ashton:

I thought that one of the awful things about getting older must be the fact that death approaches and that not only does everything suck, but the Grim Reaper is a little bit closer to your bedstead, and that's not the way it works. The people in their 80s and 90s, and of course no generalization about everyone of a given age, could ever be true. But for the most part, they don't want to die and they don't want to die in pain, but they don't worry about it. The older you are, the less preoccupied with death that you are, the more able we are to live in the present. And that is the psychological underpinnings of that U curve of happiness.

 

Bruce:

I was reading in one of your articles that you were talking about how at one point that you were almost trying to conquer aging. Could you speak to that?

 

 

 

Ashton:

So I got a bee in my bonnet, sort of if you think of a pendulum, one end of a pendulum being everything about getting older is going to be awful. And I sort of careened to the other side, which is, it's so much better than we think if you think right, have the right attitude, eat enough kale, do enough sit-ups, et cetera, et cetera, it's all going to be fine. And the fact is that the way we age is hostage to an enormous number of variables not under our control. And that in itself is a possibly alarming thought. I think it's the more privilege and power you have in the world, I think the more alarming it is. And it took me a long time to find my way to the messy middle, which is where by definition most of us end up, which is that we have enormous control over our attitudes towards how we age, and that has enormous bearings on our physical and mental wellbeing, which I'm happy to talk about.

 

Ashton:

But to think that there is a right way to age sets us up to fail, especially since the narrative of successful aging, especially in the US and the West hyper capitalist culture, where physical speed and youth are so prized and held as better, is destructive because the successful aging narrative really means the more successful you are. I mean, for one thing, and this is something a scholar named Tony Colasanti came up with, why should age be something to succeed or fail at? We don't succeed or fail at childhood. And to age successfully, according to this narrative, is really to not age, to spend a lot of effort and a lot of money, huge class bias here because sushi, and leisure, and yoga, and sports are only available to the well-off.

 

Ashton:

And it really means to try and stop the clock, to look and move as much like your younger peers or your younger self as you can. And that sets us up to fail because sooner or later we can't do that, it distances us from everyone else. What happens if your childhood friend does become physically or cognitively incapacitated? Do you give up on them? Do you stop associating with them? Do you not want those walkers in the dining room of your senior residents because they look yucky and you don't want to be associated with that?

 

Ashton:

Those are all human ways, understandable and human, but since you might end up using a walker tomorrow if you sprain your ankle or whatever, it's much healthier not to subscribe to this notion that there is one right way to do it. That means a very punishing ideal. And I would put the word ideal in big air quotes because I don't think it is ideal that there is just enormous diversity in the way we age. It does involve adjusting to reduced capacity of some sort for all of us, and we age well not by avoiding those things, because on a lot of the times they are unavoidable, but by adapting and integrating this into our lives in a way that doesn't feel like defeat, it feels like life.

 

Bruce:

Getting ready for this conversation, I had the chance to ask several olders what they would like to ask you. It was interesting for me because so many of those individuals had really appeared to internalize that message of ageism that you talk about. Some of the individuals could identify specific examples around their work or their retirement, but many seemed to have internalized this message in an everyday way, and I was very surprised.

Ashton:

I mean, one of the many things I was surprised by early on was to realize that older people were often the most ageist of all, because we've had a lifetime of being garaged by messages that aging is awful, that disability is tragic, that youth is better. And unless we stop to question them, they do become part of our identity and everyone is ageist, no judgment whatsoever on that, but the most important part, and I loved what you said at the beginning of this interview, that you realized like, "Yikes, ageism is everywhere.”

 

Ashton:

Once you see it in yourself, which is essential because we can't challenge bias unless we're aware of it, then you start to see it everywhere. And that, I think, you will agree is liberating. You're like, "Oh, it's not my fault that I got wrinkles. It's not my fault that I lost that job because I had wrinkles or had the audacity to let my gray hair grow gray." The problem is that I live in a society that discriminates against me on that basis, and I think that's liberating.

 

Bruce:

So as you had mentioned, fear is a powerful force for many, and fear generates profit with corporations. So how do we address this dynamic, do you feel, of corporations profiting from the fear of aging?

 

Ashton:

Well, we address it at the individual level by doing the really hard but really rewarding work of challenging that narrative. I mean, no one makes money off satisfaction. And I think a good analogy here is the body acceptance movement. Think of the millions, and millions, and millions of dollars people spent, especially women, on trying to be thinner, trying to conform to some, again, magic ideal, which across the culture as a whole means the ideal ideal is thin, white, male, cisgendered, well-off, and so on. So the further we diverge from that, however many categories we fail to check, the less ideal we are, the less privilege we experience, and the harder some of us try to become other than what we are, and conform to that ideal, which is not good for us, and it's expensive.

 

Ashton:

And as we have learned from the body acceptance movement, if you can accept the fact, and it took me a long time, I mean, really, truly in high school, I thought the fact that my thighs rub together was a deformity, just a ... Well, I mean, I'm laughing a little bit at teenager-hood, but we do see women and man learning to say, "This is what I look like. I'm just fine the way I am and I refuse to ..." We can only be shamed if we buy into it. It's very, very hard to reject the stigma and shame, but it is completely doable. It is a radical act. It is difficult to look in the mirror and instead of saying, "Geez, what the hell happened?" to think about all the things that did happen, how amazing a lot of them were, and that that is the map of your experience and your life on your face to reduce it to a very narrow example.

 

Ashton:

But that is what it takes and it is doable. I mean, if you, for the sake of argument, if the metric were to continue to be sexually active, which is an extremely arbitrary metric, it's just fine to not want to be sexually active, to not aspire to that whatever, but if you look at your friends who are, they are not the thinnest, they're not the youngest, they're not the prettiest, they're not the best-looking. They are the ones who have beaten back this narrative that says you must work a certain way to be desirable. And it's really hard, but it is doable and it's really liberating and rewarding if we can. And it's ongoing.

 

Ashton:

There are mornings when I look in the mirror and say, "What the hell happened?" Believe me. But it is ongoing and we need to engage in it with others, but that is how the culture changes, enough people, or brave enough, or bold enough, or in love enough to hang out in public with a friend or a lover of another race, of another CAFS, whatever. And gradually, that is how we change the norms around racial segregation. Same with age segregation.

 

Ashton:

If there's something you want to do, and you're apprehensive about doing it because you're going to be the only person there your age, try to go anyway, because you will ... A few people might look at you funny, but they're not the people who are going to change the culture. Most people won't pay any attention to you. And some people are going to say, "Wow. This is cool. I can do that when I'm that age. I don't have to stop doing this thing that I like." It's foolish to do things to make yourself look young, that's always fake and artificial, but we need to do our part to age integrate the world around us. As you mentioned, you were doing, when you see ageism, trying to call it out in a tactful way, because if we're silent and just accommodate, of course nothing happened.

 

Bruce:

Highlighting age appropriateness. For example, I'm 62, I love to skateboard. I've boarded since the age of seven. I don't skate to be young, but because I love it. And I know many perceive it as being inappropriate for my "age". Now it's fascinating to watch people's responses to my age inappropriate activity. What do you think of that?

 

Ashton:

I mean, maybe it's just you appropriate. Maybe you're the only person your age doing it. I mean, I would be terrified because I would worry about breaking my skull, but then I never did skateboard, but I ride a bike. I don't ride it as fast as I used to and I wear a helmet, but I do do it and one of the reasons I do it is that I've done it all my life and I feel like I'm channeling the younger me in a way that I don't, I thought about it, I don't think is ageist. I just think it makes me feel good and feel alive. Except for children, there is no such thing as age appropriate.

 

Bruce:

So Ashton, so the workplace. As our population ages, it creates, I feel, great opportunities and challenges with the increased longevity and individuals offering skill and knowledge to build economies. You've referred to this in your work as the experience dividend. Why do you think experience is still viewed as a liability rather than a work place asset, even though the olders unpaid and paid contributions to the economy and communities are huge?

 

Ashton:

The persistence of ageism, given that we live in a hyper capitalist society, given everything we know about diversity in the workplace, being a source of profit for companies, that ageism still trumps even the bottom line tells you something. You could say, which is of course, there's always two sides to everything, that older workers are more expensive, but older workers, again, it's impossible to generalize accurately, but most older people would like flex time, perhaps don't want to work full-time. If you hit your ... In Canada, you have universal health care. Imagine that in the US once you hit 65, we have Medicare. So employers don't have to pay health insurance. There's this persistent myth that old people should get out of the way and make room for younger people in the workforce.

 

Ashton:

That is a fallacy called the fallacy of the lump of labor. It has been debunked countless times. By and large, older and younger people aren't competing for the same jobs. If the only job is at the local gas station, then you will have everyone competing for it, but that's a labor market problem, not a too many old people problem. I mean, ageism is a reason for companies to mark certain workers as disposable, or cheaper. But let me point out that ageism is any judgment on the basis of age and it also affects a lot of younger people. Think of all the young people who have to work as interns for no pay at all, because it's assumed that because they're young, they don't need the money, or they don't bring value. That's ageism too.

 

Ashton:

The reason the gender wage gap persists is because it's profitable, right? So these are larger forces that have to do with the way our society exploits workers of all ages. Even skilled white men, I mean, in Silicon Valley, there are guys getting Botoxed and hair plugged, I referenced this in my TED Talk, and they are skilled, white, able-bodied, well-educated men in their 30s. So imagine the effects further down the food chain. If you were actually older, it's harder. If you were older and female, it's far harder. If you were older and female and not white, it's infinitely harder. That's the idea of intersectionality, that all these different identities and forms of discrimination compound and meet up in each individual life in a different way. So yeah, there's that.

 

Ashton:

You spoke about the opportunities and the challenges, and I really, really like that framing. Sometimes I say, "I'm in the both sides of the story business." It's not that the scary things aren't real, it's not the monster under the bed. It's not that there are not real things to worry about about getting older. It's that running out of money, getting sick, ending up alone, it's that our fears are so out of proportion to the reality and the media feeds those fears, so does the job market. These companies, they want us all scrambling for a crappy job with no pay and no benefits. Good for them.

 

Bruce:

So tying into that fear and uncertainty with workplace being hit by another factor, which we're experiencing right now with COVID-19 scenario, it's creating a lot of financial insecurity for all: falling investments, we're seeing a lot of government debt increasing. So do you see this potentially leading to an older workforce in the future, being olders needing to work?

 

Ashton:

That is a very sophisticated, complex question. And I'm not an economist, let alone a macroeconomist. I think that the same trends that are contributing to uncertain economic and professional future for older people, that younger people are hostage to them too. It's super important to be on the lookout for old versus young framing, because it's never the right way to look at it. These forces, we're all hostage to them. Maybe if your son has a great job because he's young, fine, but then his dad doesn't have work because he's old, I'm oversimplify. Well, obviously the son is, families are multi-generational, communities are multi-generational.

 

Ashton:

There's a great metaphor I love by a public health expert at the Carlos del Rio at Emory who says, "It's why you can't have a lockdown one part of the country. It doesn't make sense during COVID. Or you can't isolate a single aspect of the population, as in older people, for the same reason you can't have a peeing zone in a swimming pool." We are all connected, and if none of the old people could get jobs, it sucks for younger people. If your grandmother has social security, she'll use that to help you. Or she has extra income, social security isn't that much, but she'll help you with your debt. She can buy you a car. She can watch your kids while you go off to your job, where you make money. We are all in this together.

 

Bruce:

That's such a strong point that you used to lead into the topic of interconnectedness session. I just love how you use the term interdependent. Looking at the current state of care centers and how we use descriptors such as dependent, independent, assisted, complex, special, the need to shatter those limiters and build interconnected intergenerational hubs where people live and contribute to the community is so important.

 

Ashton:

I'm glad that you brought it up. I think it's really important. I mean, I would love to snatch the word independent out of the whole aging discourse. No one is independent ever, from birth to death, and "independence" is very, it's absolutely key part of this successful aging model. That you can do it on your own, and that to ask for help signals failure, especially if you're a man, and weakness, and even moral feeling, when the fact is we all need help all the time and there should be no help in asking for it. I think we have a lot to learn from the disability community, which celebrates interdependence, and that is absolutely how it should be.

 

Bruce:

I feel a great example of that interdependence and interconnectedness would be a community development concept actually called ibasho. And it's a Japanese word meaning a place where one feels at ease and a place where one has a role to play. But ibasho, it's more than a place. It's a community that focuses on the benefits of a multi-generational self-governing approach. In the ibasho communities, elders take leadership roles rather than being thought of as old folks say who need to be taken care of. And what's really beautiful about this community concept is that it really sources its strength from its members' ideas and their contributions to the community.

 

Ashton:

And it makes so much sense intuitively. I mean, let's not forget, this is the way humans lived until the industrial revolution. You don't have to explain why it's good for people of all ages to be in contact, because organically intuitively there's just a million reasons why it feels right. The age silos. And I think it was only about 150 years ago that Americans started to even track how old they were. There were one-roomed school houses, and there weren't these divisions of stages of life.

 

Bruce:

So I'm just going to jump out of the interview that I had with Ashton for a second and talk about during this presentation, it was really interesting, and the interview process. I quickly started to learn how the power of simple words and phrasings could reinforce ageist attitudes and beliefs. At one point in our conversation, I spoke of seeing a group of elders as them. It slipped off my tongue and Ashton beautifully used this moment to show the power of that simple word and how it can be perceived.

 

Ashton:

Can I call you out on a tiny thing? One of the little tricks of language that helps shift the way we think about these things is if there is more road behind you than ahead, which as, I'm 68, so there's even more road behind me, olders are not them. They are us. And I don't mean to pick on you. I have been in a room full of people in aging services, not a brown hair in the room and they are still talking about older people as them. And that is an evidence, it's just a little sort of tell if you will, like in poker, that the person is, and we all do this, no judgment, but is still seeing older people as other, and seeing age as something that happens to other people. And it is in that denial, that ageism takes root.

 

Bruce:

What would be your dream for how a community could provide care for olders that need it while reducing isolation and loneliness? How would you see a community supporting those who require care?

 

Ashton:

I would frame it exactly the way you did in the second half of that sentence. Rather than how can we help olders, how can we all help each other. And strip age out of it entirely. I mean, I'm still rocketing around and supporting myself, I'm rocketing around a lot slower than I used to, but when I think of the stage of life in which I needed the most help, it was when I had two babies. So how do we create a community that supports all of its members with the kind of care we need at different stages of life? And how do we in a sort of more, I don't know, maybe it's spiritual or broader social, psychological sense, see these as two-way transactions? There are some really radical people in the caregiving field that reject the word caregiver because it implies that one person is giving and the other is getting. We know that these are reciprocal exchanges.

 

Ashton:

I've been in a conference where someone has said, "Raise your hand if you like to help people," and every hand goes up. "And then raise your hand if you like to receive help," and nobody raises their hand, because we're conditioned to believe that asking, as I touched on, signals weakness, and signals that you're a loser, signals that you're not succeeding anymore at this aging business anymore. And that's a false binary. I mean, at one point my working title for this project was binaries are bad. There is no dependent, independent binary. There is no old, young division. There is no mobile, immobile things. All these things are spectrums. And that's why it's one of the reasons I like my term for older people, which I say olders and youngers.

 

Ashton:

And honestly, I came up with it as internal shorthand when I was writing my book, because I literally got tired of typing older people, or older adults. And I realized at some point this works. I mean, I am a writer. I am a leery of neologisms, but one of the reasons I like olders and youngers is that it gets away from this binary. People are like, "When does old begin? When am I going to wake up on the wrong side of the velvet rope when everything falls apart and no one's going to look at me or talk to me anymore?" There is no such point. We age in relation to others.

 

 

Ashton:

Mrs. McGillicuddy will assure you that she is younger than Mrs. So-and-So down the hall, who is 104, and she's only 98. A four-year-old will assure you she is much older than her sister who is three. Age is dynamic. It's a spectrum. It's just binaries are never our friend. Straight, gay. Gender, we used to think most of us in terms of two sexes. And now we know that's not the case. If we can shift our thinking that radically, most of us, in such a short term around gender, why are we still hung up on this old, young thing?

 

Bruce:

Since you've been involved with ageism advocacy, where have you seen the greatest changes and what has been the most difficult to change?

 

Ashton:

The thing that's changed the most is the thing that's most difficult to change, which is people's internalized attitudes, undoing our own conditioning. There's an analogy about an elephant, that you can tie an elephant up with a clothesline when it's little, and the same rope will do the job when the elephant has grown because it's never thought to push back against these preconceptions. And that's what consciousness raising does, that's the tool that catalyzed the women's movement because it brought women together and they said, "Well, I can't get hired. My boss keeps patting my butt, my husband won't give me money," whatever. And they realized that these were not personal problems and shortcomings. They were widely shared political problems that we could come together and do something about.

 

Ashton:

I see that happening. I see a movement against ageism gaining speed and gaining traction. And if you think that's delusional, I would love for you to tell your listeners about a website called Old School, oldschool.info, which is, yeah, it's a clearing house of free vetted anti-ageism resources: videos, workshops, books, tools, everything on it is free except the books. And when we started it, I started it with two other colleagues three years ago now, and we didn't have a campaign section. It's one of the fastest growing sections, and this is not about how to live forever, or how to be healthy, or how to have a good attitude. These are explicitly anti-ageism campaigns.

 

Ashton:

The call I was on immediately before this podcast was with two scholars in Israel who are launching a site in Israel about raising awareness of ageism and what we can do about it. So it is slowly but surely gaining traction. And one of the reasons I'm so optimistic about it is that I see, certainly in the progressive end of culture, that people do have an understanding, which was not the case when Robert Butler coined the term ageism in 1968, of the way ageism, and ableism, which is prejudice against people with disabilities, and racism, and homophobia, are all linked. All these prejudices compound and reinforce each other. As we saw incredibly powerfully this summer with the black lives matter movement and their support of black, disabled people, of black, trans people, because, it sounds corny, but it's true, none of us are free till all of us are free. We are not going to undo ageism without confronting ableism, without confronting the way all these prejudices reinforce and depend on each other. But when we chip away at any one of them, we chip away at the fear and ignorance that underlie them all.

Ashton:

So activism compounds itself as well. And I think the culture, to add age, age is still missing often from criteria for diversity, from what do you think of as the oppressions? People will say racism and sexism, and ageism is often not there yet, but when I say, "What about age?" No one smacks their head and says, "That's a dumb idea." They say, "Why didn't I think of that? Obviously." So I think hitching age to that sled, to this cultural awareness and momentum that has gotten, I think, a tremendous push from black lives matter this summer, is a much smaller ask than it was to say, "Gee, women should get the same salary as men," in 1970, and as it still remains, frankly, because of the hideous way racism is baked into the history of the United States. But I think ageism is an easier ask and I think we really get, I know we're gaining momentum.

 

Bruce:

Now, if you had the opportunity to sit down with anybody and discuss ageism, does somebody come to mind?

 

Ashton:

It's funny. I don't see it that way. I'm sure I'll come up with the perfect person the minute I hang up the phone, but because what I want to do and what we hope Old School will do is to help catalyze a grassroots movement. I am more interested in what would be the thing I could put in the most ... Reach the most number of people with. And I can tell you what idea that would be, what fact that would be, is the fact that the longer we live, the more different from one another we become. The older the person, the less their age says about what they are capable of physically, socially, cognitively. So all stereotypes are dumb and wrong, but they are especially ignorant when it comes to age.

 

Ashton:

And I think ageism is based in stereotypes about older people, just like racism is about racial stereotypes and so on. And there's nothing could possibly be true of everyone of a certain age. And the examples are all around us. I mean, think of your high school or college reunion, the further out from school you are, the more different people look because we have each continued ... Every newborn is unique, but 17-year-olds have a lot more in common developmentally, and socially, and cognitively than 37-year-olds and so on out. So any generalization about older people is wrong.

Bruce:

So Ashton, as you look to the future, do you have any specific projects or areas that you wish to focus on?

 

Ashton:

I'm just plugging along doing what I'm doing. COVID has been tough because I made my living as a public speaker. You might as well say you bred dinosaurs. So I'm having to figure out how to adapt what I say and do to this new world, certain aspects of which will, I think, be permanent, and parts of which are great. I can now reach a lot more people from my living room table without having to spend a day getting to Montana and back, for which I'm grateful. My work hasn't ... The big takeaway from the summer from COVID and black lives matter also to some degree, which forced me to learn more and understand better the idea, the forces behind intersectionality and the way different prejudices compound and reinforce each other. I have started digging much more deeply into disability, thinking much more deeply about the ways in which ageism and ableism are intertwined, because so much of our fear about aging is rooted in fear of physical and cognitive changes, which is actually ableism.

 

Ashton:

And there are these wild paradoxes, I mean, to be successfully disabled, images are all younger people with visible disabilities, for the most part, although many disabilities, of course, are not. To age "successfully" on the other hand is fit, older, white people doing expensive athletic things. So we pretend that they don't intersect. And even to the point, this is such an interesting idea to me and such an awful one, that the sort of remedy for ageism in some people's minds is ableism, right? The way to not fall prey to ageism is to remain disability free somehow by magic, right? And to disassociate yourself from other people who experience physical or cognitive decline, which is of course comes at the expense of everyone with disabilities and your own future self as you encounter in capacity, which we are all going to do in some way. So how do we acknowledge that aging and disability are different?

 

Ashton:

The flip side of that is that the equation of old and disabled, which occurs all over the place, right? This paradox is also problematic, right? Because people, tons of younger people have disabilities, tons of older people do not, but how do we acknowledge that they do intersect in certain powerful ways and that to acknowledge that will help us build as activists and help us reduce the dual stigma of age and incapacity.

 

Ashton:

Younger people with disability, justice community is amazing. It is filled with people who say, "I am who I am because of my disability. I own it. It is integral to who I am." And of course think how much we olders could learn from that, not rejecting who we are or hiding it or being ashamed of it, but saying, "Heck yes." And I love pointing out that in fact, no one actually wants to be at a young [inaudible 00:47:02]. No one wants to roll that truck back to their youth. They think they do, their eyes light up and then they go ... And then I'm just like, I say, "No, you don't just get to swap out the battered bits. You have to erase the board and go back to where you were." And no one wants to do that because we know that our years are what make us us, just as people with disabilities know that however their brains or bodies work, it's integral to who they are.

 

Ashton:

And I was just reading, I've been reading a lot about this, it's so interesting, that just as older people report higher satisfaction with life than younger people, people with disabilities report higher life satisfaction too. These things adapting to these things enrich us, and they are part of being human. And to address the ways in which they intersect and enrich our lives, I think there's enormous power there. So that's what I'm thinking about whenever I am not just trying to keep the daily stuff going.

 

Bruce:

What has surprised you most about working in this area of advocacy and ageism?

 

Ashton:

I mean, if you had told me 15 years ago that I would be fascinated by aging, I would have said, "Why do I want to think about something yucky and depressing all day long?" And it's anything but, it's how we move through life. For a generalist like me, it's the biggest canvas there is. And if you had said, "Well, why do you want to think about aging and disability? What's scarier than old people?" Well, crippled old people. Oh my God. And it just gets richer and more interesting all the time

Bruce:

In closing, Ashton, do you have any advice on how individuals can start to become more aware of ageism and ageist attitudes and possible suggestions for them so they could start to create change in this area?

 

Ashton:

I mean, a metaphor I use is that it's like letting a genie out of a bottle. Once you see it in yourself, you see it everywhere. But I find that comforting. It's like, "Oh, it's not my bad. It's not something I did wrong. It's in the culture. The culture, there's these massive social and economic forces that want me to think this way. And I'm going to try bit by bit to reject that dogma and try to learn to see differently." And it just gets richer and more interesting all the time.

 

Bruce:

Thank you for listening to The Creatively Engaging, and a very, very big thank you to Ashton for being my guest today. Now, Ashton was an incredible resource on ageism and ageist attitudes and beliefs, but for some more great resources, check out www.oldschool.info, I-N-F-O, a clearing house of free and carefully vetted resources to educate people about ageism and how to dismantle it. And also talks about her latest book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. It's available in paperback, ebook, Kindle, iBook, audiobook from Amazon, Apple, BNN, Bookshop, and Indiebound. Oh, and I almost forgot, I have six copies of This Chair Rocks in paperback.

 

Bruce:

And if you would like to get one of those six copies, this is what you need to do. You need to go to thecreativelyengaging.com website, and on the front page, in the bottom right corner, you're going to see a little microphone. You will click on that little microphone and you will answer these three questions, it will send me a message. So the first question is who inspired Ashton Applewhite? The second question, how many people have listened to her TED Talk? And the third question, what website can you access a huge supply of anti-ageism materials? Just click on that little microphone, do the recording, it's a voice recording, add your email and hit send. And the first six people to submit those answers, I will send you a copy of the book.

 

Bruce:

The soundbed for today's podcast was captured during a warmup session with Matthew Lovegrove of Woodland Telegraph. And if you would like to see a transcript of this podcast, please visit www.thecreativelyengaging.com. And the next Creatively Engaging podcast, my guest will be Gary Glazner, poet, all around fun guy from the Alzheimer's Poetry Project. And that will happen Wednesday, February 24th.