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Anti-ageism activist and author Ashton Applewhite is a leading voice in an emerging movement dedicated to dismantling ageism and making age a criterion for diversity. She will visit Santa Barbara for two events, including a talk at the library on May 18th and a Town Hall on May 19th.
By Kerry Methner, PhD / VOICE
Don’t say, “You look great for your age!” to Ashton Applewhite, unless you’re ready to hear, “You look great for your age, too!”
Applewhite, the keynote speaker at the upcoming May 19th Town Hall, is grounded in the knowledge that what she has to say is critical for everyone. Her talk will lay the groundwork for many of the issues she has helped put on a growing national agenda – including the power of Age Pride.
“While ‘entrepreneur’ might conjure up an image of a kid in that proverbial garage, twice as many successful American entrepreneurs are over age 50 as in their early 20s,” Applewhite writes in her book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. It’s an example of just some of the empowering information she shares about what it can mean to be older for a vast majority of people.
Applewhite paints a very different picture of aging than our culture usually allows. She asks, “Ever wonder what it will be like to be ‘older?’” (Some of us might shudder.) According to her research, the very way you think and feel about that question will go a long way toward determining what you experience as you get there – physically, mentally, socially. Unfortunately, in the States, and even in California, the knee-jerk learned response is usually, “Awful!”
Applewhite says that doesn’t have to be the case and sets out to turn it around.
“Any prophecy about debility,” she explains in her book, “whether or not it comes true, dampens our aspirations and damages our sense of self – especially when it comes to brainpower. That damage is magnified by the glum and widespread assumption that, somewhere down the line, dementia is inevitable. Living and aging cannot be separated. Aging is not a disease. (Otherwise life, too, would be a disease.) Aging cannot be ‘cured.’ Aging means living. As Anne Karpf told NPR’s Brian Lehrer, ‘You can no more be anti-aging than anti-breathing.”
Applewhite took time out to share her thoughts in a telephone interview in preparation for her Santa Barbara visit, which includes a Thematic Learning Initiative event at the Santa Barbara Public Library on Friday, May 18th and her participation and keynote on Saturday at Campbell Hall.
“The reason I started this [exploration] was because I was so afraid of this. There are dragons under the bed... I’m one of the first to look for them. But aging and dying is different. The act of looking is hugely liberating!” She recommends, “Just Look!”
It is true that just the thought of what our culture says aging is all about is daunting... wrinkles, wheelchairs, memory loss, dependency (and Depends!), even gray hair... it all signals the worst a youth-oriented culture has to offer its older members.
“If aging is awful,” she asks, “how come no one would go back to their youth?” Adding, what most people experience is an increase is happiness as they age, “it’s the way our brains work!”
Applewhite points out that all these misconstrued ideas about the lived experience of getting older are possible because we objectify those who are older. She, philosophers, social scientists, activists, and more, label this process “othering.”
“Broadly speaking, ‘othering’ is seeing a group as other than yours,” she explained. “According to Robert Butler, with ageism, over time young people cease relating to older people. They [olders] become alien and less worthy, and their human rights become less important.”
How this translates or is experienced, over time is that “the other” is our own future self. “It is a form of self-loathing,” Applewhite concludes.
Instead, Applewhite suggests that we become an Old Person in Training. This develops a continuum of relationship rather than a polarization from our future self.
“Becoming an Old Person in Training is a political act, because it derails this shame and self-loathing. It undoes the ‘otherness’ that powers ageism (and racism, and nationalism). It makes room for empathy, and action. It robs the caricatures of crone or geezer of their power and frees us to become our full – our ageful – selves,” she writes.
To make a start at adopting this new perspective we need to, “Learn to look more generously at each other and ourselves.” This kinder more related look is in contrast to what happens every day, wherever we look. Our current culture is “drowning out all but the negative oppressive script.” And it is inside each of us!
“Most bias is unconscious,” she explained. “Consciousness raising catalyzed the women’s movement.” And so she recommends upping our awareness of bias with consciousness raising. Her website offers a host of tools, including instructions on how to start a Consciousness Raising group. It is literally a clearing house of information.
Applewhite finds joy in this process of consciousness raising. She related, “I feel more confident, I know myself better, and am less self-conscious. I feel liberated by getting older.”
This doesn’t mean she thinks that everything about being older is easy, or that everyone needs to run marathons.
“I don’t mean people should be ‘super olders’ but our fears are out of proportion,” she clarified. “I should be less afraid. Fear makes us stupid and works against us.”
She also recognizes that there needs to be more research, including on how ageism impacts us on a cellular and wholistic health level.
“We know people heal faster with a positive attitude about aging, and that it’s a protection against dementia,” she noted.
When asked about how to approach raising consciousness Applewhite is quick to note, it will take a variety of approaches. “I use logic. You know you’re going to get older. You’ve got to stop pretending and acknowledge the voice that knows you’re getting older. Oldness is not other. Older’s make huge economic contributions.”
But she feels it will also take a spiritual and psychological approach as well. “We have to literally see older people.” That means in ways we like and ways we don’t. “Make a catalogue or a Pinterest!” she related. “But don’t make it just about what you want.” She recommends making it include the range... strong, happy, grumpy, in a wheel chair, running a marathon.
Then she asks, “What’s your terror?” She recommends exploring it... and then combating it. Dream, journal, read Jung, learn about elderhood. It all helps.
The research strongly supports that people with good social networks stay healthy. “Develop a robust social network and reach out to older people to see good examples,” she recommended, adding, “Learning to see differently is a radical act. We have an ethical obligation to change the way we look...Less ageism = less Alzheimer’s. It’s that clear.”
On her website she’s provided a collective action tool, a blog, information about creating a consciousness raising group, and a link to her “Yo, is this ageist?” website (www.yoisthisageist.com)
She divides the work into three steps: Awareness; Integration; and Activism.
“Once you get past the idea that ‘I’m complicit’ you start to see ageism all around you and realize it’s not just you. You become angry, but that is better than being afraid.”
SAGE is a corporate supporter of the UCSB Arts & Lectures 2017-18 season. Media Sponsors are Noozhawk and Pacific Standard.
Books will be available for purchase and signing at the Town Hall.
For tickets for the Town Hall ($5) call 893-3535 or visit
Ashton Applewhite’s resume is impressive. She is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and a TED2017 mainstage speaker.
In 2016, Applewhite joined the PBS site Next Avenue’s annual list of 50 Influencers in Aging as their Influencer of the Year. She has been recognized by The New York Times, NPR, and the American Society on Aging as an expert on ageism. She has written for Harper’s, Playboy, and The New York Times and speaks widely at venues that have ranged from universities and community centers to the Library of Congress and the United Nations.
Her first serious book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, was published by HarperCollins in 1997. It was inspired by the puzzlement: Why was our notion of women’s lives after divorce so different from the happy and energized reality? Ms. magazine called it “rocket fuel for launching new lives.” Writing under the name Blanche Knott, Applewhite is also the author of the humor collection Truly Tasteless Joes, a bestselling paperback of 1982. She was a clue on Jeopardy (Question: “Who is the author of Truly Tasteless Jokes? Answer: “Blanche Knott.”). As Blanche Knott, she made publishing history by occupying four of the 15 spots on The New York Times bestseller list.
Find more info, her blog, and resources at www.thischairrocks.com • twitter @thischairrocks