Who’s Afraid of Ageing?

DENVER AND NEW YORK VIA SKYPE—With her characteristic “let’s talk about it” approach to problems and wry sense of humor, Ashton Applewhite, an activist and expert on ageing, is taking the world to task for ageism. A decade ago, while in her 50s, Ms. Applewhite came to a life-changing realization—that she was afraid of ageing. But she wasn’t about to let her fear get the best of her. She took action and learned as much as possible about ageing and older people. Her journey kicked off with extensive research on longevity and hours spent interviewing people in their 80s still working and leading fulfilling lives.

A decade later, she speaks widely in person and on media outlets; her 2017 TED talk “Let’s End Ageism” has over a million views and counting. She also writes articles and a blog called “This Chair Rocks.” Her book with the same name was recently picked up by Celadon, a new imprint of Macmillan, Inc., and will be published in February 2019 on their inaugural list. Although her focus is primarily older people, who she says bear the brunt of ageism, she’s quick to point out that ageism cuts both ways and impacts young as well as old.’s Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp recently spoke with Ms. Applewhite about ageism with an emphasis on how it affects women especially. EXCERPTS:

KIRSCH FELDKAMP: Why do you think aging and ageism are difficult to talk about and understand, and why are people resistant?

ASHTON APPLEWHITE: There is a conflation between ageing and dying and I think that is a function of ageist society to a large degree. Fear of dying is human. It’s why we have religion. It’s why we have cathedrals. But fear of ageing is socially constructed. There are societies that venerate their older members and where people look forward to getting old because they can put their feet up and young people will wait on them. I think another huge hurdle is American society which is incredibly consumer driven. So people want to make money off it. Ageing is also hugely medicalized. Facelifts cost a lot of money. So do costly end of life interventions. There are so many positive aspects to getting older and society drowns out all but the negative.


You talk about the shame associated with aging and how that holds us back. Can you tell us where this shame comes from and how it impacts us?

It is shame and stigma that reinforce the status quo, that make us think that we are personally flawed and internally imposed shame and stigma is more damaging [than externally imposed shame]. We live in a society that worships speed and physical and cognitive perfection and it would be a far better world if it had a more diverse and inclusive and generous view of what it meant to be human.

In your TED talk, you say, “We can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it.” Some people might say things are fine, why do we need to change? What would you say to them?

I would say, “White man, what are you doing only hanging out with white men.” [joking]. I would frame it in terms of equality and an equal shot at things. Do you see other people around you having access to the same salary and the same opportunities and the same education and the same food and the same leisure? If not, what obstacles do you see in their way? The longer I spend thinking about this the more important intersectionality is to me and the more I am coming to understand that it’s all one struggle. I would now contradict that slightly to say that age is not often on people’s radar and I would add to that sentence of do they have equality across x, y, and z, do they have it across the life course because we’re really talking about a world in which we age out of having value as a human being.

Can you walk us through how sexism makes aging harder for women?

It’s not having a vagina that makes life harder for women, it’s sexism. It’s not loving a man that makes life harder for gay guys, it’s homophobia. That’s back to the social context and cultural context in which we age that makes it so damn hard. Ageing is harder for women because it goes hand in hand with sexism. All forms of discrimination compound and reinforce each other. Women are judged more harshly for our appearance. Susan Sontag called it the double standard of ageing, that ageing enhances men and devalues women. And we reinforce that double standard when we compete to look young. I even learned recently that economists have a name for it and it’s called the attractiveness penalty in the way that it plays out in the workforce. Plus, there are many ways in which women are disadvantaged in the workforce almost before age comes into it. Employers stop investing in women’s careers 10 years before they stop investing in men’s. The rates start to diverge for men and women at age 32. Not because you’re ugly yet– that’s the good news, you’re not ugly yet [joking]–but you might be fertile. Around the world for the most part we don’t conduct [health research] on older people just because they’re not young anymore but it really falls off on women. It’s very hard to find health data on women over age 55 because we cease to be reproductively useful. So that’s another way that ageism and sexism converge.

What are some of the biggest myths about ageing that need to be dispelled?

The bedrock of all prejudice is stereotyping—the notion that all members of a group are the same—and of course all stereotypes are wrong. But they’re especially absurd when it comes to ageing because each of us ages at different rates physically, cognitively and socially. So, the longer we live the more different we become. This idea that older [people] belong to a homogenous group is absurd and even more inaccurate than any other stereotype.

Do you have any thoughts on a correlation between elder abuse and ageism?

A culture that doesn’t value older people doesn’t value programs that assist them. We talk about child abuse all the time, giant headlines as there should be, [and] we talk about domestic abuse, but when’s the last time you had a conversation about elder abuse. Another problem is that a lot of older people are ashamed to ask for help and think they may not deserve it and that is

internalized ageism. It is shocking that a society would feel that its older members are less deserving of the same basic protections that younger people get.

What can we do as women and girls to combat ageism globally?

Counterintuitively the first step is to look for ways in which you are ageist instead of for evidence that you’re not. Once you start to look at your own attitude towards age and ageing, the language you use, the judgements you make, think about where they come from and what purpose they serve. Once you start to see ageism in the culture where it is ubiquitous, it’s liberating. That’s when we start to see that it is a function of society and not just our doing. And I think for women a useful analogy is the body acceptance movement. Who wants you to think you’re fat? Weight Watchers. Who wants you to think you’re ugly? The billion-dollar cosmetics industry. So, analogously, I just learned this fantastic phrase [cognitive liberation] from a sociologist. [It’s] not being aware of a stigma, [then becoming] aware of it but thinking that’s just the way it is, [then] realizing that it is unjust [and finally] realizing we can come together and do something about it. So let’s make a movement ladies.

by Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp

Photos: Featured image of Ashton Applewhite credit TED. Body, top left photo Ms. Applewhite credit Adrian Buckmaster. Body, bottom right Ms. Applewhite credit Bevin Farrand.


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