In our youth obsessed culture, we’re bombarded by media images and messages about the despairs and declines of our later years. Beauty and pharmaceutical companies work overtime to convince people to purchase products that will retain their youthful appearance and vitality. Wrinkles are embarrassing. Gray hair should be colored and bald heads covered with implants. Older minds and bodies are too frail to keep up with the pace of the modern working world and olders should just step aside for the new generation.
Ashton Applewhite once held these beliefs too until she realized where this prejudice comes from and the damage it does. Lively, funny, and deeply researched, This Chair Rocks traces her journey from apprehensive boomer to pro-aging radical, and in the process debunks myth after myth about late life. Explaining the roots of ageism in history and how it divides and debases, Applewhite examines how ageist stereotypes cripple the way our brains and bodies function, looks at ageism in the workplace and the bedroom, exposes the cost of the all-American myth of independence, critiques the portrayal of elders as burdens to society, describes what an all-age-friendly world would look like, and offers a rousing call to action.
It’s time to create a world of age equality by making discrimination on the basis of age as unacceptable as any other kind of bias. Whether you’re older or hoping to get there, this book will shake you by the shoulders, cheer you up, make you mad, and change the way you see the rest of your life. Age pride!
“Wow. This book totally rocks. It arrived on a day when I was in deep confusion and sadness about my age. Everything about it, from my invisibility to my neck. Within four or five wise, passionate pages, I had found insight, illumination, and inspiration. I never use the word empower, but this book has empowered me.”
—Anne Lamott, New York Times bestselling author
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WHERE AGEISM COMES FROM AND WHAT IT DOES
When geriatrician Robert Butler coined the term "ageism" in 1969 — not long after "sexism" made its debut — he defined it as a combination of prejudicial attitudes toward older people, old age, and aging itself; discriminatory practices against olders; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about them. The term was quickly adopted by the media and added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Almost half a century later, it's barely made inroads into public consciousness, not to mention provoked outcry.
Negative messages about aging cast a shadow across the entire life of every American, stunting our prospects, economy, and civic life. This is oppression: being controlled or treated unjustly. However, most Americans have yet to put their concerns about aging in a social or political context. When I ask people if they know what ageism is, most reflect for a moment, compare the word to other "isms," and realize what it must mean. The concept rings true, and they nod. But it's still a new idea to most. And unless social oppression is called out, we don't see it as oppression. Perpetuating it doesn't require conscious prejudice or deliberate discrimination. This lesser life is "just the way it is," and the way it probably always will be.
IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS
In most prehistoric and agrarian societies, the few people who lived to old age were esteemed as teachers and custodians of culture. Religion gave older men power. History was a living thing passed down across generations. This oral tradition took a serious hit with the invention of the printing press, when books became alternative repositories of knowledge. As long as old age remained relatively rare, though, olders retained social standing as possessors of valuable skills and information. The young United States was a gerontocracy, which served the older men who held the reins; younger citizens had to age into positions of authority.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a reversal. Modernity brought massive transitions that reduced the visibility of older members of society, diminished their opportunities, and eroded their authority. Rapid social change made learning about the past seem less relevant. Aging turned from a natural process into a social problem to be "solved" by programs like Social Security and "retirement villages." The nursing home, a "shotgun marriage of the poorhouse and the hospital" in geriatrician Bill Thomas's memorable phrase, came into being and created a growth industry. The historians Thomas R. Cole and David Hackett Fischer have documented how, at the start of the nineteenth century, the idea of aging as part of the human condition, with its inevitable limits, increasingly gave way to a conception of old age as a biomedical problem to which there might be a scientific solution. What was lost was a sense of the life span, with each stage having value and meaning.
Propelled by postwar leisure and prosperity, the explosion of consumer culture, and research into a stage of life newly dubbed "adolescence," youth culture emerged as a distinct twentieth-century phenomenon. As this "cult of youth" grew, gerontophobia — fear of aging and dislike, even hatred, of old people — gained traction. Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and '70s were warned not to trust anyone over thirty, perhaps the first overt exhortation to take sides across a generational divide. The decades beyond thirty appeared ever less enviable. "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?" crooned the Beatles.
GROWING OLD HAS BECOME SHAMEFUL
The status of older Americans is rooted not only in historic and economic circumstances but also in deeply human fears about the inherent vulnerabilities of old age: the loss of mobility, visibility, and autonomy. Not all of these transitions befall us all, and only two unwelcome ones are inevitable: We'll lose people we've known all our lives, and some part of our bodies will fall apart. These changes are natural. But we live in a culture that has yet to develop the language and tools to help us deal with them. That's partly because these changes make us feel vulnerable, partly because longer lives are such a new phenomenon, and partly because of ageism, both internalized and in the culture at large. As a result, all too often these transitions are characterized by shame and loss of self-esteem.
Internalized, these fears and anxieties pave the way for a host of unhealthy behaviors that include denial, overcompensation, and worse: actual contempt, which legitimizes stigma and discrimination. Two characteristics of marginalized populations are self-loathing and passivity — what my daughter tactfully dubbed the "yuck/pity factor" that the prospect of growing old invokes in so many.
As a friend who bought a house from a wheelchair user observed, "Damn, it's nice to have wide doorways, and a toilet positioned this way — they should just do it for everyone." That's the premise of universal design — that products designed for older people and people with disabilities work great for everyone else too. Age-friendly products improve the built environment and make it more accessible, but stigma keeps them off the market. Realtors advise removing ramps and grip bars before putting a house on the market, as though no buyer could see accessibility as a bonus or aging into it as a necessity. Alas, thanks to internalized ageism, they've got a point.
Stigma trumps even the bottom line. There's a fast-growing "silver market," especially for products that promote "age-independence technology," yet advertisers continue to pay a premium to target eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-olds. Despite the significant purchasing power of older buyers, retailers are uneasy about stocking products for them and companies are leery of investing. Unless they're selling health aids, brands don't want to be associated with the no-longer-young set either. Just as telling is the resistance of older consumers themselves to buying products that might telegraph poor eyesight or balance.
Instead we blame ourselves for a vast range of circumstances not of our making and over which we have no control. Difficulties turn us into "problem people." When labels are hard to read or handrails missing or containers hard to open, we fault ourselves for not being more limber or dexterous or better prepared. Watching an older person struggling to heave herself out of a low chair, we assume her leg muscles are weak or her balance is shot, instead of considering the inadequacies of seating so deep or low to the ground. If we see a teenager perched on a kindergartener's chair, we don't bemoan the fact that his legs got so huge. Kiddie chairs aren't designed for teenagers any more than armchairs are designed for ninety-year-olds.
As we age, we blame ourselves for a vast range of circumstances not of our making and over which we have no control.
The issue is not competence, or incompetence, but it's hard to keep sight of that in an ageist world. These obstacles are less of a problem than the underlying policies and prejudices that reduce access and independence. We blame our own aging, instead of the ageism that renders these natural transitions shameful and these barriers acceptable. Discrimination — not aging — is the barrier to full participation in the world around us.
AGEISM MAKES US DREAD OUR FUTURES
It doesn't make much sense to discriminate against a group that we aspire to join. Or to rail about olders sucking up "entitlements"— which they earned — when both the need and the antagonism will come our way in turn. Ageism is a prejudice against our own future selves, as Todd Nelson and many other age scholars have observed, and has the dubious distinction of being the only "ism" related to a universal condition. It takes root in denial of the fact that we're going to get old. That we are aging. Its hallmark is the irrational insistence that older people are Other, not Us — not even future us — and we go to great lengths to distance ourselves from that future state. "My mom is ninety, but she's not old," someone insisted to me not long ago, as though it were contagious. We exaggerate difference and overlook what we have in common, as with older people who spurn senior centers "full of old people in wheelchairs" lest they be tarnished by association.
In childhood we're maddened when grown-ups don't treat us with respect — that's ageism too — but unable to imagine that our speech will someday quaver, skin crease, gait falter. Over time it gets harder to sustain that illusion, and a punitive psychological bind tightens its grip. Unless we come to terms with the transition, we hate what we are becoming. Historian David Hackett Fischer is blisteringly clear about the implications of this damaging divide, "destructive most of all to those who adopt it — for in the end it is always directed inward upon the mind it occupies." That's the nature of prejudice: always ignorant, usually hostile. It begins as a distaste for others, and in the case of age (as opposed to race or sex), it turns into distaste for oneself.
This self-hatred takes many forms. It's manifest in the widespread effort to "pass" for younger, the way people of color have passed for white and gay people for straight; behavior spurred both by the desire to protect ourselves from discrimination and by internalized disgust. It underlies disparaging comments like, "I know that this isn't true of anyone else in the room, but I'm not getting any younger" and "You don't have to say when I graduated," both of which I've heard verbatim from people on the front lines of aging policy. You'd think they'd be a little more self-aware, but many are invested in deficit models of aging. They're experts in the important task of caring for the frailest and neediest — that's how they get funded and promoted — and they have yet to reconcile that view of old age with what lies ahead for themselves. At the other end of the spectrum, many experts are proponents of the successful aging model, which holds that healthy behaviors and "can-do" strategies can hold aging at bay. That's still denial, a high-end version that tends to overlook the very important role of socioeconomic class and potential disability in shaping how "successfully" we age.
We're so busy feeling young that we stay blind to the ageism in and around us and never learn to defend ourselves against it. Older people tend to identify with younger ones as strongly as youngers themselves do. Other groups that experience prejudice, like gays or people with autism, develop buffers that can reinforce group identity, and even pride, at belonging to what sociologists call an out-group. Olders are apparently the only group whose attitudes about old age are as disparaging as those held by the in-group, the young. Talk about not wanting to belong to any club that would have you as a member! Which would be funnier, and a lot less ironic, if it weren't the club that everyone is counting on getting into.
AGEISM LEGITIMIZES ABUSE, AND ACTUALLY SHORTENS LIVES
Why are stereotypes so insidious? Because when they apply to others, there's no need to defend ourselves against them. They're easily, often unconsciously, absorbed into our ways of thinking. Stereotyping obstructs empathy, cutting people off from the experience of others — even if, as is the case with ageism, those "others" are our own future selves. "Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different than themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings," Robert Butler wrote in Why Survive? Being Old in America, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. When we see people as other than us — other color, other nationality, other religion — their welfare seems less of a human right. That's why at least five out of six cases of elder abuse go unreported.
Elder abuse can take many forms: neglect or abandonment; physical abuse (including the inappropriate use of drugs or confinement); emotional abuse such as intimidation or humiliation; sexual abuse; healthcare fraud; and financial exploitation. Because of ageism, elder abuse is less familiar to emergency room staff and law enforcement officers than other forms of domestic violence, and the public is less equipped to recognize it. "If nobody knows that I'm being abused, or I never hear about elder abuse and I think I'm the only one it's happening to, I'm embarrassed and ashamed so I just keep my mouth shut," explains Mary Anne Corasaniti, ex-director of New York State's Onondaga County elder abuse program. It's why some people rationalize exploiting olders with the repugnant excuse that the person is too old to notice.
Condescension alone actually shortens lives. What professionals call "elderspeak"— the belittling "sweeties" and "dearies" that people use to address older people — does more than rankle. It reinforces stereotypes of incapacity and incompetence, which leads to poorer health, including shorter life spans. People with positive perceptions of aging actually live longer — a whopping seven and a half years longer, on average — in part because they're motivated to take better care of themselves. Dementia confers no immunity. Nursing home residents with severe Alzheimer's have been shown to react aggressively to infantilizing language. Overaccommodation also harms — behavior like using simpler words and sentences or speaking louder and more slowly than we would to a younger person, instead of first ascertaining that the person is in fact confused or hard of hearing. Targets of this demeaning behavior appear to "instantly age," speaking, moving, and thinking less capably.
Internalized stereotypes also interfere with the value that people place on their own lives. Take the sad story of Bob Bergeron, a therapist in New York whose suicide at forty-seven took his friends by surprise. Described as "relentlessly cheery," Bergeron had friends and family, financial security, and no history of depression. Extraordinarily beautiful as a young man, he was writing a self-help guide called The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. In Bergeron's suicide note, next to an arrow pointing to the title page of his manuscript, he wrote, "It's a lie based on bad information." He was new to the struggles of the writing life and alone on New Year's Eve; not a good combination. Belonging to a subculture that fetishizes youthful beauty and conventional sexual prowess did him no favors either. Bergeron's greater tragedy, though, was to inhabit a world so bereft of alternative narratives that dread overtook him. That's why we need more rich, complex stories that shrug off the mantle of decline and show there's no "right" or "wrong" side to forty — or any other age.
In another study, people were exposed to negative or positive stereotypes of old age, then asked to request or reject life-prolonging medical treatment in a hypothetical situation. As expected, the negatively primed subjects were more likely to opt out. We see these values in the cultural controversy around assisted suicide, where the indignation index drops sharply when the population in question consists of the very old or severely disabled. Conversations need to factor into a cultural climate that barrages the old and disabled with the message that their lives are not worthwhile, nor worth paying for.
American culture barrages the old and disabled with the message that their lives are not worthwhile, nor worth paying for.
Euthanizing older people has a history in fiction that goes back at least as far as the Victorian-era novelist Anthony Trollope. Published in 1882, his novel The Fixed Period proposed mandatory euthanasia at age sixty-eight, ostensibly to relieve suffering. In satirist Christopher Buckley's novel Boomsday, Millennials rise up. The movement's prophetic leader urges folks to stop paying taxes that subsidize retirement, and create financial incentives for Boomers to commit suicide. The description of a seminar hosted by New York University in June 2013 called "Love and Let Die: An All-Day Consideration of Ballooning Longevity, the Quality of Life, and the Coming Generational Smash-up" posited that "We may well be approaching a situation in which we as a society will have to choose between living in a world where an eighty-five-year-old is routinely granted five hip operations, or one in which we can still afford, say, primary school."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "This Chair Rocks"
Copyright © 2016 Ashton Applewhite.
Excerpted by permission of Celadon Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
1. Where Ageism Comes From and What It Does
2. Our Ages, Ourselves: Identity
3. Forget Memory: The Older Brain
4. Health, Not Youth: The Older body
5. No Expiration Date: Sex and Intimacy
6. Not Done Yet: The Workplace
7. Long Life Is a Team Sport: The Independence Trap
8. The Bull Looks Different: The End of Life
9. Occupy Age! Beyond Ageism