“COUGARS”, “women of a certain age”, “senior moments”, “bed blockers”. The English language is replete with words and phrases that show ageism is ingrained in western society.
Such phraseology not only reflects both sexist and ageist attitudes. It also suggests that “capitalism and ageing just don’t fit”, according to US advocate and writer Ashton Applewhite.
New York-based Applewhite is author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, which, as her publicity material says, is both a “rousing call to action” and a declaration of “age pride”.
In examining ageist attitudes, Applewhite analyses how pervasive they are, both at work and at home; how older people are portrayed as burdens on the taxpayer; and how much better an age-friendly society can be.
Applewhite was a writer with the American Museum of Natural History when she began to think about the subject, but says it was no “blinding epiphany”.
She always thought she was comfortable with the concept, having never lied about her age. Yet it bothered her that comments like “you look great for your age” didn’t feel like compliments.
She recalls how one of her colleagues had snow-white hair, was “proud of being cantankerous”, muttered about his aches and pains, and couldn’t wait to retire.
When she discovered that she and her colleague were actually the same age, she says she “panicked”, wondering how, if others found out, they might think she was “old, too...”
Logic told her that such thoughts were idiotic. “Why did I imagine that this would erase our individuality, and diminish me so frighteningly? Was I driven by fear of losing my looks? Of growing frail? Of my own mortality?”
It got her thinking, reading, researching, and, in 2007, she was chatting to her partner’s mother, Ruth Stein, who was in her 80s and a bookseller.
Stein suggested Applewhite should write about something she and her husband were being asked constantly: when were they “going to retire”.
Applewhite jumped at the idea of interviewing people who were over 80 and still working. Her first subject was an 88-year-old artist, Marcia Muth, who had pursued careers as a law librarian, a poet, publisher, and latterly a successful folk art painter and teacher. Her advice to her students had been: “You are never too old, and it’s never too late.”
Even when dependent on oxygen due to chronic bronchitis, Muth kept painting. Life did not change as one aged, Muth said, but “you get into what’s important and what’s not”.
“Don’t fear old age,” she advised Applewhite.
Applewhite was struck by the “disconnect” between what she had imagined, and the reality of ageing. She says that only 9% of North Americans over 85 years of age live in nursing homes, and only 2.5% of those over 65 require institutional care. In Canada, 92% of men and women over 65 years of age still live at home, she says.
Certainly, people develop chronic illnesses, but many learn to live with them, and dementia rates are “dropping”, even as the population ages.
“The real epidemic is anxiety about memory loss,”she says, and there are other uninformed fears, related to sexual activity and depression. She discovered that older people are actually more content.
The prejudice she found hardest to discard was the idea that her “future, older” self was somehow inferior to her younger version. This was, and is, “the lynchpin of age denial” she says.
Whether it’s giggling about dates of birth or having a face “frozen by needle and knife”, concealment or “disavowing” age gives “the number power over us it doesn’t deserve”. Acceptance and pride are far healthier approaches, she says.
Applewhite acknowledges that people have legitimate fears about getting ill, losing money, being alone. Such fears are heightened by a North American culture which is “grotesquely youth-centric”, she says. Reality television only further distorts the norm.
But ageism is not confined to older people and can be experienced “from the minute one is born”, Applewhite says. Teenagers experience it all the time.
“It suits capitalism,” she says, “because if we can be persuaded that wrinkles are a disaster, we can be persuaded to spend hundreds of dollars on expensive anti-ageing creams. And if our thighs rub together, we are led to believe it is the end of the world...”
“Capitalism also tethers the economic value of the person to their productivity, so even China can be affected by this,” Applewhite says. Similarly, the capitalist emphasis on sporting prowess into later age also has a profit motive, and there is a belief that wealth will somehow stave off the inevitable.
“The most effective component in ageing well is not having health or wealth, but having a strong social network,” Applewhite says.
“In that, women tend to have an advantage, as we are the custodians of relationships.”
That’s where planners have a crucial role, in her view, and where leadership is required from politicians.
“It is much harder to be racist when one is living with many races, and it is much harder to be ageist in an inter-generational community...and everyone benefits....”
However, language is also crucial, she says, and she prefers reference to “olders” and “youngers”, jettisoning “the”, as definite articles only segregate.
“If marriage equality is here to stay, why not age equality? If gay pride has gone mainstream, and millions of North Americans now proudly identify as disabled, why not age pride?” she asks.
“ Longevity is here to stay. Everyone is ageing. Ending ageism benefits us all,”she says.