Ashton Applewhite wants to make discrimination based on age as unacceptable as any other kind. She talked with us about what drives her passion for anti-ageism.
What do you see as your mission?
The short answer is to help create a society in which discrimination on the basis of age is no more acceptable than discrimination on the basis of anything else. … I like the phrase equity across the lifespan. Everyone is living longer, and we need to reconfigure the whole life course in view of that: family structure, built environment, the workplace, you name it, where age would not be a barrier to access and opportunity and where people of all ages receive the support they need at different points along their life course.
There are real challenges to addressing population aging. There are real aspects to getting older that are not welcome, and you will not hear me brushing them under the rug … a lot of people in Positive Aging who are doing wonderful work to challenge the narrative of aging as decline alone have a tendency to gloss over the fact that our physical capacities are going to change as our cognitive capacities might.
And I don’t think glossing that stuff over does us any favors. I think just the reverse, it makes the scary stuff more scary and creates divisions between humans in terms of who has what kind of capacity, which is never a great idea. So, the question is, why don’t we hear the other side of the story?
It’s so true that this is a particular moment in time. Like you said, the ground has been plowed and people are becoming so much more aware of these perceptions that they have, these stereotypes.
Looking at our internalized racism, for example, thanks to the incredibly important work of Black Lives Matter. It’s the same process. That teaches us to look at our internalized age bias or whatever other kinds of biases we have. It’s the same uncomfortable process of looking at our own attitudes and realizing the ways in which we are complicit in this…
Let’s talk about HelpAge USA’s “60 Over 60” list. What were your thoughts on that list and what do you hope for the list?
I love the list. I thought it was really a wonderful mashup of people who are working to enhance and clarify our understanding of what later life pulls from so many different perspectives.
And I really loved that there were people who were famous and people who were not…yet another of my pet peeves is the sort of trope of the skydiving octogenarian. It’s great if you want to jump out of airplanes or if you were able to run marathons in your eighties, or if you can pole dance and want to, more power to you.
But for each one of those, I’d like a couch potato, please. I’d like someone in a wheelchair … I would like other people who exemplify the other end of the spectrum in terms of physical capacity and youthful appearance who are also leading awesome, interesting exemplary lives and the HelpAge list did that.
Have there been people who have especially helped you, who have been really pivotal in your journey?
Not one particular person. I do consider my colleagues who I run Old School with, who I’m constantly learning so much from. Ryan Backer and Kyrié Carpenter are their names.
I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Robert Neil Butler and spent some time with him in what turned out to be the last few years of his life … And he gave me a very crucial and gentle course correction early on. I know a few people who knew him and when they tell me that what I am doing would have such meaning for him, that makes me feel better than anything. He was an amazing person and I in my dreams would help carry out his legacy.
Do you want to say what it was, the course correction?
Oh sure …the reason I got started on this was because I was getting old and it had dawned on me like, oh, this actually is going to happen to me.
I was in my mid-50s. So I began a project about older people in their 80s who were still in the workforce … I started interviewing people over 80 who work … In hindsight, that was a way of not dealing with the scary stuff, you know? I could deal with people who were still “productive” — that loaded word — in the world in a conventional way. And still being productive in a way that we value in a capitalist society, which is mainly making money, which is hugely problematic.
Robert Butler was one of the people I interviewed … he said, “if you get up in the morning, you’re being productive. And if you tie your own shoes, that’s something. Just taking care of yourself is being productive, because no one else is taking care of you.” So that’s a direct quote. What you can do for yourself is work that someone else doesn’t have to do for you.
But I don’t want to suggest that there is any shame in asking for help.
Looking ahead to the future, 40 to 50 years from now, what do you want your legacy to be?
I don’t think about it … if I got hit by a truck tomorrow …I’m very happy that I created Old School.
This sounds ageist, but age is real. They (Applewhite’s co-founders of Old School) happen to be both in their thirties. They are pretty likely to outlive me and that makes me happy, but that’s biology and we are developing it into a real hub for movements.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“60 Over 60” honors 60 Americans over 60 who are making significant contributions to society at the local, national or international level. You can view the full list of honorees by clicking here.
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