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Aging & Society

Words to Live By From a Writer on Getting Older

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Have you ever read something that really struck a chord with you - so much so that it left a lasting impression years later?

Anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite recounts just such a story she read in a tech journal.  The article was about a guy who is up for a corporate tech job and visits a doctor to make him look younger. “I can’t look like I have a wife and two little kids,” she remembers the man pleading. “This was a skilled, tech-savvy man in his 30s,” notes the 65 year-old Applewhite, who lives in Brooklyn. “So imagine what it might be like if you are over 50…”

Applewhite is gaining attention as a humorous writer and speaker devoted to bringing issues of ageism — the myths and stereotypes society has about the aging process — to public attention. Racism and sexism are biases the public is increasingly conditioned to look out for, and to criticize, she notes. Ageism however has yet to get a full examination. “But any prejudice on the basis of something we can’t change about ourselves is corrosive and damaging,” Applewhite says.

We’ve all internalized ideas about getting older, she declares, ideas that come to the surface in casual conversations. “It may be embarrassing to be called out as older until we quit being embarrassed about it. Why should we be embarrassed about waking up a day older? It’s not an achievement. But the thought that the passage of time itself would be a source of shame and anxiety is deeply problematic.”

With that in mind, we asked Applewhite for some examples about how ageism pops up in everyday conversations. What do the words mean, and how should an older person respond to them? Her answers were both amusing and thoughtful.

“Why hello young lady/young man": Somewhere a waitperson or barista is saying it this very moment, and thinking they are making someone older than them feel happy. “It just makes me cringe,” says Applewhite. “When someone calls me ‘young lady,’ they are drawing attention to the fact that I’m not young and that I should aspire to be young.

“It’s like when people say, ‘you look good for your age.’ To that I often want to respond, ‘you look good for your age too!’ It makes people understand why what was intended as a compliment may not always feel like a compliment.”

“Senior moment”: “When you lost the car keys in high school you didn’t call it a junior moment did you?  No!  It’s not to say cognitive decline doesn’t happen. But most forgetfulness is NOT a sign of cognitive loss, let alone dementia, and it damages our sense of self and our aspirations to draw conclusions about every time we forget something.”

"Old” and “young” can also be a minefield: “Think about the way we use these words — age is real and a real signifier for us. But in an ageist culture we have a tendency to use ‘old’ for ‘insert some bad thing’: something that is ill, not competent, me when I can’t work my cell phone. The fact is, we can feel energetic, sexy, and enthusiastic all our lives. And when I was 13 I felt hideous and hopeless. I had no sense of myself as an attractive person, that’s for sure. Do you want to be a teenager again? I for one am often glad that stage of my life is behind me.”

The use of “aging” when you mean “older”: “Your parents may be aging, but so are you. Celebrities may be aging, but so are you. Try to use ‘older’ when that’s what you mean. Because everyone is aging from the day you are born. I find this philosophically interesting. It’s the one human experience that unites us all.”

Go light on “cute”: “I think that you should not call an older person anything you would not want to be called yourself. If younger persons are holding hands, they don’t always want to be labeled as ‘vibrant’ or ‘adorable,’ you know? A very good rule is, you want to know what to call someone? Ask them.”

“Elderly”: “You rarely, if ever, hear someone call themselves ‘elderly.’ Anyone, whether they are eight or eighty-eight, wants to be respected. And ageism cuts both ways — I don’t think older people deserve more respect than other people. Everyone deserves respect.”

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