Online Only

The truth about growing older

On the movement to end ageism

In late 2019, Ashton Applewhite – activist and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism (Celadon Books, 2019) – visited Australia at the invitation of EveryAGE Counts, Australia’s anti-ageism campaign initiated by The Benevolent Society and directed by Marlene Krasovitsky. When the visit ended, Applewhite celebrated EveryAGE Counts as the world’s first national anti-ageism campaign. Early in 2020, she and Krasovitsky caught up to discuss the campaign’s approach and success, and the broader space of ageism, discrimination and potential.

ASHTON: If you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d be fascinated by ageing, I’d have said, ‘Why would I want to spend my time thinking about something so yucky and depressing?’ The subject makes people queasy; I call it ‘age cooties’. Yet people on the ground are hungry for a narrative about age and ageing that rings true or to our experience. That’s why the book, which I originally had to self-publish, has done well, and why the movement to make ageism as unacceptable as any other form of prejudice is taking off.

You know, ageing isn’t being sick and old and close to death; ageing is moving through life. I started thinking about it in my mid-fifties – I’m sixty-seven now – and in hindsight, it was because I was afraid of getting old. I started researching longevity and realised in a matter of weeks that everything I thought I knew about what it would be like to be very old was way off base, or not nuanced enough, or flat out wrong. And I became obsessed with why so few people knew these things. It was apparent early on that the reason was age bias: either we didn’t want to look at ageing at all or the narrative and stereotypes were so negative. What were the forces behind these negative messages, and what purpose did they serve?

When ageing is framed as a problem, we can be persuaded to buy things to ‘fix’ or ‘stop’ it. And when we can be persuaded that ageing is a disease, and natural transitions are pathologised, we can be persuaded to buy things to ‘cure’ it. The driving force here is capitalism: no one makes money off satisfaction, but shame and fear create markets. When I started this project I had never heard the word ‘intersectionality’; I had no understanding of the ways in which different forms of oppression compound and reinforce one another. I now have a basic grasp of the way ageism feeds on and benefits from racism, sexism, ableism, patriarchy and misogyny. It’s important to untangle these strands, understand their effect on different individuals and groups, and work to undo them all.

A companion idea, and a very uplifting one, is that just as different forms of oppression compound and reinforce one another, so do different forms of activism. Activism is intersectional too.

Age is the universal human experience, and ageism is the form of discrimination we all experience. This has the potential to make the movement against ageism a unifying cause. Ageism is the perfect target for compound advocacy, which I think is a very powerful idea. What if we came together around the table, shared our experiences of age discrimination as we moved through life, and used that as a starting point from which to strategise from an intersectional perspective about how to address all the other forms of discrimination other people experience? How could we develop an intersectional approach to ending ageism, and how could we ally with other social justice causes in the process?

Despite being brainwashed from birth by messages that everything about getting older is awful, no one actually wants to be any younger. There is this cognitive dissonance, even among people who haven’t begun to reflect on it, between the way ageing is portrayed everywhere around us and our own experience. Ageism is the first form of discrimination many white men encounter. Women have had to battle sexism forever; then we have to deal with being doubly dismissed because we’ve allowed ourselves to get wrinkles. Yet many women come into their own in late life. We have more confidence, we know ourselves better, we’re less invested in what people think of us – and that can be very empowering.

MARLENE:  To some extent, the creation of the EveryAGE Counts campaign is thanks to the fact that we do have this rather large cohort moving through these experiences at the moment. And each and every one of us is bumping up against old-style barriers, stereotypes, assumptions about who we are and what we can do and what we should do. And it’s not right, it doesn’t feel comfortable, it doesn’t feel authentic.

ASHTON: It feels unfair.

MARLENE: It is unfair. So we are challenging those barriers, but as we challenge them we know from our own experiences and from the research that ageism is the most tolerated form of discrimination. It is the least visible; it is pernicious in its invisibility and its silence; and it’s also something many of us have internalised. It could be that as we bump up against those attitudes we find ourselves agreeing with them. ‘Yes, I’m too old. It’s too late for me, I’m unattractive’ – whatever it is. That’s why the key thing for us in this campaign is to build awareness, build the voice around this, make a noise and ask, ‘What is ageism? What are its impacts?’ Because it is so deeply embedded – not only in each of us, but in our systems, our attitudes, our institutions – that it’s really hard to see and get a grasp of. That’s why your work, Ashton, was the tipping point in terms of giving voice to and amplifying this idea and this awareness. Once you see this stuff, you can’t unsee it. You get active, you get engaged, you start to challenge.

ASHTON: And that’s liberating.

MARLENE: That’s really liberating. Why am I seeing myself in this way? Why am I making assumptions about my colleagues, my family, my parents?

ASHTON: And then we realise that something we’d assumed to be a personal failing or problem is in fact a widely shared social problem.

MARLENE: Which was exactly the situation with feminism. Through the individual experiences of women we realised that the personal was the political. But while EveryAGE Counts is about the current, rather large cohort of older Australians, it’s also as much about my sons as it is about me. This is an intergenerational solidarity exercise if there ever was one, you know?

ASHTON: Ageism is any judgment on the basis of age. You can be ‘too young’ as well as ‘too old’ – although older people do bear the brunt because Western society is so youth-centric. If we want to develop a society of age equity, supporting people across these longer lifespans, it is about our kids as well.

MARLENE: Absolutely.

ASHTON: Australia is unique because EveryAGE Counts is the world’s first national anti-ageism campaign. These are new ideas to people and that’s exhilarating. And you’ve given people ways to take this change forward in whatever way they’re capable of, even if it’s just to think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m ageist,’ as we all are. Or, ‘I’m part of the problem and I need to look at my own bias.’ That’s the first, most critical step, because we can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it. Then perhaps people should take the EveryAGE Counts pledge to speak out against it in their own personal life. That’s important, because if we don’t speak up, nothing changes.

I do think the women’s movement is the best analogy. Think about how central sexism and feminism are to any discussion about the role and voice of women in the world. That’s how central ageism needs to be in any discussion about the future of older people, whether in education, or healthcare, or the workplace, or how we feel about ourselves. Age bias cannot be a line item on the agenda. Structural discrimination and prejudice affect whether older people are seen and heard and what is available to us in every domain.

We’ve come a long way in the twentieth century around other forms of prejudice. We still have a long way to go, but I feel that the ground is now ploughed in a way that it wasn’t until quite recently. When I ask people to name their criteria for diversity, people usually omit age. Yet when I say, ‘How about age?’, no one says, ‘That’s a dumb idea.’ They go, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ I think hitching age to the intersectional sled (if you will) is a much smaller ask than it was to ask for equal rights for women fifty years ago. Sadly we’re still a long way from gender equity, and racism remains firmly entrenched. But look at the incredible strides made by the gay rights movement in just a few decades. I think the movement against ageism has real momentum, and I’m optimistic about its prospects.

MARLENE: I’m also very optimistic, but I also know how long these things can take… This is a long road.

The two things that set this campaign apart are the national scope and breadth of what we’re trying to do, and the fact that we’re doing it in concert with a very powerful coalition of organisations and interested individuals, influencers and stakeholders. EveryAGE Counts is spearheaded by The Benevolent Society, but in no way, shape or form could one organisation do this alone. By working with and through not only our key organisations, but a broader and broader cohort of organisations, entities and individuals right across the country, we broaden and strengthen the breadth of our messaging and our reach and our impact. Because we are national, the commonwealth is our first target – but the commonwealth, the federal level, only has a particular influence in particular spheres. So it’s important that we also work at the state and local government levels.

One of the things we’re seeing after your visit late in 2019, Ashton, is that more and more of those government agencies are coming to us and saying, ‘How do we start to shift the rhetoric?’, ‘How do we start to include age in our diversity and inclusion plans?’, ‘How do we get the messages out to our constituents or our cohorts?’ That’s a really, really pleasing, encouraging thing to see.

We’re gaining traction all the time, but again, we still have a very long way to go.

ASHTON: There’s no question in my mind that the EveryAGE Counts report on the effect of ageism in aged care informed the Royal Commission’s interim report. I know you can’t say that, but how could it be otherwise?

MARLENE: Thank you for that. Aged care wasn’t initially top of our list of things to do, but you can’t ignore the opportunity afforded by a Royal Commission in terms of the attention it attracts and the discussion in the community about that. We were very heartened to see that the Royal Commission’s interim report identified ageist attitudes – the ‘ageist mindset’ I think was their language – as underpinning so many of the devastating impacts and experiences that people were going through. It was the same in the National Plan on Elder Abuse, which was informed by the Australian Law Reform Commission Review around elder abuse. Both documents identified ageism as an underpinning – but neither go any further than that.

This is hard stuff; this is deeply entrenched. And it’s fine to say, ‘Yes, ageism is the underpinning and we have to change something in this area.’ But in terms of reform, there is a tendency to go to the usual suspects, if you like. And I don’t mean that in a demeaning way, but the reform is about training and staffing and staff ratios and structures – those kinds of things. We would argue that unless you address the underpinning ageist stereotypes, the ageist assumptions that are built on the foundations of those systems, you’re continuing to tinker at the edges rather than achieve the fundamental reform that is required. And unless you deal with those ageist assumptions and attitudes, you sabotage the rest of any reform efforts that you are trying to direct and implement.

ASHTON: One of the fundamental effects of ageism is that a society that does not value older people tolerates their abuse and neglect. It doesn’t value the people who work with them, either. If a child died because of a nursery school’s negligence, the school would be closed that day.

Abuse in aged care is an obvious example. Here’s an uncomfortable fact: people in the field called ‘ageing services’ in the US can be the most ageist of all. That shocked me when I realised it, and I had to think hard about the reasons. I think it’s partly because they deal with people at the most physically and cognitively debilitated end of the spectrum, and it colours their view of the rest of a massive cohort of individuals. They’re professionally invested in a deficit view of ageing. Another uncomfortable fact is that the people in aged care represent our darkest fears, the old age that none of us want, let’s be honest about that. The people doing the difficult and important and undervalued work of caring for them have to reconcile those people’s situations with the old age they want for themselves, and that’s an incredibly difficult psychic task.

Of course people in aged care deserve to be treated well and respectfully. Why should we accept a lower standard of care for older people, after all? But it’s also important to resist the equation of ageing with the extreme debility that a small percentage of the population represents. In Australia, people in aged care make up 5 per cent of the population; in the US, 2.5 per cent of the sixty-five-and-older population live in nursing homes. It’s also important to reject the equation of ageing and dying. I think that conflation is a function of ageism itself. Dying is a discrete biological event that happens at the end of all that living.

There are two inevitable and bad things about getting older – only two, but they are unavoidable. People you’ve known all your life are going to die, and some part of your body is going to fall apart. Not all of it! We live in a culture – thank you Hollywood, thank you Silicon Valley, thank you advertising industry – that idolises physical perfection and beauty, which we equate with youth. We look at people whose bodies show the tracks of time, who move slowly or perhaps not at all, and we recoil from them. A little bit of that is just human, but much of it is socially constructed: a function of the toxic intersection of ageism and ableism.

We tend to grossly underestimate the value and quality of life of people who are not conforming to the thin, white, able-bodied, male norm that is the basis of our medical system and medical testing. Hello patriarchy! Hello ableism! If we were more aware of those structural forces, we would be slower to project our fears and quicker to question the assumption that a more circumscribed life is not worth living.

MARLENE: We don’t have a conversation around what constitutes a ‘good life’ generally – but we really don’t have a conversation around what is a good life for older people in those situations. We don’t include or involve or co-design or co-think through that period of life. But I don’t think there’s a binary in terms of having agency or being frail. This isn’t a zero-sum game. We are all perfectly capable of moving in and out of frailty and loss and agency at different ages and through all stages of our life. We’re also perfectly capable of experiencing both at the same time. I might continue to have agency around my finances, but not around my physical capacities. Life is complex; it’s not a binary. Binary thinking feeds in to seeing aged care as a one-way street: I become frail, I go into aged care, I check my agency at the door and then I die. That’s why re-ablement and rehabilitation and prevention are so critical. And if I do come back out of that system –

ASHTON: – and most of us do –

MARLENE: – and most of us do, what I come back into really matters. Social and cultural factors will play a huge role in whether I do well once I come back out. If I come into a community where I’m isolated, where I have unaffordable or intermittent care, where my housing tenure is spurious – I’m not going to do well and my chances of doing well will diminish.

ASHTON: The valorisation of independence is an especially American pathology. I would like to take that word, ‘independence’, out of the entire ageing discourse. No one is independent, ever. We are interdependent. We all need help of different types at different times, lifelong, as you just pointed out. These are two-way transactions that benefit people at both ends and are a beautiful part of being human. Imagine if we acknowledged that, and stripped the shame out of asking for help.

One of my favourite quotes is from a Dutch gerontologist, Jan Baars: ‘Autonomy requires collaborators.’ You’re never going to be in charge of everything, so put a team in place that knows what you want and can help you achieve it, in the spirit of interdependence.

I ask obvious questions. Why isn’t age a universally acknowledged criterion for diversity? Why should waking up a day older be a source of shame or embarrassment? Why should ageing be something to succeed or fail at? I dislike the whole discourse in the US around ‘successful ageing’, which really means to appear not to age. There’s a huge class bias at work too. Ageing ‘successfully’ means spending a lot of money trying to look and move like a younger version of yourself. This is impossible, sets us up to compete and to fail, and is available only to the well off. The things that enable ‘successful ageing’, like healthy diets and leisure and help with caregiving, are expensive. They’re class markers.

Neoliberalism places the blame on the individual. Poor people are poor because they’re lazy, the rich are rich because they’re virtuous, and so on. Uh-oh, did you permit yourself to get arthritis? Or allow yourself to get laid off? These values are the result of social and political forces, right? The problem is not that we grow old – the problem is that we live in a world that discriminates against us on that basis. Blaming individuals generates shame and guilt, which make it much harder to generate open-spirited discussions around these inevitable, universal human transitions. Some are unwelcome, but many convey a rich perspective that enables us to see other people, and ourselves, in ways we couldn’t previously have envisioned.

MARLENE: The ‘successful ageing’ narrative reinforces the point that in our culture, to be young is to be active, to be contributing, to be full of life, full of opportunity, and to have a future. To be old is to be passive, to be devoid of life, to not have a future or opportunities. This feeds the lack of conversation about a good life – because who needs to talk about a good life if you’re just going to die anyway?

ASHTON: It also feeds ageism early on. Being young is really hard, and it’s even harder if you think things are just going to get worse. Life gets better, as we know from the U-curve! That’s one of the crucial justifications for intergenerational friendships: older people are reminded of how tough it is to be young, and younger people see how we continue to find all sorts of interesting ways to be in the world, even if that world is smaller in some ways. We find meaning and friendships and the things that really make life worth living on whatever scale we can manage.

A lot of Australians expressed concern about the right to control over the circumstances in which you die. Another overarching reason it’s important to talk about ageing is that it paves the way to talking about dying. The monster under the bed – and we all have a monster, whether it’s getting a hearing aid or losing old friends or dying in pain – only gets scarier until we lift up the bedspread and take a look at it. Lifting the bedspread, starting the conversation, defangs that monster. And since we are living longer, and extending the number of years of physical and cognitive function, it is important to die better too. No one wants to end up helpless and hooked to machines. So if we want that U-curve of happiness – which goes up, up, up into our eighties – not to drop down in our nineties, it’s imperative that we talk about our end-of-life wishes. Ideally before ‘something happens’, and ideally on an ongoing basis, because priorities change over time.

The World Health Organization has so much data about the effect of attitudes towards ageing on how our minds and bodies function that they’re orchestrating a global anti-ageism campaign. That’s the World Health Organization, not the World Old People Organization, I like to point out. EveryAGE Counts is playing that role in Australia, and I hope to collaborate with a school of public health on a national campaign in the US. It’s ideologically neutral: whether you love old people or hate old people, whether you think the new longevity is a gift or a terrifying ‘grey tsunami’, none of us want older people to be sick and cost money. It’s a persuasive rationale for an anti-ageism campaign as a public health initiative.

It’s important, tactically, for a movement against ageism to avoid old versus young ways of framing. Pitting groups against one another that might otherwise join forces against the status quo is the oldest trick in the book, like factory workers in the US competing against factory workers in Mexico instead of organising for better wages. We need all generations to come together to tackle the wicked problems the planet is facing, in particular, and obviously, the climate crisis. So I was actually heartened by the response to the snarky and unhelpful ‘OK Boomer’ meme. It has mostly consisted of, ‘Gee, old people aren’t really responsible for all bad things. We’re in this together.’ There are also all kinds of intergenerational programs cropping up, in the workforce and in housing in particular, and any time you have all generations coming together, you are countering ageism organically. That’s another force that is moving us in the right direction, and offering a natural corrective to this toxic narrative of old versus young.

MARLENE: And part of the strategy in this regard is to break down the assumption of the homogeneity of older people – we’re as diverse, if not more diverse, than so many other groups.

ASHTON: If there’s one age stereotype about older people I wish I could banish, it would be that ‘the elderly’ belong to some homogenous group when nothing could be further from the truth. Heterogeneity is the defining characteristic of old age: the longer we live, the more different from one another we become. It would be transformative if we could get that fact widely out into the world: ‘Thinking all older people are the same will be as absurd as thinking all younger people are the same,’ as the wonderful animation on the EveryAGE Counts homepage puts it. All stereotypes are ignorant and wrong, of course, but this one – the mother of them all, so to speak, when it comes to ageism – is particularly damaging and misinformed.

MARLENE: Seeing us as a homogenous cohort or clump of all the people whose birthdates span thirty or forty years – that makes us a target in same the way that feeds a meme or intergenerational warfare. We can counter that with more real narratives and pictures and experiences. I’m also aware though that we need to counter that in so many spheres – including the statistical research biases that stop at sixty and assume that everyone over sixty is the same…

ASHTON: …or including older people in medical trials – how about that?

MARLENE: Well indeed. No wonder we have this undifferentiated sense of what it is to be older. In so much of the research about the good life, about the experience of older living, there’s this statistical sort of clumping of people from sixty plus – even in terms of the research questions that are asked. They’re very much focused on impairment and loss and grieving – not questions of learning and growth and what’s good about life. In that way we have again made ageist assumptions about this cohort that’s just existing to die.

ASHTON: In fact, many old people are engaged in the most difficult task of all: coming to terms with what your values are, what it means to be human, what it means to move through life. That’s important, valuable work.

MARLENE: And as we find ourselves confronting those ageist barriers or assumptions or that ageist rhetoric, we challenge them.

ASHTON: It’s also important to ally with other activists. We need to be explicitly anti-racist and work for immigrants’ rights and Indigenous peoples’ rights and disability rights and climate justice, and encourage people of all ages to support those campaigns. The movement to end ageism is part of the global struggle for equity for everyone at the margins.

MARLENE: We tend to focus on the system without thinking about the people in the system – and that would open up such a different conversation. I’m reminded of some work I did many, many decades ago with bus drivers. The question to the bus drivers was, ‘What’s your core mission?’ And they said, ‘We drive buses.’ And so of course the conversation went to the mechanics of the bus and keeping the tyres pumped and so on. But when we were able to shift that answer from ‘driving buses’ to ‘taking people where they want to go’, the whole conversation shifted. It was about customer use, customer safety, customer satisfaction – and that very simple change in mindset flowed into the way they saw and structured their system and their world and their jobs.

In the aged-care sector, we continue to focus on the structure without focusing on the people in the structure and what it is they need, what they want that is important to them. We certainly don’t co-design the system with their voice in it. I think there’s a very rich, complex conversation to be had there.

Thanks to Keryn Curtis from EveryAGE Counts for arranging and facilitating this conversation.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review