Armed with the latest scientific research, loads of anecdotes and a hip haircut, Ashton Applewhite is charging across the country to promote her groundbreaking book "This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism." The 66-year-old author and activist is trumpeting a provocative message: Aging takes a bad rap, with the positives associated with getting older lost in a youth-worshiping culture.
This month, Applewhite will be keynote speaker for two conferences in St. Paul and St. Cloud (neither is open to the public) that take aim at challenging, identifying and eradicating ageism. Her grand vision is to fuel the movement that makes age bias as unacceptable as racism, sexism and homophobia.
Q: Do we have realistic ideas of what it means to get older?
A: Aging is not a problem or a disease. It's a natural, universal human process. Today, everyone is living longer; it's a fundamental hallmark of human progress and longer life spans represent a public health victory. While we're healthier and more active than any previous generation, guess what, we still get old.
Q: Do we need to change more than our individual attitudes?
A: The messages we're flooded with, that aging is awful, stain our whole lives. My book is a wake-up call to take action against something that harms us, individually and collectively. Ageism divides us, pits old against young and fosters prejudice. It does the opposite of what we need, which is to build a better world in which to grow old.
Q: You began your crusade more than a decade ago. What got you started?
A: At 55, I was afraid of getting old so I started my research. I assumed older people were depressed because they would lose their memory and wind up in nursing homes. I quickly learned that was all false. When you study the science, you see that late life is quite a bit rosier than we've been brainwashed to believe.
Q: How so?
A: I'm a cynic and a hard-nosed social scientist, so I was skeptical and then surprised by the evidence. In the 10 years I've studied this, the number of people living in nursing homes dropped from 4 percent to 2½ percent. Dementia rates are also falling fast. Our fears are way out of proportion.
Q: What's another myth you've uncovered?
A: The fact is, older people have better mental health than younger ones. Social scientists have proven that people are happiest at the end and the beginning of their lives, what they call the U-curve of happiness.
Q: Still, isn't it natural to associate getting old with the approach of the grim reaper?
A: I'm no Pollyanna. There are two bad things about aging that are inevitable: Some part of your body is going to fall apart and someone you love is going to die. I started out with an ageist — and false — assumption that we become preoccupied with death as we age. But the older we get, the less we fear dying. Knowing that time is short does not create dread, it makes us choosier about how we spend our time and who we spend it with.
Q: It's been said baby boomers are in denial about aging like no previous generation.
A: When I hear people say, "I don't feel old," what they mean is, "I don't feel incompetent, useless, ugly or invisible." They're reacting to that skewed vision the culture shows them. In an ageist world, they've seen that experience becomes a liability. Aging enriches us when we realize we become the sum of all of our experiences.
Q: You point out that your work is not about how to defy the aging process.
A: There's a "successful aging" movement that suggests that if you eat enough kale and do enough sit-ups, you can opt out. Its message is, you've failed to "age successfully" if you have wrinkles. There's a whole industry that says that old is not as good as young so they can sell products.
Q: You've found that who will get a long life is a bit of a crapshoot.
A: Much of how we age is not up to us, it's linked to genetics and luck. Surprisingly, the most important factor for a good old age is not health or wealth, it's having a strong social network. Why don't we talk about this?
Q: Can anxiety about aging take its own toll?
A: Yes. When you think a bad thing will happen, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ageism harms us when we internalize the pernicious message that you lose value as a human being because you're older.
But, guess what, the reverse is also true. Research from Yale shows that people with realistic, positive attitudes about aging are less likely to develop Alzheimer's, even if they are genetically predisposed to it. We have to look at our own attitudes. We can't challenge our biases unless we're aware of them.