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Ashton Applewhite 0:00
Older people are happier and that is a function of the way aging itself affects the healthy brain. You don't need to be a Buddhist or a billionaire. When I first encountered this, I was so skeptical, I can't tell you, I thought, well, that must be true if you're healthy. It must be true if you're wealthy. it obtains across class across marital status across geography is a function of the way aging itself affects the healthy brain. And, you know, I think that I really like to make the point, that if this is true, in a culture that tells us that especially in the wake of COVID, your job is to stop being a drain on the economy. And, you know, go kill yourself so that the economy of Texas can do better, right? Or just not be a burden. This whole horrible burden discourse just just from getting old. Just being old is supposed to make you less valuable as a human being, you know? That's a really horrible, damaging pernicious narrative. So if this curve persists in that culture imagine what it's going to look like as the movement against ageism gains traction is already underway and ageism becomes as unacceptable as any other form of prejudice.
Dr. Regina Koepp 1:23
I'm Dr. Regina Koepp. I'm a board certified clinical psychologist and I specialize with older adults and families. I created the Psychology of Aging podcast to answer some of the most common questions I get about aging questions about mental health and wellness, changes in the brain like with dementia, relationships, and sex, caregiving, and even end of life. Like I say in my therapy groups, no topic is off topic, we just have to have a healthy way of talking about it. So if you're an older adult or caring for one, you're in the right place. Let's get started.
Dr. Regina Koepp 2:03
In today's episode, I interview a very special guest who sheds light on a topic you've heard me talk about over and over again. It's a topic that is near and dear to my heart. It's the topic of ageism. I have the honor of interviewing Ashton Applewhite. And in today's interview, we talked about the cost of ageism, and what we can do to counter our ageist thoughts and beliefs. The author of "This Chair Rocks a Manifesto Against Ageism," Ashton Applewhite is an internationally recognized expert on ageism. She speaks widely at venues that have included the TEDx mainstage and the United Nations. I mean, can we just pause for a moment? TED mainstage and United Nations? Yes, the United Nations. She's a leading spokesperson for the movement to mobilize against discrimination on the basis of age. And her book will be out in paperback this month. Depending on when you're listening to this podcast episode this month means August 2020. I can't wait to dive into my interview with Ashton Applewhite.Let's get started.
Dr. Regina Koepp 3:22
Ashton, thank you so much for joining me today. I have to say that your book was inspiring and provocative and powerful and really a must read for anybody working with older adults-
Ashton Applewhite 3:36
Dr. Regina Koepp 3:37
And fun! Yeah, well, I mean, you wrote it so. So it has to be... and really a must read for anybody who is working with older adults caring for older adults or planning to become an older adult at some point in their life. And
Ashton Applewhite 3:53
A common misconception is that ageism is only discrimination against older people and older people do experience the bulk of it because we live in such a youth oriented culture, but it's any judgment on the basis of age, right? You know, you're too young in air quotes is just as much just as a just as you're too old for that task. And likewise, the earlier in life, I mean, it's obvious more people, we don't tend to start thinking about getting older till we are older, which I think is human. You know, I don't think that's prejudice. But another reason is we live in a culture that says, ooh, aging, scary yucky don't want to go there. The sooner we learn how much of what we think we know about aging is way off base way too negative way not nuanced enough. It's not that the scary stuff isn't real. I am no Pollyanna. It's that our fears are so out of proportion. The earlier in life you learn that, the better off you are because it cushions and sustains you lifelong.
Dr. Regina Koepp 4:59
I will say one of the things that's interesting, I think I hear this a lot - discrimination about being too young. So one of the counters though to that when I teach about diversity, it's a diversity variable that's trans mutable. So while you might be too young at this stage in your life, you're going to age into a protected class. And then you're going to age into again, another class that you're going to be experiencing discrimination and so...
Ashton Applewhite 5:30
You are the only other person I've ever heard make that point. Yeah, it is unique in that way. We are where we age into and out of what you might call age privilege. And unless we are, I can't think of an exception to that besides having a gender you know, reassignment becoming that transgender person being a transgender person. I can't think of any other case where we aren't you know, with with race, typically with gender. The other exception of course, is ability, disability, we are all going to if we live long enough agent to some reduced physical capacity that's inevitable. Diminished cognitive capacity is not inevitable, but most of us stopped being able to remember the name of that movie we saw with what's her name last week as easily. So it's not you know, we're stuck on these bound binaries, you know, old:young, mobile:immobile, dependent:independent and those binaries do not exist. We are all moving along each of these tangents in a unique way we you know, faster on some slower on others, to people as you know, you work with people with disabilities. Two people can respond in utterly different ways to very similar situations. And of course, with age, the longer we live the more different from one another we become if I could put one fact between the ears of everyone in the world, one fact to end ageism, it would be that.
Dr. Regina Koepp 7:05
Yeah, there are more within group differences than between group differences. Exactly. Yeah, the one other diversity variable i would say that is maybe equally transmutble, maybe not even equally transmittable, I amend that but his social class and socio economic status.
Ashton Applewhite 7:24
Dr. Regina Koepp 7:26
In theory, yeah. I was born very poor and then one had access. Other family members of mine did not move through social class.
Unknown Speaker 7:38
You're abosolutely right. We are born into a given class. I don't just as we're obviously born babies, and you know, but it can change that's, that's an interesting analogy too. And certainly the message that if you haven't succeeded giant air quotes around "succeeded" that it is through some failing of your own. Whether you have not succeeded in getting married and having children as a woman, because we all know your life is a dismal failure if you have not done either of those things. Successful aging, which really means succeeding at looking at moving like a younger version of yourself. Succeeding, it's setting yourself up in business as though there were not obstacles of race and class and persistent discrimination. Now, that's what makes these things hard. Not the condition, the barriers to equal opportunity, the discrimination.
Dr. Regina Koepp 8:35
Oh, yeah. Do you know much about the social constructionist model?
Ashton Applewhite 8:39
Aging is you know, is its biological construct. We wake up a day older, things happen to our body and our brain, but the way we see it, and the social values... the best encapsulation of it I've heard around physical characteristics is that that the problem is not how we look, it is the meaning that people in power give to how we look. So I do use the term socially constructed in my talk sometimes but then I say, that's just a fancy way of saying we make it up. And anything we make up we can change.
Dr. Regina Koepp 9:16
Yes, and it since you're really interested in disability, which I would love to support you in this endeavor, it's so important. The social constructionist model says exactly what you said a minute ago, which is that it's not the disability itself. It's how society interprets the disability.
Ashton Applewhite 9:36
So we're seeing this play out in such a vivid way Now obviously, with black lives matter. It is not the color of your skin. It is the it is a system imposing a hierarchical value on skin color, and what it gives you access to that is the issue or being poor if you're poor you just didn't work hard enough. You know, you didn't try hard. I mean, that's I was never poor. I you know, supported myself lifelong, but never poor, you know, really very privileged. And, you know, I didn't bang up against, you know, I started to bang up at sexism as a career woman, you know, and, and, and then then ageism, you know, but I've been very lucky. You know, my, my, my level of disability is pretty low, but it's growing. I have arthritis, I've lost the hearing in one ear. You know, I'm not, it's we're all on a spectrum.
Dr. Regina Koepp 10:29
Indeed. Well, tell me since we're talking about the evolution of your own identities, how did you become so passionate about drawing attention to ageism and combating it?
Ashton Applewhite 10:42
You know I have backed into everything in life. I didn't start writing till I was 40. And what turned me into a writer was realizing I've been married for 11 years I had two kids and realizing that I had to get divorced. I couldn't live like that, which was a very difficult decision. So I started researching divorce, because that's sort of the nerdy thing I do and in two seconds, encountered the statistic that two thirds of divorce were initiated by women. And I was astonished. I assumed it was 98% guys dumping their sad weathered old useless wives who then did nothing but you know, drink on a barstool to oblivion and then fade away. And that statistic has held to true across American history and that was like a bolt of lightning. I was like, why don't we know this? is life after divorce not so terrible? Is marriage worse than we think? What's going on? And what is the discrepancy between what we know and these readily available facts? And and how many years later? At 25-30 years later, I was in my 50s- I guess 20 years later and I'm not good with numbers. But I was afraid of getting old, I realized. And once again, I started to look into the data and sort of read, you know, from a sort of, you know, somewhere between academic and popular culture, I'm not an academic and again, within weeks, learn the facts with which I started my TED talk out 12 years later, that not that our fears aren't real, you know, divorce is hard. It's not to be entered into lightly, but that the you know, the percentage of people in nursing homes is two and a half percent people over 65 and it's dropping. Dementia rates are falling fast. People are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of our lives. And again, that sort of thing that smacked me upside the head was why when these facts are so readily available, I was not cherry picking data from arcane scholarly publications, believe me, why don't we know these things? And we don't know those things about marriage because we live in a state sexist, patriarchal culture, where if women work really hard for free supporting men that works great for men and men are at the top of the power structure. And we don't know this stuff about aging because we live in an ageist sexist, patriarchal, capitalist society, where if we're afraid, and we're busy competing against each other juggling to stay young, juggling to do better, you know, edge that other woman out for the one seat at the table when we should have half or all the seats at the table, and so on. Then we don't join forces against these larger forces that make it an inequitable world for everyone. So I got pissed and started writing another book, even though writing a book is really awful. I don't recommend it, and I never wanted to write another one.
Dr. Regina Koepp 13:45
So is this your last one then?
Ashton Applewhite 13:48
Well, I said that about the last one. So if I if I stick to my once every 22 years, high flying trajectory, maybe I'll cough one out in my 80s, but don't hold your breath.
Dr. Regina Koepp 13:59
That would be cool. Well, so how did you come up with the title This Chair Rocks?
Ashton Applewhite 14:05
A friend did. I was just miserable. It started out as a project about older people who worked called, So When are you gonna retire?", and then I realized it always made me a little uneasy because I knew that I was just sort of cherry picking like my subjects, the ones who were quote unquote, aging successfully, the ones who were able to remain in the world, sort of on their own terms, which they're wonderful. But iwe need to represent the full spectrum in terms of ability in terms of class, the whole kit and caboodle. And it was easy to find it wasn't a class thing. It was easy to find people who did blue collar works, who did all kinds of jobs, their lifelong. But I just, you know, I realized that I wasn't dealing with the entire spectrum of aging and so I ditched that title and then for a while I called it Staying Vertical which is of sometimes something I say to myself if a late night excursion is up is possible and I could lie down but now of course no one goes out at night anymore. And that to imply that to age well we have to stay vertical... and you do not have to be vertical to age well, the people who inspired that the first who are still working and of course you should take that "still" out because that itself is ageist. If they're still climbing Mount Everest or jumping out of airplanes, but otherwise, if it's a perfectly normal activity like working or you know, having sex whatever then then the "still" implies that it's unusual. Where my in laws and they were, Bill broke his ankle. When the B 17. He was piloting was shot down over Germany. It was the last man out As the pilots who broke his ankle on landing, and spent spent time he escaped the German prisoner of war camp. Quite the story. Ruth, my mother in law had polio as a young woman, and then in her later years had post polio syndrome use the walker, eventually a wheelchair, but she was the most vertical person I know. So, um, and then I had given a talk early on before I even think I knew I was going to write a book. And someone said, How about This Chair Rocks? And I was like, "Thank you, Colin, great idea." Although it's a horrible title to translate, because it's not even an idiom in English. So I it bugs me when people refer to it only by the first part of the title, because the full title is This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. And I would submit that the two most important words there are not chairs,but manifesto and ageism.
Dr. Regina Koepp 17:00
Indeed. So throughout your book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, you refer to older adults as "olders." How did you come up with that?
Ashton Applewhite 17:14
I literally got tired of typing older people, or older Americans. I started using it as a shorthand, olders and youngers and then I started using it in my speech. And as a writer, I am very leery of coining new words. English has a lot of words and they're really good but we do not have a good word for older people, just like we don't have a good word for people we live with and are in committed relationships with but are not married to, you know, words, sometimes words lag and I really like olders and youngers because everyone knows what they mean. Because it busts that binary. You know, it makes it we're not waiting we're not people wanting to like when does old begin? Well, my best answer: That is when you know there's likely more road behind you than ahead. But we are all we are olders and youngers, at the same time, a four year old will assure you that she is older than her two year old sibling. Right? Mrs. Mcgillicuddy will assure you that she is younger than Mrs. Rosenberg in room 103 who is 99 and she is 97. Right? We age in relation to others. So that's another reason I like it. And I like it. Because it's value neutral. I don't love senior or elder- is a beautiful word. A lot of Native Americans use it indigenous people, African Americans often use it. Gorgeous, gorgeous word, not part of my culture. And I don't like the inference that just because you were older, you have more value than a younger person. And the last reason I like it is because most of us and I will say I'm on the borderline on this myself. Even after all the work I've done we older people are reluctant to identify as old because it sounds so final and in an ageist world so negative although it shouldn't, whereas most of us will readily cop to being older. So it's a way of getting over that denial like ewe I don't want to belong in that group. And so you know, so this group I can belong to. So are you going to start using it, Regina?
Dr. Regina Koepp 19:23
I want to because I agree, senior doesn't work. Elder doesn't...I also kind of buck against "respect your elders, when not all of my elders are thoughtful".
Ashton Applewhite 19:35
I couldn't agree more... or wise. Some older people are wise. Some are idiots, you know?
Dr. Regina Koepp 19:42
Ashton Applewhite 19:42
If you start using it, you will make that change because people will I know it's I know Academia is very rule bound, but it really does work.
Dr. Regina Koepp 19:52
Also because... so I was working with a local county senior senior recreational center doing an Equity and Inclusion training with them. And they asked me, What should we call our older adults? And then I asked them Well, did you ask them? What to call them?
Ashton Applewhite 20:14
That's an a rule of thumb.
Dr. Regina Koepp 20:19
So they voted and the older adults voted for senior. But I think it's to your point that there are not enough options in our lexicon for understanding what to call older adults.
Ashton Applewhite 20:30
Olders and youngers, it really solves...I haven't solved many problems, but I've solved that one.
Dr. Regina Koepp 20:34
Thats one's a good one. . I'm gonna chalk that up.
Ashton Applewhite 20:38
Start using it and you'll find people it's like going over a little speed bump. But I do use it in my talks. And the purpose of my talk is to communicate. I don't want to confuse people, or have them think like, what's that fancy thing, but people get it. It's simple. It works.
Dr. Regina Koepp 20:55
I love it. So I really do think I'm going to start using it and So then I was thinking "aging adults, but that's like also not as-
Ashton Applewhite 21:06
Everyone was aging. I don't like aging used as a modifier aging parents aging celebrities, it implies that aging is just something annoying that old people do. And I think it's really important to point out that aging is living, living is aging. We are aging all the way along. Yes, aging, again and in ageist world, aging has a negative connotation. It shouldn't. And I've had people say what's wrong with old I'm old. I'm proud of it and more power to you. I wish there were more people like you. But for those of us who are not there yet, older is is a way to ease into the water.
Dr. Regina Koepp 21:43
I think it's great. Yes. So okay, I'm going to make a commitment. I'm going to stand with olders.
Ashton Applewhite 21:49
Dr. Regina Koepp 21:50
Now, I think this is a nice segue into in your book, you talk a lot about becoming an old person in training. So I want to quote something from your book and then ask you to talk about it. "Becoming an old person in training means ditching preconceptions looking at and listening carefully to the olders around us, and reenvisioning our place among them. It means looking at older people instead of past them, remembering they were once our age, seeing resilience along infirmity, allowing for sensuality, enlarging our notion of beauty, and acknowledging that an apartment or room or even just a bed can be home to an internal world as rich as ours and very possibly richer. It means thoughtful peeks through the periscope of an open mind at the terrain we will some day inhabit." Wow. Will you talk about what becoming an old person in training means to you? That was so powerful Ashton.
Ashton Applewhite 22:57
Thank you. I heard the phrase from a geriatrician named Joanne Lim, just I read it on some, some blog post and a long time ago, I mean, it took me so long, it's so much floundering in those early years to figure out what my take was. And I encountered the phrase and I was like, well, I don't know even what that means, but I know that's what I am. And I really think it's just a trick in a sense, it's just to acknowledge that you are going to get old. Ageism takes root in denial, our reluctance to acknowledge that we are aging, that we might even be old. And I'll leave it at that, you know, ideally we accept it and ideally we embrace it. And there's an enormous analogy there with disability of course that I am not you know who I am despite my impairment in quotes or despite the fact that I now can't do XYZ the way I used to, but because of it. That's a big ask. So I'll settle for just not pretending that it's not happening, right we wake up a day older. And when we become an old person in training it, it is. It is an empathic, you make an empathic connection to the future you just as a trick of thought, you don't have to go spend time on it or anything. But it is a habit of mine that you need to sort of flip a switch or open that door because all prejudice is based in what sociologists call othering seeing a group as other than ourselves, other race, other nationality, other sports team. And the weird thing about ageism, is that "the other", the group we see as as different from ourselves is our own future selves. It is distancing from that future, which is scary that we don't want to think about becoming an old person in training. Sort of its it almost jogs you off that track if you will and onto a different one, like a trolley going to junk junk. And it's just that I'm going to get old someday. And then as you get older, you are looking at older people instead of past them in that I hope empathic way that I describe or at least openhearted, hopefully kind, you see them doing things that seem like smart strategies are really stupid, awful strategies, like older people who are arrogant about how you know I'm old, so I'm special, that's annoying. I don't want to be that way. Or you know, whatever. Or maybe you maybe you do want to be that way. We can do this in our own way. Right? But that we look at and learn from older people around us and are open to what they teach us and it enter and then you know, and think about breaking habits like which we all have, we are all ageist. But here's a simple one, which sounds simple. But like all habits is hard to break when you get to a social gathering. For social gatherings, there was a day when human beings gathered in rooms that will hopefully return. Do you make a beeline for people your own age? Most of us do. Try and break that habit. And I think for older people because of our internalized ageism, we think, "Oh, I'm old, those younger people will go, Oh, what's that? You know, older person coming over? I won't be welcome. You know, it. It really, really doesn't work like that there. Yes, there may be a minority of prejudiced or closed minded people who will think oh, that person doesn't look like me. I'm not interested. But most people are either neutral, or they welcome you. And that is, how we change our own preconceptions and those of people around us.
Dr. Regina Koepp 26:46
Wonderful. A minute ago, you were talking about the U-curve of happiness. You were saying that people tend to be happier at the beginning and at the end of their life and you talk about this in your book and you talk about this in your TED Talk
Ashton Applewhite 27:02
Yeah, I mean, there was just a piece. I just tweeted it yesterday also in Psychology Today about how older people are happier. And that is a function of the way aging itself affects the healthy brain. It's not you don't need to be a Buddhist or a billionaire. When I first encountered this, I was so skeptical, I can't tell you, and my mother in law never did believe it. I would say, Ruth, I'm glad you're taking issue with the best substantiated statistic because it keeps being studied. I thought, well, that must be true if you're healthy. It must be true if you're wealthy, it obtains across class, across marital status across geography as a function of the way aging itself affects the healthy brain. And, you know, I think that I really like to make the point, that if this is true in a culture that tells us that really, I mean, especially in the wake of COVID, you know, your job is to stop being a drain on the economy, and you know, go go kill yourself so that, you know the economy of Texas can do better, right or just not be a burden, this whole horrible burden discourse just from getting old, just being old is supposed to make you less valuable as a human being, you know, that's a really horrible, damaging pernicious narrative. So if this curve persists in that culture, imagine what it's going to look like. As the movement against ageism gains traction is already underway and ageism becomes as unacceptable as any other form of prejudice.
Dr. Regina Koepp 28:37
Will you will you verbalize how the U-curve works since this is on the podcast?
Ashton Applewhite 28:42
The U-curve of happiness. Imagine a smile for my for one of my talks my slide it's an animation so it shows you know, youth on the left and old age on the right and then the little smile, imagine a smile you know happy face, smile. Gradually dipping down into the bottom, which represents middle age and up again into your 80s and 90s. I do think that as we live longer if we do not get better at dealing with dying, and how we want to die, and the kind of choice which means talking, Hello. I'm worried that that curve will dip down at the end. But I would like to point out that one of the reasons people use to justify ageism, and we should never, never, ever try and justify a prejudice, but they're like, Oh, it's because aging is about dying. And no one wants to think about dying. So it's natural not to want to go there. Dying is a discrete biological event that happens at the end of all this living if you have ever been present at someone's death, that's really apparent. So to conflate the two is not the same. But I like to think that one of the reasons what I've chosen to do is important is because talking about aging, paves the way to talking about being mortal. Right. And there's a fantastic quote by a Dutch gerontologist named John Bars, which is in the book: "Autonomy requires collaborators." As we age, as when we were little, we need more help of stuff, I can't lift heavy stuff up into a top shelf anymore, and so on and so on. I can't see as well as I used to, I can't hear as well, I don't like it. But you know, there are hearing aids, there are cataract operations. And there are people to ask for help, without shame, if you're lucky, if you're lucky and have people around you right or, but you know, we need to we need to get past that stigma. And so, the way we do that is by talking about what we think we'll want and establishing who around us is going to help us enact those changes and then they'll they're going to change over time. You know, if I talked to my GP as COVID was striking, she has a lot of older patients, which is why I don't have a geriatrician because I think that she qualifies as one actually. And she said a lot of her patients in their 80s and 90s. And I do not want to pick a number to it. This is completely subjective. What she said a lot of them said, Look, if I get sick, I don't even want to go to the hospital, or I want to go to the hospital, but I don't want to ventilator. Everyone has the right to want to stay alive in any condition. And I feel it's really important to say that, right? Especially in an ageist and ablest culture that tends to grossly undervalue the quality of life and the value of life of older people and people with disabilities. But if we want to be the boss in any way, we need those collaborators. We need to identify them. We need to tell them what we want, and we need to talk about it over time as our wishes may change.
Dr. Regina Koepp 31:55
Mm hmm. And our end of life tools for having these discussions are improving too, which is great
Ashton Applewhite 32:02
In the book, I talked about the Conversation Project. That's the website. I used it when I talked with with my kids and I did a terrible job. I was like I breezed through it. And I was like, okay, so pull the plug. And they're like, Mom, what if you're hit by a cab tomorrow? And I said, well, then I want that liver transplant. They're like, well, that would be an extreme intervention. So I was like, Oh, damn, we have to keep talking, you know, but they noticed and so did I. Which seems counterintuitive, but really isn't that just broaching the conversation makes everyone feel so much better. Everyone dreads it. They're like, Oh, we opened the super scary box. And we saw it was in it, which is scary. It is scary. There's nothing more awful than thinking about losing people you love but just looking at it makes it so much easier to think about and think what we can do to bring about you know, Have these things in the way that we hope will be good for us and good for the people we love.
Dr. Regina Koepp 33:04
Yeah. And even the tools that physicians are using like palliative care and hospice physicians are using for end of life intervention are so much more sophisticated that now you can say if I have a heart attack, I want this type of intervention. So you can can play out scenarios, which is great.
Ashton Applewhite 33:22
Oh, that is great. Instead of just some binary do you want? That's a nice thing about the conversation project I remember. It's, it's zero to five. It's a sliding scale. So it's not Do you want CPR? It's because you don't know what you're going to want. It's Are you worried about too much intervention or too little? And then that paves the way for a nuanced description. Back to my mother in law, she was hospitalized.mI guess, if she died at 94, it was a few years before that. She went into the emergency room for what turned out to be just dehydration, but it left her disoriented. But not too disoriented to rescind her DNR- Do Not Resuscitate. The first thing she did when she got to the hospital was tear up that piece of paper, which I don't think is what I would do. But she made her wishes clear. And that was a gift to everyone.
Dr. Regina Koepp 34:18
Yeah.To your point too, you know, death is terrifying. I agree. I trained in hospice have a lot of folks that I work with that are end of life. And I'll also say back to this U-curve of happiness. Even when people have a ton of time to plan and kind of understand what the end of their life might look like. I have been with people in their final days in their final moments. I remember one patient early on in my training, said on hospice said, Are you afraid to die? He asked me Are you afraid to die? And I was like, in my 30s I was like, Yes, I haven't had like done so many things that I want to do in my life. I don't want to die and in my mind I'm thinking, of course I'm afraid to die I have so much living to do. And his question was not about me. So then I asked him, Are you afraid to die? And he said, No, I'm ready. I'm ready. And I just thought, you know, what a gift for him. He wasn't living the quality of life that he wanted, but what a gift. And maybe he was afraid of pain, which is a lot of time but the fear is around
Ashton Applewhite 35:29
That is another one of those facts that hit me over the head. The longer people live, the less afraid of dying and I again, I was super skeptical to begin with, it doesn't mean people want to die, and they really don't want to die in pain. Right? But it does mean I mean, in the beginning, I thought, well, obviously everything about getting older sucks because that's what I'm, you know, brainwashed to believe. And one of the things that must make it so awful. I literally had this mental image of a like cheesy cartoon in a way, but of the shadow of the Grim Reaper stretching across the the older person, the dying person in like an iron bedstead, you know, like creaky old farmhouse bedstead, and I thought and in addition to dealing with all the other awful things, the Grim Reaper gets one step closer every day. That is not how older people typically this happens in your 80s and 90s. But they grow less afraid of dying. And again, this is a function of the way aging affects the you know, reasonably healthy and well balanced person. It helps to not be a narcissist. My mother in law, God bless her. She was a complete narcissist. She was terrified of dying, she wouldn't talk about being old, she would not talk about anything to do with dying. If we tried to bring it up. She would get snippy and say you just wish I were dead. And it was her death. And I have to say she went out. I thought there's gonna be some moment some reckoning where she's going to realize like no Ruth that's gonna happen to you like it happens to everyone else. Nope. She sailed right out on her own terms, right. It deprived us of any closure of any chance to have a meaningful conversation with her. But that's it's her life and her death. That's her prerogative.
Dr. Regina Koepp 37:18
Mm hmm. So moving from death to sex, because one of the great pleasures in life is intimacy. And of course, intimacy, actually, sex is one of my favorite topics with older adults. As soon as I open the conversation, in fact, this just happened on Thursday, in one of my therapy sessions, the minute I opened up the conversation about sex, the floodgates open and people want to talk... older adults want to talk about sex. And so and often there's such little permission for older adults to talk about sex, and I love that you have a whole chapter in your book devoted to sex and sexuality and exploration and sexual generosity and what I really loved. And and in a minute after we talk about sex, I want to read this what you talk about generosity to self, which is such a beautiful concept.
Ashton Applewhite 38:12
Oh. to look more generously at ourselves. Yeah,
Dr. Regina Koepp 38:15
yeah. And not necessarily in terms of masturbation, but in terms of self-value and how that makes us I think that contributes to sensuality, do we even desire ourselves and
Ashton Applewhite 38:29
Especially women, I mean, I think we have a lot to learn here from the body acceptance or body positive movement, right?
Dr. Regina Koepp 38:37
Ashton Applewhite 38:38
Learn to love the way we are.
Dr. Regina Koepp 38:41
Yes, I need I need some I need to focus on that some more for myself. But can you talk about older adults and sex and sexuality and what inspired you to include a chapter on sexuality and aging?
Ashton Applewhite 38:54
Well, I will say that it's impossible as you know, to generalize about sex and older people because it's as variable even more variable than it is that we were talking about sex and 40 year olds right or, you know, middle aged people. I included in the book because sex is part of life and because one of I think the most damaging and even cruel stereotypes is this I can't even say this phrase without it slithers through my teeth is the sexless senior, blah, right, this idea that you wouldn't want to have sex and even if you did want to have sex, you're you couldn't find anyone willing to have sex with you. And my counter to that is if you look and let me also just say something overarching. It is fine to let the whole thing go for a lot of people, women in particular who have spent their lives you know, squeezing into high heels or whatever the metaphorical equivalent is I'm struggling to be conformed to the image that you know Western culture has what you need to look like in order to be sexually desirable. And to let the whole thing is let go is totally liberating. So I am not suggesting for a minute that aging has to involve staying sexually active. If we agree for the purpose of this conversation that that is the priority of someone's look at your friends who are sexually active. They are not the thinnest. They're not the whitest. They are not the youngest. They are not the prettiest. They are the ones who know their lovers are lucky. Confidence is the ultimate aphrodisiac. And it is really hard, especially as a woman in this culture when there are so many messages that if you weren't thin and white and young, you know that you are undesirable that you deviate from the norm. And it's and the older you get, the harder it is to get that back because of messages. They're there. They're fewer role models out there of older people being sexy. Sexy older women get all this misogynist vileness, but the hell with that, right? It of course has to start between our ears and our seeing ourselves as as, you know, as as attractive, as desirable as beautiful. And, you know, take it from there, but if you feel that way, that is what you project and that is the most important thing you can do. I do want to plug a colleague's wonderful book, Joan Price is really the, the leading writer in this area and her first book is called Naked at Our Age. And now she has a second book out but she really if you want to know more, I'm not I'm not a sexuality expert. She is and she's a terrific resource, Joan Price. Like, you know, I put it in the book because sex is part of life. Why on earth would you stop having sex? If if sex were a priority for you and if you are developed a broader view of what constitutes sex you know, if you think sex is having, you know, a rock, hard erection and wham bam, bam for a long time and a lot of orgasms, you are going to be disappointed. But for women in particular, that is not the best sex I had. And you know it. This is one arena where men, although men are less devalued as they age in social sense, certainly sexual function in men does change. And that's a hard thing to reconcile yourself to. But that is not the way to or certainly not the only way to make your lover happy. And if you can both, you know, whatever gender whatever, whoever's into what you know, can can embrace a broader, slower, more generous, more varied menu, you can have good sex for as long as you want to. If you are flexible about what what form it takes and who you do it with.
Dr. Regina Koepp 42:57
Yeah, there are some Disability Researchers, psychologists who have disabilities themselves and talk about sexuality with disability and they talk about how folks with disabilities, physical disabilities make more creative lovers than folks with able bodies. And yes, because you have to be curious and open and willing to try
Ashton Applewhite 43:25
Dr. Regina Koepp 43:26
I think sex, which is so important to talk about raises awareness around intersectionality of identities, especially as it relates to gender and sexuality. So you you wrote, "wherever we fall on this spectrum, men and women, trans men and trans women, straight and gay, bi and bi curious, monogamous and polyamorous, older and younger, take heart. Let's use not just what's between our legs, but our brains and imaginations to explore new ways of being intimate. Giving pleasure to each other, to think more broadly as sexual beings to act more compassionately and generously, especially towards ourselves, and take that personal and political awareness out into the streets, to think more critically about the culture that profits from our biases and jeopardized when we join forces. Look carefully before we leap and take a chance, the odds of being rewarded are far greater than the culture has brainwashed us to believe." It is so timely, so this was published in 2016. But it is timely today. It is timeless, I will say
Ashton Applewhite 44:36
yeah, it is timeless. I mean in a way. Now, you know that that mainstream society I think is less is more accepting more knowledgeable of alternatives to, you know, cisgender life heteronormative life to challenge those things. There are many more, I mean, talk about spectrum. You know, it's we we have come to understand that gender is a spectrum. And in view of that it seems really ridiculous to be hung up on age as a binary, old young, I mean, obviously age is a spectrum. So what can we learn from that, you know, and as we, as we, in any direction diverged from there's a fabulous writer and activist, a black lesbian poet named Audrey Lorde. And she talks about the "mythical norm", meaning I think her criteria are thin, white male, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian and financially secure. So, medical studies, that is the subject advertising that is the subject or, or his equally thin, white, financially secure girlfriend or maybe she's not financially secure, she lets him bring home the bacon, who knows? But, you know, the more we deviate from that, the more oppressions we encounter. And the more important it is to see those forces and join forces because, you know, when we stay in our silos and like I'm, you know, I may be old but I'm not as old as she is, I may be fat, but I'm not as fat as he is, you know, whatever, all we do is, is we waste our energy fighting each other instead of joining forces to change the status quo, which profits from it profits from our insecurities, just like you know, just like Polish work factory workers and Italian factory workers competing. Instead of joining forces and forging a union and getting the boss of you know, pay them a fair wage. There's a million analogies throughout life and especially in view of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is going so strong, you know, the most important thing we can do right now as anti-ageists to become or be more anti-racist, because when we support that struggle, we not only help make the world the us a better place in which to be black by extension that makes it better to be an older person, not just an older a black person, older anything person, it makes it a better world in which to have a disability to be a woman to be anything other than that magic magic skinny cis white guy who has everything you ever wanted. And of course even that oppresses the skinny, successful white guys, but let's not go there. Right. So we need to we need to see the systems. Audrey Lorde also said there's no such thing as a single issue struggle, because we don't lead single issues lives and that's really what intersectionality is all about. A friend of mine who is an African American woman, who the she's about to she's writing a book and she talks about ageism and all the rest and she just posted this today, "a trope of the feminist movement is the dancer Ginger Rogers had to do everything her male partner Fred Astaire did except backwards in high heels. As a black woman in show business, I've had to do everything Ginger did except in shackles. And now that I'm an older woman, I've had to add balancing a basket on my head."
Dr. Regina Koepp 48:21
Ashton Applewhite 48:23
So that's kind of a lively way to explain intersectionality I want to say that we just added Maryann's TEDx talk to old school, which is a clearinghouse of free vetted anti ageism resources, oldschool.info. So if you want videos, workshops, books, everything's free except the books, public speakers, PowerPoints, all kinds of stuff is there. It's for free , oldschool.info. If you make something or see something or feel we need something that we don't have, which is certainly the case, send it in.
Dr. Regina Koepp 49:05
Ashton, what are some of your favorite ways to help people occupy age and confront ageism?
Ashton Applewhite 49:12
The most important thingany of us can do, and it is an ongoing and iterative process I catch myself doing and thinking ageist things all the time, is to (1) think about your own attitudes towards age and aging. Because as the saying goes, all change starts within. Consciousness raising is the tool that catalyze the women's movement. We cannot challenge bias unless we're aware of it. It's that simple. And these ideas about age are new. So there's no shame in it. I mean, I will say that the first moment is uncomfortable. It's not a moment. But you know, my favorite comment that I get on my book, and believe me, I was there too and still am. There is holy crap. I am really ageist. I had no idea how much my own attitudes were a part of this. So that is the first step, the good news and it's uncomfortable, no one wants to think that they're biased. But the good news is that the very next step is to start is once you let that Genie out of the bottle, you start to see ageism around you. And that is really liberating. That's what consciousness raising did. Women came together and compared notes and realized that it wasn't, you know, the fact that their boss was patting their butts or their husband wouldn't let them control the money, you know, have any say in how money was spent, or they couldn't get hired in the first place. These were not personal problems. They were widely shared political problems that we could come together and do something about, but you don't engage in that process until you think about your own attitudes first and your own part in it. (2) One easy thing to do is to just think about how you use the words old and young. Do you use old We all do as a substitute for sad for slow for not sexy. Do you say I feel so young? You know do you use you know, feel it feel young at heart What does that mean? That means energetic that means with it we can feel those things at any age. So try to break the habit of using old as a placeholder for insert, you know, unappealing thing and young as a placeholder for you know, a positive energetic attribute. And also on my website, thischarirocks.com and on oldschool.info, you can find a free downloadable guide to starting a consciousness raising group around age bias called "Who Me? Ageist?" So download it and think about starting a group if you're a bit more ambitious and I urge you to make it not of people all your own age. And if because think think how much having older friends would help younger people who realize how much of their fears are, you know, are overblown. And also, of course, by having friends of all ages, we, it's very hard to hold on to stereotypes about what young kids are like today or what all old people you know, are conservative or whatever. And, and also, I will say in the self-servingly, in your own self-interest, the best, the most important component of a good old age is not health, and it's not wealth, it's having a solid social network. And there are only two inevitable bad things about aging. They're real and they're they suck: is some loss of physical function, and people you've known all your life are going to die and having younger friends, is a comfort and it does keep your social circle from contracting to terribly although this is a terrible way to put it because it sounds transactional like, I'm going to be friends with some young people, so I won't be left alone. Right? The best way to do it, the best reason to do it is for the same reason. Ideally, we have friends who don't look like us in all sorts of other ways who are different from us, because then it's harder to hold on to our prejudices, which we all have.
Dr. Regina Koepp 53:19
And we become much better problem solvers, more critical thinkers healthier, happier. And the greater your social network, actually and your social activity, like you're saying, the lower your risk for dementia and other complications that are higher risk with age.Where can people learn more about you?
Ashton Applewhite 53:39
You can find me at thischairrocks.com is my website. I've been thinking out loud about this in blog forum for over a decade now. So if you don't want to spring for the book, you can find a lot of stuff there. You can download the intro of the book for free and also there is a link there or separately to "Yo, is this ageist?" which is a q&a blog modeled with permission on the supurb, "Yo, is this racist?" blog, which he started long before I started mine. Because we're uncomfortable talking about race I started "Yo, is this ageist?" because we're pretty ignorant about ageism. So it is a place where you can send in a picture, something you've heard something, you've said, a photo you've taken, a tweet, whatever, and asked me to weigh in on whether or not it is ageist and why, and I try to be funny about. It's hard to do.
Dr. Regina Koepp 54:36
It's been such a delight to talk with you and really have a genuine conversation about aging, ageism, olders. And youngers.
Ashton Applewhite 54:44
There you go. You're in it. So you'll you'll get used to it.
Dr. Regina Koepp 54:48
Well, I'm glad that you shared your manifesto against ageism with all of us because we all need it. And I'm going to join your movement with olders
Ashton Applewhite 54:57
You're already in it. I hate to tell you. Olders and younger
Dr. Regina Koepp 55:00
Olders and youngers and everyone in between.
Dr. Regina Koepp 55:04
How energizing is Ashton Applewhite? I can't recommend her book highly enough. This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism is available almost everywhere. I'll link to where you can buy it in my show notes and to the other resources that we talked about in today's episode.
Dr. Regina Koepp 55:24
That's all for today. If you liked this episode, be sure to subscribe and leave a review. subscriptions and reviews help people to find this show. As always, the information shared in this episode is for educational purposes only, and should not take the place of licensed medical or mental health care. I'll see you next week. Same time, same place. Lots of love to you and your family. Bye for now.
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