After reading many books about aging, I thought I had narrowed them down to two basic stories: “aging is sad” versus “aging is glorious.” This Chair Rocks by Ashton Applewhite is something different. Her basic message is that aging is inevitable. Our task is to make this stage of life as positive as possible, a goal that demands fundamental societal change.
The most serious roadblock to living a good long life is ageism, Applewhite argues. It pervades American society, making it difficult for older people—whom she calls “olders”– to lead productive (or even safe) lives. Because American business devalues the old, it is hard for those over fifty to find jobs. Since people are living longer and health care costs are rising, there has been a big spike in poverty rates for older people. In addition, there is a serious crisis in long term care, something few Americans can afford.
Ageism is not only prevalent among the young and middle aged. Old people themselves are guilty of it. All the jokes about senior moments and “over the hill” birthdays that circulate among all ages undermine the confidence of olders. She chides those who argue that healthy behaviors can ward off debilitating effects of aging, propagating stories of “super geezers” who climb the Himalayas in their nineties. While such people exist, presenting their stories as the new normal only serves to shame those who experience the decreased mobility that aging often brings.
Applewhite has particularly harsh words for the “anti-aging” industry in America, which has convinced many of us that signs of aging are somehow shameful. “Who says wrinkles are ugly and curves unattractive? The multi-billion dollar skin care and weight loss industries. You can’t make money off satisfaction, but shame and fear create markets than advertisers and marketers exploit.”(135) Will I take her advice and give up my expensive (and, as far as I can tell, useless) skin cream?
There is a sixties era rabble rousing vibe to this book, particularly in the conclusion. All of us should resist ageist assumptions and comments, because ageism is as harmful to society as racism and sexism. Older people must change their behavior by admitting their age, resisting the anti-aging industry, and talking honestly about their needs. On a broader level, she proposes a fundamental reorganization of public priorities to ensure housing, jobs, and healthcare for older Americans. For her, this is the perfect issue to create a broad coalition for social change, since all of us age.
On a recent trip to the Bay Area, a TSA employee asked me if I were 75 or older. I’m sure his intention was kind—those born before a certain date don’t have to take off their shoes. Even though he had just added seven years added to my age, I simply said no and joined the line with everyone else. Did I miss the opportunity for a snappy, educational reply?