The displays of unabashed ageism over the past few months have been truly horrific. In the U.K., a journalist actually suggested the virus could benefit the economy by “culling” older Britons. Online trolls have nicknamed the virus the Boomer Remover. Dan Patrick, the Texas Lieutenant Governor, raised the truly vile idea that grandparents might sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy. Everyday we hear news of nursing homes being overrun by the virus, and we can’t help but sense the general lack of concern for the inhabitants and those who care for them.
Despite these developments, Ashton Applewhite, a prominent anti-ageism activist and author of This Chair Rocks, told 50-plus participants at a NextTribe virtual event that she saw reasons to be optimistic. “COVID isn’t making ageism worse; it is exposing the ageism, ableism, racism, but especially ageism, in society, because people are more aware of it than ever before,” she said. “This gives us a historic opportunity to explore that and build on that. We know social change is hard, but so many more people are aware.”
We start aging the day we’re born. We all know that. But instead of seeing aging as part of the life-death continuum, as God’s natural cycle, our society has taught us to fear it. “Ageism, like all prejudices, is socially constructed,” Applewhite says. “We make it up, just like we make up racism. We make up homophobia. And we can unmake it.”
She sees capitalism at the root of the problem. “Capitalism is a system that views its least productive members as disposable,” she says. “Don’t get me started on the notion that older people aren’t productive in all sorts of ways.”
As we see the injustice of a society that has more or less written off older people during the pandemic, we can use that outrage, Applewhite says, to tackle the broader issues. “We’re not going to value the people in the nursing homes, the people who care for them, we’re not going to end discrimination in the workplace, not going to help older women who want to stay employed and get equal pay etcetera,” she says, “without changing the way we look at ageism itself in the culture. That’s why we need a grass roots movement.”
Applewhite considers the women’s movement an effective template for the anti-ageism effort. “Consciousness raising helped women see that the problems and barriers they were encountering were not personal problems, they there the results of sexual forces–sexism, harassment, patriarchy. And that we could come together and do something about it. That’s what we need to do around ageism.”
The Next Steps
When one of the viewers asked Applewhite what we should be doing right now to help combat ageism, she was very clear on where to start. “The most powerful thing you can do is stop and look at your own attitudes toward age and ageism. We can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it. We’re all biased. Most of us haven’t thought about ageism. That’s an uncomfortable reckoning. Once you see your own ageism, you start to see it in the world around you. And that’s really liberating. That’s what consciousness raising does on a mass basis. That’s what catalyzed the women’s movement.”
Applewhite reports that on her website, Old School, she has free, downloadable information on how to start a consciousness-raising movement around ageism. “I’m itching for a smart feminist or 10 to adapt it into a guide to address ageism and sexism for women.”
As the co-founder of NextTribe, I see an opportunity to lend our network of women to the effort. I would love to see our smart, engaged members who are Aging Boldly become leaders in the ageism x sexism consciousness-raising movement. On Wednesday June 17th at 6 p.m. ET, I have scheduled a virtual nationwide exploratory meeting for anyone who is interested in taking part–creating a guide, forming smaller groups, increasing awareness. We’ll talk about how we can be most effective, and if you’re a natural leader, we’ll be looking for someone to take the reins.
Top photo by Kyle O’Leary.