I recently began writing a blog from the perspective of a 67-year-old man who was taking a big, hopeful jump to the next chapter of his life. This at the end of long stints doing communications at a downtown Washington D.C. trade association, and previously with a U.S. Senator.
As I searched for what I hoped to be an “encore” type position, where I could contribute to the social welfare, I learned I was no longer the optimum age for finding a new job in D.C., despite my belief that I had many years of meaningful work still ahead of me.
While following the traditional guidance to scrub age-references from my resume, and reaching out to a broad network of associates, I also began consuming books, podcasts, and social media about growing older to help better understand what was happening to me and so many others at a similar time in their lives.
Early on, I discovered Ashton Applewhite, who is clearly one of the most dynamic forces out there when it comes to speaking out against age discrimination. Her book, This Chair Rocks, published by Celadon Books is the subject of this review.
“This book Totally Rocks” — Anne Lamott
While the book is a strong manifesto against ageism, it is also filled with joyful exuberance about life in all its dimensions. It’s not just for those over 50, or 60, or 70. But it lights a path for all ages in ways to live a better life. And it’s hard to come away, after a reading, without remembering her joy at dancing throughout the night, even though: “My nights on the dance floor now end in a hot bath with ice packs on both knees. (Looks ridiculous, feels great)”
Catalyzing a Movement to End Age Discrimination
Even before reading the book, I had watched Applewhite’s TED Talk: Let’s End Ageism and read her blogs: The eponymously named This Chair Rocks and the interactive Yo, Is This Ageist? and I combed through the Old School.info clearinghouse, which she set up to provide resources about being older in society today. These, coupled with an active social media presence, are all tools, she says, ”to help catalyze a movement to make discrimination on the basis of age as unacceptable as any other kind.”
In her book’s introduction, Applewhite writes:
“Aging is a natural, powerful, lifelong process. So how come so many of us unthinkingly assume that depression, diapers, and dementia lie ahead? That the 20th century’s astonishing leap in life expectancy is a disaster-in-the-making? Underlying all the hand-wringing is ageism: discrimination that sidelines and silences older people.”
Discovering an Empowering New World
Even while I was consuming Applewhite’s writing, I found a treasure trove of other books, podcasts, and social media by a growing force of individuals and organizations fighting on behalf of older members of our society and lighting the path for older people to follow.
This was not just about the more traditional battles in our nation’s capital involving social safety net programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and affordable housing. These are all critically important and pre-requisites for survival for millions of people. The issues that focused my attention, however, went to the core of what it means to be an older person and how can I, and others like me, go about living a full and vibrant life with passion and purpose.
My reading included books like “How to Life Forever” by Encore.org’s CEO Mark Freedman, who says that it’s through mentoring, working with the next generation – and through intergenerational relationships that we live on; Chip Conley’s “Wisdom@Work; the Making of a Modern Elder,” who found his “next chapter” in life by being a senior mentor/intern at Airbnb (kind of like Robert DeNiro in the movie The Intern.) And websites like nextforme.com, strianews.com, and nextavenue.com
I also picked up books that were more career-focused: John Tarnoff’s nicely titled “Boomer Reinvention,” Marci Albahor’s “Encore Career Handbook,” and Marc Miller’s “Repurpose Your Career: A Practical Guide for Baby Boomers.” After listening to some of Marc’s podcasts, I also signed up for an online career guidance workshop that he runs. When Marc said he had an opportunity to get a pre-release version of This Chair Rocks for a member interested in doing a review, I jumped at the opportunity.
Being Upfront About Age
Applewhite opens her book with a line that struck home for me: “I’ve never lied about my age — I have no problem saying ‘I’m sixty-six’ loud and clear — but I sure know a lot of people who do.”
These words echoed what I had written in my own not yet published blog: “I am 67. No longer ashamed of being old. In fact, realizing the value of what my age has produced. No longer hiding it. I am seeking the next chapter, reinventing myself once again.”
Pushing Back Against Ageist Jokes
I had never lied about my age. But when asked how old I was, I’d always find a way to avoid answering, feeling embarrassed. That was not surprising since most of the people I worked with were 10-20-30-40 years younger. I can even recall being the subject of a joke one day when a colleague suggested a party could be held at lunch because an evening event might be “too late for some of the older folks on the team.” I stayed silent, smiling, but felt uneasy inside.
Applewhite is not one to keep quiet when faced with an ageist joke — no matter how innocent it might seem. Her book is filled with calls to “push back” and “reject ageist stereotypes.” Still, she acknowledges, getting past the dread that people often feel about getting older is not easy:
“Hitting sixty felt just fine. I knew the years were bestowing more than they took away. … But I had yet to internalize that knowledge, to integrate it into my beliefs and attitudes, to embed it into my sense of self and my place in the world, to make it my own. I had to acknowledge and start letting go of the prejudices about aging that had been drummed into me since childhood by the media and popular culture. Wrinkles are ugly. Old people are incompetent. It’s sad to be old. Absorbing these fallacies had been effortless. Banishing them is unsettling, and infinitely harder. Present tense because I’m still at it, as I’m reminded on a regular basis.”
She says that the hardest attitude about the aging issue to transcend is “a prejudice against myself — my own future, older self — as inferior to my younger self. That’s the linchpin of age denial.”
Ageism is Drummed into Us from Early On
Ditto for me. It’s easy to read about ways I can raise my own consciousness. It’s much harder to actually cast aside the dread I’ve felt in the past about growing old. As Applewhite notes, the hardest thing is to escape “a prejudice against myself — my own future, older self — as inferior to my younger self. That’s the linchpin of age denial.”
“Age bias has yet to bleep onto the cultural radar—it’s the last socially sanctioned prejudice. We know that diversity means including people of different races, genders, abilities, and sexual orientation; why is age typically omitted? Racist and sexist comments no longer get a pass, but who even blinks when older people are described as worthless? Or incompetent, or “out of it,” or boring, or even repulsive?”
Back when she was still in her 50’s, Applewhite worked in a cubicle at the American Museum of National History and “the hazy prospect of growing old filled me with something between free-floating anxiety and stomach-churning dread.”
Stepping Out of the Cubicle
A chance dinner conversation in 2007, she says, got her started on a journey learning about longevity, interviewing people over 80 who work, and blogging about it. This began a “gradual awakening” over the next 12 years. “The more I learned, the better I felt about the years ahead.”
I feel much like Applewhite when she first set out away from her cubicle. I still have much to learn as I struggle to shed fears about aging and its consequences. But the dedication and spirit she has shown in writing her book, have helped empower me to move ahead on my own.
I urge others to read This Chair Rocks, whether you are grappling with suddenly waking up as an older American; have family or friends who are coping with the same issues, or even if you are a lot younger and realize that before you know it, you too will no longer be so young.
As Applewhite learned in the early days of her “journey,” while speaking with Marcia Muth, an 88-year-old folk artist in Santa Fe, “You are never too old, and it’s never too late.”
This was written by Howard Gantman. Howard is a writer, editor, and communications strategist focused on the longevity community, digital safety, and government reform. Previously, while in Washington, D.C., he served as a trade association vice president of communications, as Staff Director of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies during the first Obama inauguration, and he was Communications Director for Senator Dianne Feinstein for nine years. Earlier in his career, in Los Angeles, he was a public affairs consultant, Communications Director and Chief Legislative Aide for two City Councilmembers and a journalist for nearly a decade. He lives on Capitol Hill with his wife, daughter, and dog.