Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Marco Verch.

Sassy. Smart. No-nonsense. Empowering. Bold. Smart (we said that already?). That string of adjectives describes Ashton Applewhite, the U.S.-born writer-activist who originated This Chair Rocks, the hugely popular anti-ageism project, and wrote the bestseller, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. She regularly engages, shocks, informs and delights on her blog, “Yo, Is This Ageist?

 “How ageism warps our view of long life” was the topic of Applewhite’s keynote address at the 13th Annual Knowledge Exchange, hosted by the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (N.I.C.E.), based out of the University of Toronto and Ryerson University’s National Institute on Aging, in April 2018.

In Toronto, Ashton Applewhite entertained and inspired an audiences with her candid assessment of ageism. Photo: Bevin Farrand.

During her riveting talk, attended by healthcare practitioners, educators in geriatrics and gerontology, community workers, nurses specializing in gerontology, and policy-makers, among others, Applewhite spoke about aging as a natural, lifelong, powerful process and debunked myths and assumptions that depression, diapers and dementia await all older adults. “It’s discrimination– not aging – that sidelines and silences older people,” she emphasized.

Here are 10 of myths Applewhite debunked during her keynote speech:

  1. Adults 65 and over are pretty much the same.
    “Why do marketers and even some healthcare professionals lump people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s into one category of 60-plus?” she asks. “We’d never clump together the 20somethings, the 30somethings and the 40somethings. Just as the needs of a 25 year old differ from a 40 year old, so too do the needs and desires of a 63 year old differ from those of an 81 year old.”

2. Ageism is the same for men and women.
Women bear the brunt of aging. “It’s not having vaginas that makes life harder for women. It’s sexism. We bear the brunt of the equation of beauty with youth and youth with power — the double-whammy of ageism and sexism.”

3. Older people aren’t having sex.
“Hello! Have you talked recently to anyone living in a retirement centre? We don’t automatically assume aging adults opt out of singing or eating ice cream. So why would we assume they stop making love?”

4. Aging adults are sad.  “Here’s the kicker: people are happiest at the beginning and the end of their life. Many of us call it the ‘U-Curve of Happiness.’ Just Google it to see the Happy Face reflecting a huge smile at the childhood stage and then again at the end-of-life stage. Even as age strips us of things we cherish —physical strength, beloved friends, toned flesh – we grow more content.”

5. It’s only the young who are ageist.

Often, it’s seniors who feed into the myths about aging – not just the young. Older people can be the most prejudiced of all, because we’ve had a lifetime to internalize negative myths and stereotypes—to make them part of our identity.

6. Older people are older people, regardless of race and class. 

“The way we grow old is governed by a whole range of variables, including environment, personality, and genes, compounded by class, gender, race, luck, and the churnings of the global economy – over which we have varying degrees of control. The effects compound each other and add up over time, which is why the poorest of the poor, all around the world, are older women of colour.”

7. The majority of those over the age of 85 are care-dependent or live in facilities.
“Wrong. Only a small proportion of older people are care-dependent. In the United States, only 10 per cent of Americans over 85 live in a nursing home.” According to Statistics Canada, 90 per cent of seniors live in the community – meaning in their own homes and apartments. Only 7 per cent of Canadians over the age of 80 live in a retirement facility or nursing home.

8. Ageing adults are terrified of death.
“The older we grow, the less afraid we are of dying,” states Applewhite.

9. The ageing population will increase the cost of healthcare.
Not as much as expected, according to Applewhite. “The notion that older North Americans are an inevitable sink for healthcare dollars is incorrect, and the WHO [World Health Organization] reports there’s growing evidence that at around age 70, healthcare expenditures per person fall significantly.” The WHO, in its 2015 World Report on Ageing and Health states: “Contrary to common assumptions, ageing has far less influence on health care expenditures than other factors, including the high costs of new medical technologies.” Many aging adults rely on their own financial resources and savings for their healthcare, and many – including those 70-year-old adults who are still working – are healthy and aren’t in need of healthcare.

10. As long as an older person isn’t ill, he or she is fine.

As Applewhite has emphasized many times in her blog and lectures that good health in older age is not just the absence of disease. While physical decline is inevitable, poor health is not. “People get chronic conditions but we learn to live with them. We find ways to keep doing the things we love – versions of them, at least. No single age-related condition affects most older people. Some of the oldest of the old live well not by avoiding illness, but despite it. Think what a global anti-ageism campaign would do to extend not just lifespan but ‘healthspan.’”