Ashton Applewhite stands before a room of dozens of people expecting to hear the same ‘ol spiel. Instead, she poses a question:
“What is every person in this room going to become?”
When no one offers an answer she continues. “Older. The prospect has an awful lot of us scared stiff.”
A renewed focus on ageism—discrimination on the basis of age—marked the 21st annual Pioneer Network conference, which recently took place in Denver. Ashton’s question kicked off an all-day intensive workshop called From Awareness to Advocacy: From Ageism to Age Pride. She was joined by anti-ageism advocates Mel Coppola, Sister Imelda, and Carmen Bowmen.
“We’re planning to launch an initiative in 2019 that has international, national, state and community impact,” said Pioneer Network CEO Penny Cook. “Ageism is one part of our focus to change the lens of aging.” Penny continued that in order to change the culture of caring for our elders, we need to change the way aging is viewed in our society.
More than 700 people attended the conference, a potent mix of newcomers and veterans of the movement. From Awareness to Advocacy: From Ageism to Age Pride was a highlight. “The ageism session was fantastic,” one attendee said. “I learned as much from other participants as I did from the guides. They did a great job at making it interactive.”
Ashton shifted consciousness by first turning the concept of successful aging on its head. Together we explored how damaging it can be to set the measure anywhere other than waking up in the morning for success. When we set markers for success that are not achievable, we create shame and markets for anti-aging products. Recognizing the gifts that aging has to give is paramount. And the first step to being able to do that is dismantling the ageism at the root of the negative perceptions.
“I’m not saying that getting older is easy,” Ashton went on to explain. “We’re all worried about some aspect of it, whether of running out of money, or getting sick, or ending up alone— and those fears are legitimate and real. But it never dawns on most of us that the experience of reaching old age — or middle age, or even aging past youth — can be better or worse depending on the culture in which it takes place.”
During the intensive, lots of space was given to the wisdom in the room. Each of us had a chance to draw on and share what we have experienced. The personal experiences were varied and awe-inspiring. The eclectic audience included past and present CEOs of the Eden Alternative Chris Perna and Jill Vitale-Aussem, several of Pioneer Network’s founders, elders living in long-term care, long-term care staff, surveyors, ombudsman, academics such as Wendy Lustbader, culture change veterans like Laura Beck, a group of nuns, new blood such as Jenna Dion, continuing care leadership such as Amy Gorley, health care C-suites like Tammy Marshall and more.
In addition to Ashton’s talk about ageism, Carmen Bowmen illuminated the importance of moving from fake to real in long-term care. Sister Imelda and Mel Coppola led the group in spirited discussions. Throughout the day ideas were galvanized into seeds of change to take home.
For decades, there has been a “culture change movement” led by Pioneer Network, ChangingAging, The Eden Alternative, and others. Ageism is at the root of the change we’re all looking for. Ageism is one of, if not the, biggest obstacles to creating a culture which reduces the unnecessary suffering we currently pile on the experience of aging through prejudice.
“It doesn’t make much sense to go through life pretending that something that’s happening to us is never going to happen to us,” Ashton pointed out. “But that’s how most of us act when it comes to getting older. Ageism feeds on that denial: our reluctance to acknowledge that we are aging—all of us, right now. If there’s a lot more road behind you than ahead, you might even be old.”
Awareness about ageism is the first step towards fighting it. But change happens through action, both internal and external. We need to check our own internal biases and work to shift them. (Curious how age biased you are? Take this test created by Harvard’s Project Implicit) We need actionable tools and resources to bring about change in our communities.
Ashton has long dreamed of a clearinghouse where people can find the resources they need to dismantle ageism. Near the end of the day, she was able to share that this dream had become a reality, OldSchool.info. I was honored to be able to announce the project we have been working on with fellow age activist Ryan Backer.
“Movements need people. (That would be you),” Ashton wrote in her blog post announcing OldSchool.info. “Movements need purpose (To make the world a better place in which to grow old. And, while we’re at it, to be young, or have a disability, or be queer or non-rich or non-white.) And movements need tools.”
In the weeks since the conference, actionable ideas sparked in that room have already taken root. For example, during the workshop, Jill Vitale-Aussem shared a story. That story became a blog post. The blog post inspired Pioneer Network, The Eden Alternative, and LeadingAge to collaborate on a letter that acts as an agent to promote change. I can’t wait to see the stories that come from this initiative. There is a spirit now of coming together around ageism.
“Let’s not be afraid of living as we become olders,” one participant said. “Ashton put this message so simply that we should all show our age pride. Lived it, earned it – been there done that and now enjoying this. The ‘Age Cooties’ has already become a topic back home here. We have the right to BE ALIVE AND ENJOY so let’s get to it ….. at the same time involve our youth.”
At the end of the day, Penny gave us all a pledge to sign to commit to battling ageism. “This work will only go so far unless we change the perception of aging,” it read. Download your copy here, post it to social media in response to this article, and join the movement against Ageism.
A Alabi says
I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I agree that ageism needs to not be as common in our society. Growing old has its struggles but it is not all bad, there are struggles in all stages of life but as a society we need to be as accommodating with our aging population as we are with various other demographics. Awarding older adults the respect and assistance they deserve instead of ignoring that they exist or that one day each of us will fit in this demographic one way or another. In class, we have discussed the lack of awareness among older people when it comes to their health and various changes that occur over time in various aspects of their life. We look at organizations that work to make older adults take a more active part in their health , creating new routines to live with various onset limitations,and education about public and economic rights and privileges that they have as older adults.
Malgorzata Bondyra says
I’m a student at UMBC in Baltimore, MD, and I’m studying Management of Aging Services at the Erickson School. This program is highly interesting and unique, with a strong focus on bringing knowledge of aging to a higher level for the better care of older adults and training students to help people to understand how the aging process can be one of great joy, success and fulfillment. I found this post to be most interesting in that many of the points seem to mirror the things we are studying. I was impressed that over 700 people attending the interactive conference, and I was even more impressed that it incorporated a diverse age group for a creative approach that could lead to new ideas for serving the older population. Older and younger people learning from each other is key to growth across generations. I read that it is our own negative perceptions of aging, and even fear of aging, that can cause ageism within us. This is ironic since we all age and there is no avoiding it. We would all benefit by better understanding the joys and the positives that can be part of aging, and we would also all benefit by understanding that we are all always learning, or at least able to learn, and that the aging journey can be fulfilling and enjoyable.
Robert F. says
My name is Robert and I am currently enrolled in AGNG320 at the Erickson School of aging. I agree with this blog completely. People need to being afraid to age and also people need to stop looking down on people who have aged. It is natural and every person is going to go through it. If people were able to embrace it, then it would make it a lot easier for people to deal with it. Also, it does take a group of people to help a person age. We have learned in this class that it is very important to have a support system as you get older. If a person has a good support system they will be able to stay in good spirits which will help them age better. The biggest problem most people have is the mental hurdle of getting older. If that gets easier to overcome then aging itself will become easier. I also agree with the statement to not be afraid of getting older. It is possible that people are afraid of getting older because people associate getting older with dying. That makes sense however, people die at any age, therefore getting older should not be looked at as being scary rather it should be looked at as a positive thing. This is why i believe there needs to be less agism and people should stop looking at aging as a bad thing.
Mindy L. says
I am currently a college student majoring in Management of Aging Studies. As a student enrolled in AGNG320 at the Erickson School of Aging, ageism was one of the first things I learned in the course. I really enjoyed reading this article and a lot of the quotes had an extremely deep meaning. Ageism is not a popular topic that is being discussed like racism and sexism. People view ageism as a “social norm” because everyone has been a part of it so there is no outside perspective. We are aging every day, every second of the day and we need to be mindful of that when we are being ageist towards others. I like the quote from Ashton; “It doesn’t make much sense to go through life pretending that something that’s happening to us is never going to happen to us.” Instead of downplaying and viewing aging as a negative aspect to life, we need to celebrate the aging process. Research shows that in fact older persons are way more happier and enjoying life than the middle aged. Aging is a beautiful thing and when more people understand and embrace this idea, the aging process will start to have a more positive connotation around it.