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This Chair Rocks: Ashton Applewhite and the revolution against ageism

27 May 2016

This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite

When thinking about ageing stereotypes, perhaps the most common image that comes to mind is that of the rocking chair. Passive and withdrawn - in motion without getting anywhere. This image of a grandparent snoozing in a large wicker rocker might be harmless, even charming to some of us.

Ashton Applewhite would disagree. The provocative title of her recent book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism upends this stereotype. It focuses its attention to the timely issue of why age-based discrimination remains one of the last identity-based '-isms' to be widely discussed or tackled.

Why are we scared of ageing?

"What was it in culture that had me and so many others so freaked out about the prospect of living to 80 or 90?" Applewhite asks.

Indeed, is being sent to the rocking chair in the corner, literally and figuratively, inevitable as we grow older? Or should older people have the choice to embody the more contemporary definition of "rocks"?

In This Chair Rocks, Applewhite unravels the consequences of leaving ageist preconceptions unchallenged. Her sharp wit, accessible writing and strong empirical research disentangle assumptions about the ageing process from the facts. At a time when misinformation and ignorance dominate, opening up this discussion is vital.

The relationship between the brain, the body and ageing is one of the most feared in this arena. However, Applewhite analyses the dense academic research on dementia, cognition and bodily illness with clarity. She unflinchingly concludes that "serious mental decline is not a normal or inevitable part of aging". On the prospects of a sure descent into senility, she asserts that such ideas are "not even close" to the truth.

Obsessing over health isn't healthy, she also points out. Healthy ageing and chronic disease "can and do coexist" in many older people.

Sex, work and death

Sex is also tackled without blushing. She acknowledges that "nowhere is ageism more sexist, and vicious, than in the domain of sexuality", resisting the notion of the "sexless senior" with well-supported arguments.

"The right to intimacy is life-long," Applewhite writes, pointing out the increasing prevalence of STDs among older populations as a consequence of denying the existence of their sexual intimacy.

Issues of work and retirement are similarly scrutinised. Applewhite points out the unfortunate difficulties older people face in finding and continuing to work, despite their valuable experiences and perspectives. However, she stresses that older people should not be in a position where they have no choice but to work until the day they die.

Applewhite also examines end of life, sharing that very different thoughts occupy you when looking at death straight in the eye rather than from a distance.

"Glossing over the very real challenges of late life does no one any favors, but neither does the assumption that even highly circumscribed lives are not worth living," she rightly remarks.

Who are we to pity bed-ridden older people when we "grossly underestimate the quality of life that the old enjoy"? The experience of dying is very different on the inside.

She challenges us to consider what older people actually want. Why do we often decide matters for them, even when it comes to how they spend the last chapters of their lives?

Can This Chair Rocks create change?

This Chair Rocks speaks with a force that has the capacity to change the reality of all who read it. You are never underestimated as a reader. While acknowledging the societal forces that limit individual potential, it nonetheless provides empowering suggestions through which each person can resist age discrimination. Applewhite constantly challenges the reader: what can you do, and what can we do together?

Applewhite's manifesto is an excellent work that speaks with powerful personal experience and a wealth of evidence. It cuts through the ignorance on age, and provides the tools with which to rebuild afterwards. Most importantly, it acknowledges that every person's voice matters - collaboration is necessary given how ingrained ageism has become. Applewhite's manifesto comes at a time of accelerating global ageing, and - despite its largely North American setting - is a much needed jolt to move people all over the world to join the revolution against ageism.

Find out more about This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageing.

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Author profile

Kazuki Yamada
Country: Japan and the Philippines
Job title: MA Ageing and Society student

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.