The View from 102: Lessons from a Century of Life Experience

Is there anything more amazing than at long talk with a 102-year old? There is a time-machine feeling as you listen to a century of memories. So it was talking with Wanda, age 102. Living comfortably in a senior community in upstate New York, Wanda is physically active and mentally sharp – indeed, we spent some time discussing books she was reading. Her lessons are grounded both in a childhood remarkably different from today, as well as her over a century of life experience.

She reflected on her childhood:

Well, the changes since I was a child! We had a horse and buggy. We had a telephone on the wall. Things were a lot different than they are today. I mean, we didn’t have any frozen vegetables. We didn’t have anything like that. We lived on a farm, we had chickens, if you were going to the grocery store you’d take your eggs and you’d get so much money for the eggs and then you’d buy sugar and stuff with the money. My grandmother and my mom did that.

There weren’t washing machines. We had washboards, as they called them. Hang the clothes out on the line. In the wintertime you take them down when you split the wood, you’d have to take them inside to let them thaw, a lot of the times they would just freeze. And if the sun wasn’t out then they wouldn’t defrost very well. And I used to wear long underwear. And if they didn’t defrost then it was frozen underwear!

I was eager to see what a 102-year old would offer as her lessons for living. Here are some pieces of advice Wanda wanted to pass on to younger people.

You just have to take one day at a time. And just be thankful for what you have, and try to do the best you can. Get up in the morning and thank the Lord you’re up. Hopefully you’ll have a good day. I don’t do anything special; just depend on the Lord because if the Lord’s going to take me, He’s going to take me.

If you have a big problem, try to figure it out. Talk to somebody that you think could help you.

Don’t do drugs. I just heard somebody on television this morning who shot somebody; he did it because he was on drugs. I think if you get hooked on it, it’s a bad situation. And don’t get drunk. I don’t think you should get drunk.

Try to be as truthful as you can. Honesty, and trying to help as much as you can. Look at what’s happening in Washington, every time you turn around somebody’s greedy, getting into somebody’s pocket.

I think you should do things that are naturally good for you, eat healthy food, and try to do things that will keep you healthy. And have a good time – don’t forget that!

What You Do When You’re Young Will Hunt You Up When You Get Old

Manuel, 79, has stayed healthy for nearly 80 years. His lesson? Start thinking about the consequences of your health behaviors while you are young:

What you do when you’re young, it will hunt you up when you get old.  If you’re young,  take care of your body and live right and go to the doctor and keep your self in good shape. And don’t abuse your body in any way, shape, or form and everything.

Like the good book says, too much of anything will hurt you.  Too much smoking will hurt you, too much drinking, too much drugs will hurt you, too much medicine will hurt you.  So you can’t overdo any of those things, that’s what it takes to keep your body in shape so that when you get old your body is not hurt.  Now if you don’t do that, a lot of things might come out later on in life.

Edwina’s Advice about Growing Old: “Find the Magic!”

Edwina Elbert, 94, on the adventure of aging:

I tell people: “Each person born has been chosen by fate from a trillion possibilities. How then can you complain of bad luck when you have won the greatest lottery of them all?”Now isn’t that true?

People have to learn to be thankful.  To see the wonders of this world – you know, we are here for such a short time.  I didn’t realize I was old until I was ninety years old.  There’s still so much to see and so much to read, and so much to learn.  We should be thankful that we’ve had this opportunity to live.  It’s strange about this…the way that it’s all set up so that we only have a certain length of time. But we’re lucky.  Aren’t we lucky to have seen the Empire State building and all of this stuff?

My advice about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.  The world is a magical place in lots of ways.  To enjoy getting up in the morning and watching the sun come up.  And that’s something that you can do when you are growing older.  You can be grateful, happy for the things that have happened.  You should enjoy your life.  Grow a little.

Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean that you need to stop growing. I used to think that when you got old you sat back in a rocking chair and let the world go by.  Well that’s not for me and that’s not for a lot of people.  I can’t dance anymore, but if I could I would.

There’s no reason for anybody in this world to ever be bored.  That’s one thing I’ve always said.  Well if I died and went to heaven, I’d be bored to death with how they say heaven is.  There’s no need for you to be bored in this world.  There’s so much out there.  And your attitude, be optimistic.  I’ve been optimistic all my life.  Even as a little girl I can remember that no matter what happened it would turn out all right.  In this country almost everybody is taking antidepressants.  Why in the world are people taking antidepressants?  It should be a wonderful world.  Mine has been a great ride, believe me.

The Key to Success? Say Yes!

What is one major key to success at work? The elders in the Legacy Project have a strong recommendation: Say “yes” when opportunities come up. When I think of this lesson for living, one particular elder comes to mind: Father John Wilson.

The benefits “saying yes” at work are crucial for younger people in the early stages of their careers. They have time to start over again if something doesn’t pan out, and the possible gain by taking an uncertain step forward can be enormous. But the rewards of saying yes are not limited to the young, as Fr. John taught me.

On a hot August day, I pulled up to a dignified stone building with a row of gothic windows – very fitting for the residence of this Catholic university’s priests. I was met at the door by Father John. After he ushered me into the cool interior and we began our meeting in its quiet sitting room, I found myself in the presence of one of the happiest people I have ever met. Fr. John embodies a kind of peaceful enjoyment of life that seems a rarity today.

To the uninitiated it may seem odd to ask someone for career advice who tells you: “I entered the religious life when I was twenty, and I’ve been in for fifty-seven years.” What could happen during that time to a priest? It’s pretty much weddings, baptisms, and funerals, right?

Not in Fr. John’s case. He spent a career involved in secondary education, moving from being  the rector of a theological seminary to stints as president and rector of Jesuit schools, and as a translator at high-level conferences at the Vatican and for some of the century’s leading theologians. Despite some worries and self-doubt, when asked, he said yes to new opportunities.

For example, at one point in his career, Fr. John was asked to be the head of a large urban high school.

And I told them, “I think you’re making a mistake because the only thing that I know about a high school is that I once went to one and I know nothing else.” But I got the job anyway, okay. So you get the job and what you have to do is you have to take over. You have to make sure that it functions. You have decisions to be made each day and so forth and so on. And as long as you don’t take yourself seriously, you’re fine. It turned out to be wonderful.

But it was when he reached the age of our Legacy Project elders that Fr. John had to decide about a new opportunity – Would it be “yes” or “no?”

I was still working at age 69 when we got word that one of our men was murdered in Jamaica. He was a young Canadian priest, a man of great promise, in his late thirties. Of course our manpower situation isn’t rich, and they were looking for someone to go down to take his place, but people weren’t rushing to go. And so I said to my superior who was making the decision, “”Well, I’d be very tempted to go. And he said, “Absolutely not, I wouldn’t think of it. You’re much too old.”

So I said, “All right.” But other people kept asking for me and finally he said, “If you really want to go, then you can go.” But he said “What if they shoot you? What am I supposed to say to people?” And I said, “What you say to them, Father, is this. Better they shoot a man that is seventy than they shoot a man who is thirty-seven. Because we’re hoping that the man who is thirty-seven will do a lifetime of work. This man is pretty much finished here. So I spent six years there serving in the mission and I loved it. I was basically in Kingston but also on the north coast in the parishes. And I loved it, but then I had a heart attack so I had to come back and the doctors were convinced that the heat and the humidity were too much for me. I went back again, but they kept calling me back up to the States to do one thing or another. And so they finally said “That’s it,” but I’ll be going down there in a couple of weeks just to turn the dirt over for the new library at our school.

I loved the people, the people are marvelous. And you’d be out there in the country and you’d hear two masses on a Sunday and each mass would last three hours. Because before you preach the people have an hour to share their week with one another. And I’d have congregations of eighteen or twenty and I’d think to myself “If you were back in Boston you’d be preaching to five hundred or eight hundred people. What are you doing down here? You’re wasting your time.” And then I thought to myself “No, because see God isn’t a mathematician. And these people are changing me. I don’t know how much good I’m doing them, but they’re doing me a world of good.”

Like most other elders, Fr. John’s message is clear: Think carefully about saying “yes” when opportunity knocks – it can change your life.

Use Thanksgiving to Gather Your Elders’ Wisdom!

Once again this year, I propose a new holiday. Or rather, a new use for an old holiday. I believe that we should make Thanksgiving the day when we celebrate elder wisdom by asking older people to tell us their advice for living. Here’s why.

Occasionally, the question runs through younger people’s minds (whether they admit it or not): What are old people good for? Our society’s unremitting ageism portrays older persons as sick, frail, unproductive, and even the culprits for busting the federal budget.

Earlier retirement and increased residential separation of older people has broken age-old contacts between the generations. Indeed, our society has become extraordinarily segregated by age, such that young people’s contact with elders is almost exclusively within the family (and even that is limited). Combined with the persistently negative images in the media, this question – What good are old people? – lurks in the background.

But the answer is amazingly simple. For as long as humans have been humans, older people have played critically important roles as advice-givers. Indeed, anthropological research shows that survival in pre-literate societies was dependent on the knowledge of the oldest members. It’s easy to forget that it is only in the past 100 years or so that people have turned to anyone other than the oldest person they knew to solve life’s problems.

Now here’s the important point: Old people are still a unique source of advice for living for younger people. And we need to tap this source much more vigorously than we are currently doing — both for young people’s sake and that of our elders. That’s why I’m proposing that we make learning elder wisdom a part of our families’ Thanksgiving holiday.

We often do ask our elders to tell their life stories. But that activity is very different from asking their advice. You don’t just want their reminiscences; what’s truly valuable are the lessons they learned from their experience and that they wish to pass on to younger generations.

Now for the holiday. Thanksgiving is something most Americans celebrate, regardless of religious persuasion. And it’s the one time in the year when families are most likely to gather — and include their older relatives. What if we all take a half hour (okay, it can be before or after the football game) to consult our elders about their lessons for living?

Your children are the best ones to start this conversation and they can ask questions that are highly relevant to them. Is Sammy concerned about bullying? Some elders (especially immigrants) were ferociously bullied as children. Is Pat concerned about finding the right partner? You have elders who have long experience in relationships, but who are rarely asked for their advice about them. Are your college kids worried about the job market? If so, how about advice from people who went through the Great Depression?

Remember that this is different from asking Grandpa “What did you do in World War II?” or Grandma “What was life like in the Depression?” The goal is to genuinely and interestedly ask for advice: “What lessons for living did you learn from those experiences?” Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young.

Give it a try on Thanksgiving (and let me know how it went!). Here are some questions to get you started; it can help to send these in advance to your elders so they can ponder them a bit. We’ve used these questions in interviews with hundreds of elders in the Legacy Project, and they work very well). More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.

So let’s declare Thanksgiving (or a part of it) Elder Advice-Giving Day. Our elders won’t be here forever, so this year is a good time to start!

Questions for the elders:

  • What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
  • Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
  • As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
  • What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
  • What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
  • What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
  • What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

Now add your own!

And if you would like more ideas, I was interviewed by NPR with one of our wonderful Legacy Project Elders about holidays and elder wisdom. You can listen here.

 

Tne Secret about Aging You Need to Know

Looking for the best advice about aging? We asked over 1200 older Americans to offer their lessons on how toelder humor be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled. Some of the most interesting insights in the book from the project, 30 Lessons for Livingwere about aging itself. Of all these lessons (having hit 60 recently myself), there’s one I like the best.

Here is the elders’ secret: Being old is much better than you think it will be.

It’s a bit difficult to believe, perhaps, because of our negative stereotypes about aging as a period of loss and decline. But I found that the Legacy Project elders defied these stereotypes. Over and over, I got the message that being old (and sometimes really old) was much better than people ever expected. Let’s hear from three elders about their surprising experience of aging.

Ursula, 94, is surprised when people comment about her longevity. She told me:

Worry about aging? No. I wake up and I know where I am, I lead a very normal life. I eat, I drink, I like to talk, as you can see! I have an interest in what’s going on in the world. Flexibility, that is important. I don’t have to worry. I get very upset when people complain. You wouldn’t believe the complainers. I tell you, you have to think positively. And if you think positive, physically and mentally, things are all right. So one day I don’t feel so good, so what, you know? I think positive and that is my blessing. I have my mind and my wonderful memories. You need to do things, you see, or there’s no quality of life, sitting home and crying doesn’t help. I have been lucky to be healthy. I have everyday a glass of wine.

Davia,74, discovered her knack for business later in life and runs a successful bed-and-breakfast.

Well, when it comes to aging, it sure as heck not the way I would have thought old age or growing older would be like! I never thought it would be anything like this. I always thought: Oh, I don’t want to think about that or that sounds terrible. That was when I was young and I would be thinking about what old age might be like, if it somehow cam up as a topic of conversation.

But I still feel like I’m on the road of life to somewhere, and there’s so many things I still want to do, that I love to do. I don’t look at old age as something to be pitied or dismissed. Now very young people, they’re going to do that anyway I know, up to certain point in their lives anyway, they will.

But there are so many things I’d like to do. I’d like to do more traveling. I don’t have great funds to do it with, but I’m going to do some more. And I’m happy to have a bed and breakfast to run and it still excites me. It’s tiring when it’s busy, but I can sleep when I need to. I can manage to rest up. My health is pretty good and I make a point of eating healthy foods ands trying to go a little exercise on a regular basis. So I don’t feel like it’s the end of a life, not yet.

The most inspiring elder I spoke with was Edwina, 94: Whenever I worry about getting older, I take a look at her view of the later part of life:

My advice to people about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.  The world is a magical place in lots of ways.  To enjoy getting up in the morning and watching the sun come up.  And that’s something that you can do when you are growing older.  You can be grateful, happy for the things that have happened.  You should enjoy your life.  Grow a little.  Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean that you need to stop growing. I used to think that when you got old you sat back in a rocking chair and let the world go by.  Well that’s not for me and that’s not for a lot of people.  I can’t dance anymore, but if I could I would.

There’s no reason for anybody in this world to ever be bored.  That’s one thing I’ve always said.  Well if I died and went to heaven, I’d be bored to death with how they say heaven is.  There’s no need for you to be bored in this world.  There’s so much out there.

Our society is filled with negative attitudes about growing old. But what if they are all wrong? Based on the elder’s advice, many of us can all look forward to a happier old age than we expect!

Why I’m Looking Forward to December

I’ve spent a lot of the past decade interviewing wise and fascinating older people. But I think I’m in for what may be my most exciting interviewee ever: Tao Porchon Lynch. For anyone able to get to New York City on lynchDecember 17 to join us, it should be a memorable event.

At 98 years young,Tao Porchon Lynch is still teaching yoga.  She marched with Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930 Salt March, helped Jews escape the Nazis as a French Resistance fighter during World War II, and walked with Martin Luther King. It would take much more than a blog post to list her other achievements, from being a contestant on America’s Got Talent (at age 96), to writing about the “spiritual side of being, to maintaining an active yoga teaching schedule.

The organizers of the series on life wisdom at the Rubin Museum have invited us to discuss “the secrets to a good life.” I can’t imagine a better source for information about that theme than Tao!

Finding Happiness in Simple Things

Many of the elders in the Legacy Project advise us that the present moment is what is critically important, and that we miss each happiness notemoment in our drive toward the future and our pursuit of material goods. Evette, 79, tells about the things that delight her and make life worth living – and none of them are “big ticket” items.

At my age you learn that “things” aren’t important; people are.

The love of your family, the sharing of their milestones and the joy when they ask you about yours.

The touch of their young smooth cheek or hand on your non-elastic skin sends warmth all over you.

I’ve learned that there’s no substitute for a good book while you’re under a down comforter.

I’ve learned that there’s no substitute for good hearty laughter that brings color to your cheeks and a jump to your heart.

I’ve learned that when you want to stay in bed because of aching joints, a brisk walk or a stationary bike does wonders!

I’ve learned that everyone has a story that’s worth listening to.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask your children for help even if you were fiercely independent before.

I’ve learned that the beat of your heart is dependent on the hearts of your children and grandchildren.

The Lighter Side of Lessons

Are you looking for answers to life’s big questions? How about advice on happiness, finding fulfilling work, loveelder humor
and marriage, or living a life without regrets? You’ve come to the right place!
At the Legacy Project, we’ve asked more than 1200 older Americans to share their advice for younger people about how to live happier lives. (And the book on the topic will make a perfect graduation gift this spring!).

Meet some of the amazing elders in person on our YouTube channel! You can also get more elder wisdom by following us on Facebook .

Many of the elders looked at their long lives with a sense of humor. Here are a few of my favorites from the interviews with people ages 70 to 108:

Save your money, take care of yourself, play golf.

Stay out of trouble – and steer clear of other people’s wives!

Choose to be happy. I even wear my Clinique perfume called “Happy.”

Don’t wear a miniskirt when you’re sixty-eight.

God don’t like people that mess around where they ain’t supposed to be. I know he put it out there for you to do if you want to do it, but he don’t tell you to do it!

Well, I don’t think my life would have worked without God in my life because my husband is Mexican-Italian and I’m English-Irish, along that line, and if we hadn’t had God in our life, we just wouldn’t have made it.

I think stick with your beliefs but listen to other people’s sides. A couple of times I think I even voted for Democrats.

Learn new things, don’t sit back and stagnate. I’ve got to admit that we just got a new computer and it still terrifies me. I couldn’t even program anything and I’m a damn mechanic! And here comes an eight year old boy who can work it so well!

I’ve learned that it’s much easier to be positive than negative, it’s easier to smile than to frown, and when in doubt, eat chocolate!

Come join the conversation with the wisest Americans!

Interview: Ashton Applewhite on Her New Book, “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism”

It is an enormous pleasure to devote a post to a conversation with author and advocate Ashton Applewhite. Her new This-Chair-Rocks-Ashton-Applewhite-Author-and-Bookbook, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism, was just published to great acclaim. Cultural critic Katha Pollitt captured what all the critics are saying: “Vibrant, energetic, fact-filled and funny, This Chair Rocks is a call to arms not just for older people but for our whole society.”

We joined Ashton for a fascinating dialogue about where the book came from, and where she’s going next in her work to combat ageism. To learn more, check out the video at the end!

Thanks for joining us here at the Legacy Project! Let’s begin with a background question. You want to reframe the way American culture sees age and aging. What got you started on this path?

About eight years ago I began interviewing people over 80 for a project called “So when are you going to retire?” and reading about longevity. It didn’t take long to realize that almost everything I thought I knew about aging was wrong. I had no idea that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives, for example. That the vast majority of Americans over 65 live independently. The older people get, the less afraid they are of dying. Why don’t more people know this stuff? Because we live in a culture that drowns out all but the negative about growing old, or even just aging past youth. Why is that? Because social and economic forces frame aging as a problem, so they can sell us remedies to “fix” or “stop” or “cure” it. Aging is a natural, lifelong, profoundly enriching process—experience tells us so. Aging means living, which is why it’s so damn interesting. And to paraphrase British journalist Anne Karpf, it makes no more sense to be anti-aging than anti-breathing.

How did arrive at the arresting design on your book cover?

We gave brilliant designer and friend Rebeca Mendez a tough commission: come up with a cover that feels warm and human but also sharply political. And will jump out at readers from a crowded bookstore window. She was scratching her head until my partner suggested that the epigraph of the book might serve as inspiration. It’s a quote by the wonderful writer Anne Lamott: “We contain all the ages we have ever been.” Rebeca’s painting beautifully captures that idea.

An ageist society aspires to “agelessness,” an artificial and unattainable goal that strips us of our years. I love the way the cover represents the opposite, which I call “agefulness”— a rich accretion of all the things we’ve done and been, stored within our bones and brains, that makes us who we are.

If you could banish one stereotype about aging, what would it be?

The notion that older people are alike! It’s why people think everyone in a retirement home is the same age—“old”—even though residents can span four decades. (Can you imagine thinking that way about a group of 20- to 60-year-olds?) It’s why the last box on those marketing checklists – you know, 18-26, 27-39, etc., end at 65+—as though everyone over 65 buys the same stuff and does the same things.

Stereotyping—the assumption that all members of a group are the same— underlies all the “isms.” It’s always a mistake, but especially when it comes to age, because as the years pass, of course we grow more different from one another. It’s why geriatricians say: “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.” We all age at different rates —mentally, physically, and socially—which is why there’s no such thing as “acting your age.” Chronological age tells you almost nothing about an individual—not what they’re listening to or who they’re voting for or where they’re headed—and the older the person, the less reliable an indicator it becomes.

You make a case for an anti-ageism campaign as a public health initiative. Tell us about that.

A growing body of evidence shows that attitudes towards aging have an actual, measurable, physical effect on how we age. There’s no inherent reason for the effect to be negative. But an ageist culture tells us that wrinkles are ugly. Old people are incompetent. It’s sad to be old. When we assimilate these stereotypes, they become part of our identity, and this influences how our brains and bodies function.

In one experiment, social scientists primed a group of college students with negative age stereotypes—words like “forgetful,” “Florida,” and “bingo”—that they flashed on a screen too briefly for the subjects to become aware of them. The students then walked to the elevator measurably more slowly than a control group! Imagine the effect on older people for whom the terms are more relevant, and thus more likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

People with more positive feelings about aging behave differently from those convinced that growing old means becoming irrelevant or pathetic. They do better on memory tests and have better handwriting. They can walk faster and are more likely to recover fully from severe disability. And they actually live longer—an average of seven and a half years. Everyone agrees that health has the biggest effect on how we age—and how much it costs. So think what a national anti-ageism campaign would do to extend not just the lifespan but the “healthspan” of all Americans.

Why do so many of us have such a hard time actually admitting our age…saying it out loud?

You’d have to live in a cave to miss the messages all around us that old=bad, and that aging is to be feared and avoided by any means necessary. No wonder so many of us are reluctant to part with the equivalent of a cultural “sell-by” date! It’s an understandable strategy. Attempting to “pass” for younger, the way people of color have passed for white and gay people for straight, is a way to avoid being discriminated against. But “passing” takes a psychological toll, because it’s rooted in denial and distaste, even disgust. We’re reluctant to divulge our age because we’ve internalized the profoundly ageist notion that our older self is inferior to our younger one.

Do you honestly think that the person you are now has less to offer than the twenty- or thirty-something you once did? That you’re less interesting now? Less valuable? How about less attractive? If that gets a nod, consider the industries that make billions by commodifying our dissatisfaction with our bodies—especially women’s. Who gets to decide that wrinkles are ugly? It’s time to look more generously at ourselves, the way the body-acceptance movement urges, and to stop colluding in devaluing ourselves as older women.

When we claim our age, the number loses its power over us. It’s a little like a spell breaking. We can’t stop aging, even if we wanted to, but we can change the way we feel about it—the first step in any revolution. Then we can start to see where those ageist messages come from, and work together to challenge the structures that benefit from them.

Why do you dislike the term “successful aging?”

Terms like “successful aging” and “productive aging” and “active aging” are popular, and provide an upbeat counterpoint to the standard narrative of aging-as-decline. They’re seductive, because we really, really want to think we can keep doing the things we love for as long as we live. We often can—versions of them, that is—especially if we have access to healthcare, and exercise, and eat well. But the goalposts shift. In addition to taking care of ourselves, we’d do well to decouple self-worth from longstanding measures of earning power or physical prowess. Much is not under our control, and making the necessary supports available to all older Americans will require implementation at the policy level.

It’s important to keep in mind that many of the resources that help us “age well” are predominantly available to the lucky and reasonably well off. Sanitized or romanticized exemplars of “successful aging”—those silver-maned couples waltzing on the foredeck of a cruise ship—set an unreasonable standard and suggest that less “successful” agers are responsible for their circumstances. Everyone can make sensible choices, but barriers like heavy caregiving responsibilities, inadequate health care, and neighborhoods with few resources make it more difficult. Blaming the poor for “bad choices” makes aging another arena in which we succeed or fail based on terms that are far from neutral. There’s a lot of harsh judgment of olders who aren’t physically mobile or conventionally economically productive, and that’s not OK. All aging is successful—not just the sporty version—otherwise you’re dead.

Are olders really as much of an economic drag on society as the media portrays?

Absolutely not! People 50 and up fuel the significant, fast-growing, and often-overlooked “longevity economy,” which according to AARP accounted for 46 percent of US gross domestic product ($7.1 trillion) in 2012. By 2021 the 50-plus age group is projected to drive more than half of US economic activity, as their spending fuels industries that include apparel, health care, education and entertainment. These statistics capture only part of the economic contribution of older Americans, whose unpaid volunteer work in 2013 was valued at $67 billion. And while “entrepreneur” might conjure up an image of a kid in that proverbial garage, twice as many successful American entrepreneurs are over age 20 as in their early 20s.. More resources have always flowed from older generations to younger ones than the reverse.

This is despite widespread age discrimination in employment, which prevents older workers from finding challenging work of which they’re eminently capable, and relegates them to jobs that don’t take advantage of their skills and experience—Wal-Mart greeters, say. It also makes it harder for them to find part-time and volunteer positions. Discouraged and diminished, many become economically dependent, contributing to the misperception that olders are a net burden to society, but it’s not by choice.

Society has grown far less tolerant of sexism and racism. Why do ageist attitudes and behaviors still get a pass?

That’s what I’d like to know! Can you imagine anyone (not counting Donald Trump) complacently identifying himself as sexist or racist? Yet no one even blinks when older people are described as incompetent, or boring, or even repulsive. (And most people are unaware that younger people also face age bias.) Older people can be the most prejudiced of all, having had a lifetime to internalize negative myths and stereotypes that have gone unquestioned—until now. Diversity became a buzzword because society grew less tolerant of racism and sexism and homophobia. We want different faces around the table because we don’t think access to opportunity should depend on what someone looks like. Graying hair and wrinkles count. It is high time to make the last socially sanctioned prejudice as unacceptable as any other kind.

If that seems like a tall order, look at how much has shifted in how we look at gender, and how rapidly. It used to be viewed as a rigid binary, male or female, but we now understand that it’s far more fluid. If gender can be conceived of this way, why on earth not age, which is inherently, obviously, a continuum? Why not shake off our fear of being on the “wrong” side of some imaginary old/young divide and embrace a more flexible, friendly, and far more rational view of age?

You call yourself an Old Person in Training. Why?

I’m 63. I know I’m not young, I don’t see myself as old, and I know a lot of people feel the same way. We spend a lot of energy pretending that the old are somehow not us—not even future us—and that we’ll somehow never get old. Even though it’s irrational. Even though we’re doomed to fail. Even though it fills us with needless dread. Even though that denial is where ageism takes root. That’s why I’ve become an old person in training, a phrase I appropriated from geriatrician Joanne Lynn.

Becoming an Old Person in Training bridges that divide between our younger and older selves, and connects them empathically. It acknowledges the inevitability of growing old while relegating it to the future, albeit at an ever-smaller remove. It swaps purpose and intent for dread and denial. It’s a relief. It feels right and it makes sense..

What’s does becoming an Old Person in Training involve? It means looking at older people instead of past them, remembering they were once our age, seeing resilience alongside infirmity, allowing for sensuality, enlarging our notion of beauty, and acknowledging that an apartment, or a room or even just a bed can be home to an internal world as rich as ours—and very possibly richer. It means thoughtful peeks through the periscope of an open mind at the terrain we’ll inhabit when we are finally old. I see the ninety-year-old me as withered and teetery, but also curious and content. Envisioning her won’t make it happen, but the aspiration will surely help. The consensus from people over eighty, who should know, is that young people worry way too much about getting old. So the earlier we make this imaginative leap, the better—and the better equipped we’ll be to benefit from the journey.

You’d like your book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, to help catalyze a mass movement against ageism, the way Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring catalyzed the environmental movement. What kind of actions would you like to see?

My book lays out a blueprint in every domain. Change starts between our ears, with the difficult task of unlearning beliefs we’ve held all our lives. Some places to start:

  • Look for ways in which you’re ageist instead of looking for evidence that you aren’t. You can’t challenge bias unless you’re aware of it, and everyone’s biased some of the time.
  • Talk to people significantly older and younger than you, and listen carefully. If you don’t know many of them, seek them out.
  • The next time you wonder whether an outing or an outfit or an attitude is age-appropriate, reconsider the question. There’s no such thing.

Change ripples outward when we point out ageist behaviors and beliefs in the world around us. Some places to start:

  • Train yourself to notice when everyone in a group is the same age, and unless there’s some legitimate reason, speak up about it.
  • Assume capacity, not incapacity. Don’t assume someone is too old—or too young—to weigh in on a topic or take on a responsibility.
  • If you’re on the receiving end of an ageist comment, ask gently, “Why would you say [or think] that?” Then just be quiet.
  • If you’re feeling ambitious, start a consciousness-raising group around age bias. This powerful tool catalyzed the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s. You can download my guide, Who Me, Ageist?,

Changing the culture is a tall order, but look at how women’s roles have changed in a single generation, and at the amazing progress we’ve made in this century alone against homophobia and transphobia.

If this new radical age movement had a slogan, what would you like it to be?

Age pride! Age pride is for dissed teenagers and dismissed olders and everyone in between. Age pride is for Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, who said, “We must be proud of our age” and who, if she’d lived long enough, would have beaten me to “Occupy age!”—my other favorite slogan. If marriage equality is here to stay, why not age equality? If gay pride has gone mainstream, and millions of Americans now take pride in identifying as disabled, why not age pride? The only reason that idea sounds outlandish is because this is the first time you’ve encountered it. It won’t be the last. Longevity is here to stay. Everyone is aging. Dismantling ageism benefits us all.

Bonus video:  I’ve figured out what to call ourselves.