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Fighting Ageism: Our Time Has Come

Last year, at age 63, Brooklynite Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism, dyed her brown hair white. Why? Here’s what she told me: “I was at a daytime movie one day, with a very senior audience, but when I looked around I noticed that there was only one woman with gray hair, and I realized that coloring our hair is one way older people make themselves invisible. When people are invisible, so are the issues that affect them. Why are we doing this?

“We’re doing this to fit into an ageist culture. And I’m not wagging my finger at anyone. I know that both women and men have good reasons for covering the gray — to get or keep a job, or get a date, say. But it’s not good for us, and it deflects attention away from the discrimination that makes these strategies necessary. If I were going to suggest that those people who hate dyeing their hair to cover the gray stop doing it, which I was thinking of proposing, I should walk the walk and see what it would be like to have gray — or even white — hair myself.”

But hair, dyed or not, is only one aspect of invisibility. More important is a lack of regard for older people in our society. This shows up when doctors fail to ask older patients about their vulnerability to sexual disease or don’t look for the cause of physical problems instead of attributing them only to age, when employers force older workers into retirement, when architects fail to design homes that are accessible for all ages. (Younger people break legs and arms and can also have trouble negotiating everyday environments, so designing for limitations means designing for all ages.)

This invisibility of older people is now changing rapidly, thanks to efforts from many people – old and young – who are working together to break down age prejudice. We who in the 1960s fought for civil rights and feminism, are now what Ashton calls “olders.” (“Everyone is older than someone.”) Another long-time activist for seniors (generally defined as over 65), West Sider Wendl Kornfeld, 67, told me, “This is an exciting time to be an older person! We’re the revolutionaries who are going to change the way people in our age group are treated – and how we look upon ourselves.”

Obviously there have been many strides in the fight for age equality. With all the accusations leveled at Hillary Clinton, 68, and Donald Trump, 70, being too old to run the country is not one of them. But many workers, middle-aged and older, can tell you stories of feeling pushed out as they age.