“Why should we spend money on old people when they are going to die?”
The question hit like a brick thrown through a window. Ashton Applewhite had a point in asking it, because she had the answer.
“That’s unacceptable,” she told a packed ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Thursday morning. “Why should we accept a different standard of care for the elderly?”
Her answer had an equally galvanizing effect. They burst into applause. Her point that age should not define the quality of services was one of many she made in her crusade that, like racism and sexism, ageism must be combated.
And it’s not simply a matter of being old, either.
“Ageism cuts both ways,” she said, noting that the ideas, advice and opinions of young people are discounted because “they’re too young.” She also said ageism can be self-inflicted with age being used as the excuse for not doing things or blaming aches and pains when in reality it might have been “picking up that bag of mulch.”
“Ageism feeds on denial,” she said, citing the array of products and medications aimed at disguising, slowing or reversing aging. The basis is “rooted in shame of something that shouldn’t be shameful.”
Applewhite acknowledged that age has an impact on the body and that the ailments associated with getting older and, in particular, dementia and Alzheimer’s is “scary stuff.” Yet, she showed that the percentages of persons over 65 with Alzheimer’s is less than 3 percent.
“The real epidemic is anxiety over memory loss,” she said, adding, “the longer we live the less fear we have of dying.”
As for the aging of the body, Applewhite said, “Stuff falls apart so we prop it up.”
Applewhite, the author of This Chair Rocks, was the keynote speaker at the Age-Friendly Rhode Island Power-Up 2019! conference opened by Marianne Raimondo, sister of Gov. Gina Raimondo and associate professor at RIC.
Raimondo said Age-Friendly RI is an association of 30 member organizations and 100 volunteers with the mission to create partnerships, catalyze change and build community that supports and empowers Rhode Islanders as they age. Since being founded in 2016 and with its principal source of funding from Tufts Health Care Foundation, AAA Northeast and AARP of Rhode Island, Raimondo and Age-Friendly Rhode Island have visited scores of organizations working with the elderly as well as conducted focus groups to identify activities to engage older people and what they like doing. She said many want to stay in their own home and be physically and financially independent. They heard people describe how they would like to meet other people, learn how the bus system works and take college courses. An initiative she described is how a group collaborating with a local restaurant created an open table night where people could make new friends over a meal.
Quoting one senior they talked with, Raimondo said, “‘Just because I’ve got white hair doesn’t mean I’m stupid.’” She said that by 2030 one-fourth of the state’s population will be over the age of 65 and that already the state has the highest proportion of adults in the United States 85 years old and older.
Noting the paradox, Raimondo said, “The idea of getting older is not attractive to anyone yet everyone wants to live longer.”
Raimondo talked about her mother, who is in her 90s, and how she has her hair colored. She inquired why she does it and was told that it makes her feel better.
“Isn’t this what it’s all about…a feeling of well-being,” she said.
Jody Shue, director of Age-Friendly RI, outlined some of the initiatives being taken with RIPTA and AM 790 that will debut a Wednesday age-friendly radio program.
As we grow older, a term she prefers to aging, Applewhite said, “We care less about what people think” and she should not be ashamed of asking for help. She said we need to get over “this crazy idea that age is a barrier. If we can change thinking on gender, why are we so hung up on age…longevity is here to stay.”
She pointed out that aging begins at life and we start to grow older and that later in life we’re still growing.
Age-Friendly Rhode Island is also growing with the announcement of the establishment of a Center on Future Aging at Rhode Island College.
“It’s an important investment,” said Frank Sanchez, president of RIC, of the announced center on aging. “As the state’s first public higher education institution, this is serving the state, but there’s more work to be done.”
In a “fireside chat” between Sanchez and Nora Moreno Cargie, president of the Tufts Health Plan Foundation and vice president, Corporate Citizenship for Tufts Health Plan, Moreno Cargie further advocated for more collaboration and mutual understanding of what aging means in our society going forward.
“It is a movement that has to acknowledge that the future of this world is that older people will outnumber younger people,” she said. “Why is it that when we talk about youth, it’s an investment, and when we talk about older people, it’s a cost? We need to remember that it’s all an investment.”
Moreno Cargie said that, similar to fights against the prevalence of racism in society, combating ageism would require similar understanding and empathy among different individuals.
“When we create this idea of ‘other’ – it’s even in our language – we are not acknowledging one simple, real fact. And that is that we are all aging,” she said. “The future of aging is here. It is now. Whatever we begin to think about in terms of tomorrow or a year from now or 10 years from now, it needs to fundamentally be inclusive of people who sometimes don’t look like us, who sometimes don’t have that capacity to think ahead.”
She said that Tufts Health Plan would be willing to listen and learn how to best implement strategies moving forward to address aging in the state.
“What we have is this incredibly amazing story to tell, and we have to ask ourselves what is that story, and where do we start?” she said.