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Aging Doesn’t Have to be an Obstacle to Creativity

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I have a good friend, age 70, who retired about two years ago as a dynamic international management consultant.  She was creative in so many ways – gourmet cooking, painting, writing and more.  Today, her life appears as a shell of her past.  She focuses on television and her granddaughter and sees few people. I know her life can be better.  And her creative spirit has disappeared.  Are my expectations of her unrealistic?  Is this just part of aging?

Answer: It is wonderful that you care about your friend. At the same time, it is difficult to walk in her shoes and understand what’s really going on.

Is she content with her life? She may be relieved from the pressure of work and international travel. Perhaps she wants to devote a good part of her life to her granddaughter. Could she be depressed?

Older adults have found ways to continue their creative endeavors.

Delton Jones, a resident of Harbor Cit, is 88 years old. Prior to suffering a stroke, he took junk vegetable cans and turned them into folk art, using his skills from 54 years in the sheet metal trade and an inner drive that has had him working since he was a 5-year-old picking cotton. Jones’s physical limitations required him to give up working with cans. Instead, he has turned his craft into making table cloths for tables he created. No metal cutting required.

Typically creativity does not diminish with age.

The late Dr. Gene Cohen, psychiatrist, geriatrician and author of “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life” (Avon Books, 2000) wrote, “Creativity is built into our species, innate to every one of us, whether we are plumbers, professors, short-order cooks or investment bankers.” Cohen recognized creativity as a basic human attribute and age as an added dimension.

Many continue to create in later life.  Here are some examples of those ages 75 to 90:

  • At age 89, architect Frank Lloyd Wright completed the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
  • At 88, Michelangelo completed his sculpture “Rondanini Pieta,” depicting an aged man holding Christ.
  • At 87, Mary Baker Eddy launched “The Christian Science Monitor.”
  • At 86, Robert Frost recited his poem “The Gift of Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s Presidential inauguration.
  • At 85, Celestine III was elected Pope.
  • At 84, Pablo Casals earned rave reviews for his cello recital at the White House.
  • At 83, Winston Churchill published the final installment of his four-volume “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.”
  • At 82, John Wolfgang von Goethe completed “Faust.”
  • At 81, legendary Joe Paterno began his 43rd year as head football coach for Penn State.
  • At 80, Jessica Tandy won her only Oscar as best actress for her role in “Driving Miss Daisy.”
  • At 79, Ben Franklin invented bifocal eyeglasses.
  • At 78, reclusive artist Georgia O’Keefe painted “Sky Above Clouds IV.”
  • At 77, astronaut (and senator) John Glenn returned to space for a space shuttle Discovery mission.
  • At 76, Thomas Jefferson began designing buildings and developing curricula for the University of Virginia.
  • At 75, Cecil B. DeMille directed Charlton Heston and an all-star cast in “The Ten Commandments.”

Harvard professor Howard Gardner notes there are two types of creativity: the “big C” and the “little c.” The “big C” describes the extraordinary achievements of unusual people. The “little c” applies to more everyday-life events, such as writing a letter to a grandchild, planting a garden, building something, writing one’s memoirs or trying a new recipe.

While the “little c’s” are not going to change the world, Cohen comments, they are no less important in the way we develop our individual potential for highly successful creative lives.

Your friend may be living the life she wants. Consider inviting her to join you in a creative outing – a walk to see summer flowers, visiting a museum or attending a writing or painting class. She may welcome the opportunity. And thank you for your concern and good question.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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