Q. Could you please settle a slight disagreement between my husband and me? Our five-year-old granddaughter came home with beautiful drawings. My husband was so impressed and suggested that the youth was on his side, implying that older people usually lose some of their creativity. I strongly disagree and believe that aging is an advantage. Your thoughts? PL
I can understand your husband’s point of view since many physical and mental aspects of our lives decline at varying rates over the years, but not all. And that’s the point. When it comes to creativity, age can be an asset, an advantage, given that we have experience and have a long-term view of life.
The late Dr. Gene D. Cohen, psychiatrist, international expert on age and creativity, and former director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University, wrote a book, “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. His research has shown us that old age can be a time of creativity. And it’s not just in the arts, but also in creative thinking.
Here’s one of Cohen’s favorite stories that I’ve heard him tell at a conference. Her in-laws, both in their 70s, exited a Washington, DC, subway in a snowstorm. They were invited to Cohen’s house for dinner, which was too far to walk. Due to the weather, no taxis were available. Across the street, her in-laws spotted a pizzeria. They walked through the slush, entered the store and ordered a large pizza to be delivered. The father-in-law gave the cashier Cohen’s address and added, “Oh, here’s one more thing. We want you to deliver us with it. And the in-laws arrived with pizza in hand – for dinner that night.
Cohen sees her family history as an example of the kind of nimble creativity the aging mind can produce. As stated in his book, it is original thinking that improves with age. Each of us is endowed with a spirit of creativity – each of us has the “right trick”.
Creativity is an advantage for those later in life, according to Cohen.
- Creativity boosts our morale. It allows us to see problems with a long-term perspective, making us more emotionally resilient while helping us cope better with the losses and challenges that can come with age.
- Creativity contributes to our physical health. Creative expression promotes feelings of well-being that have a beneficial effect on our immune system. This is especially true in older people.
- Creativity is our greatest heritage. It provides a valuable model of later life potential for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and society, helping to shape individual thinking and even societal policies on aging.
When creativity is limited only to the arts, we can easily define ourselves as uncreative. As one woman told me recently, “I missed art in school and I just don’t think I have the gene for it. Researchers studying this topic takes a broader approach. According to The Washington Post (July 12, 2021), author and Georgetown University psychiatrist Dr. Norman Rosenthal defines creativity as “having the ability to make unexpected connections, either to see mundane things in a new way – or unusual things that escape the notice of others – and realize their importance”.
We may not get awards for our creativity, but it’s part of our DNA. Howard Gardner, professor at Harvard, distinguishes two types of creativity: the big “C” and the small “c”. The capital C is for the extraordinary achievements of unusual people like Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity or Picasso for his abstract art. The small “c” could reflect an interest, something at work, planting a garden, or writing a letter to a grandchild.
Creativity has also been identified as a possible key to healthy aging. Studies show that participation in activities such as singing, drama and visual arts can improve the health, well-being and independence of older people. Creativity has also been associated with greater longevity and is part of our species, innate to each of us. This includes plumbers, teachers, cooks, musicians, artists and investment bankers. It’s this unique life experience combined with creativity that creates a dynamic opportunity to grow in our later years, according to Cohen.
I remember one of his lectures when he said, “in old age, we may not produce so many creative works, however, what we produce may be our best works.”
Next week we’ll profile the people who expressed their creativity later in life – some of their best work – who made a difference.
In the meantime, be well and be kind to yourself and others.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on aging and new retirement issues with academic, corporate, and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at [email protected]. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her at facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity