Creative Fire by Mary O'Gara, Ph.D.
NEW for April 2012
A Banked Fire is Still a Fire
Does creativity decline with age? Or does aging creativity simply present a new face, a new stage of creative expression with distinct features and purposes.
Throughout the last century, scientists believed creativity diminished with age. Since 2001, however, studies on aging and creativity suggest that creativity is ageless. The wisdom of the elders may, in fact, be the creative contribution of the last phase of life.
One of the pioneers in studying creativity and aging is George D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., and his 2001 article in Geriatrics magazine is a seminal contribution to a field for which he helped shape research design and formulate questions.
Gene Cohen, M.D. is the author of Creative Aging and The Mature Mind. He wrote numerous articles about aging and creativity for research journals which are available through many library resources. Some of his articles can also be found by searching for “Cohen creativity aging”.
Cohen identified four stages of human potential that develop during the second half of life, beginning with the midlife crisis and its quest for meaning. In the 60s, Cohen says, creative work gets a boost from increased personal freedom. Creativity in the 70s takes on a new look: memoir, autobiography, meaningful volunteering, all reminiscent of the elder wisdom still venerated in native societies. Cohen found new creative work among people in their 80s, although the focus had shifted again, and late-life efforts were directed toward contribution and unfinished business.
Cohen later helped design a study sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts that showed mental and physical health benefits for elders with the opportunity to do creative work. The sample was small and it was a seminal study, not the final word, but the implications present vital questions and a possible new model for both aging and creative development.
Cohen cites, for example, the work of Martha Graham, who danced until she was 75 and continued to find artistic expression and influence through choreography; Verdi, who composed Falstaff when he was 80; George Abbott, who was 107 when he collaborated in a revival of his “Damn Yankees”.
Cohen cites brain changes that appear to compensate for the loss of brain cells as we age.
In other words, we may have to reinvent ourselves every decade if we want to be our best creative selves as we become ageless.
What seems to be missing from elder creativity is the focus on self, on creative ecstasy for its own sake. Elder creativity, like elder wisdom, places more emphasis on contribution, legacy, completing work to pass it on or give back to the world.
The questions raised by the research will occupy scientists for a long time. In the meantime, we’ll have to reinvent ourselves and create social structures that support ageless creative work.
Existing government programs could be expanded. In New Mexico, there’s a federally funded arts community where artists have access to studios and pay a percentage of their income as rent, using a format that’s very like the program for elderly housing. Our senior centers could house creative think tanks, as they now house writing programs, for example.
Perhaps we only need to expand internet training for the elderly and provide simpler programs to support creative work. Just as the internet lets us travel without leaving home, it can let us share creative projects with the world.
Aging creativity may, in fact, be the greatest untapped natural resource of a world with huge economic, ecological and social problems. In native societies, the elders live and share their wisdom within the heart of small communities. Perhaps the first job of ageless creatives is to create spaces on the internet where those communities thrive and are shared by elders and by those who could benefit from and participate in the common good.
If you know people who are already making those efforts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org As always, I welcome your comments and insights.
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