We've Gotta Have it
Could Indulging Your Creative Side Be the Key to Successful Aging?
Whether it’s a fun hobby you finally have time for, or the discovery of your true life’s work, creating art can ward off depression and keep your brain healthy
The Einhorn Auditorium of Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is filled with doctors, clean-shaven and smelling faintly of antiseptic. Pagers beep, then go silent. I’m my father’s date to the 27th Ernest and Elena Bruno Memorial Lecture, in honor of my grandparents. “This is the place to have a heart attack,” I overhear someone say.
This year, instead of the usual doctor or pol, the famous Spanish-Swiss architect Santiago Calatrava is the speaker. My father is introduced to him by his brother, the event’s host and the hospital’s retired medical director. “This is my brother, Gregory — he’s the real talent in the family,” my uncle says, a belated compliment.
My shy, slight father, nee Salvatore Bruno, shakes hands with the architect. Both are painters. “Finally, there’s someone interesting at these lectures,” he says. Every year he would drag himself into the city to attend because he couldn’t refuse his domineering older brother (a smart move, it turns out.)
A year or two after that night, at 83, my father had a triple bypass at the same hospital, a procedure performed by an Indian surgeon “with the hands of a fine Italian tailor,” said my Uncle Mike, who arranged everything, including whisking his brother from the suburbs to the city in an ambulance.
A few days after the surgery, my father bounced out of the hospital — he was a fit tennis player — eager to return to his painting studio, where he worked six hours a day, five days a week for more than 25 years, as driven as a 23-year-old Fine Arts graduate wanting to make it big in New York. He lived until 89, painting until the end, showing his paintings around the world.
I wish someone had lectured about late-life creativity. My father began a successful second career as an artist at age 66, a dream deferred for four decades.
His art-making was, no doubt, one key to his recovery, even more so than the fantastic medical care he received. People die prematurely when they have nothing to live for, medical studies show. He had a goal: He was on his way to winning a Dolphin Award — there have been eight given by the American Watercolor Society, of which he became a member one year after starting to paint. Andrew Wyeth, his idol, who painted from childhood, was one winner.
For a baby boomer like me, he’s a role model I can only try to emulate. I don’t have his artistic gift.
“Baby boomers are used to being in control. Doing something creative — making art or music — is a way for them to regain a sense of control as they age,” says Dr. Roger E. Beaty, a professor of psychology at Penn State University. “And it doesn’t depend on innate talent.”
Many of us will be fortunate to have decades to fill after retirement; travel and visiting grandchildren may not be enough, nor should it be. Instead of a long, steady decline, some of the creative old may even begin their life’s true work. We all know, of course, about Grandma Moses, but there are many other examples. Many visual artists worked well into old age. We have all seen the photo of a mirthful Matisse making cut-outs in his bed as an old man.
What makes for creativity during the last third of life? Is it a dream deferred, as in my father’s case? A burst of creativity as the brain undergoes subtle changes that scientists are just beginning to understand? Freedom from economic and social constraints? Scientists are beginning to find the answers, which bodes well for the old, especially women 85 and older, our fastest growing demographic.
4 Ways to enhance late-life creativity:
—Search out community arts organizations to find out about classes
—Hire a recent art school graduate to teach classes in sculpting, painting, collage-making or another artform to a small group
—Explore the work and lives of folk artists, many of whom began creative careers late in life
—Offer to teach your own beginner course in a subject that interests you.