Successful Aging: What goes into retaining creativity?

April 30, 2017

 

Q Please settle an argument for me. My husband insists that we get less creative as we get older. I say no, that age has nothing to do with creativity. My husband is an engineer and I am a teacher. We both are 63 years old. Who is right? 

— P. L.

 

 A Dear P.L.:

 

Actually, you both are right! 

 

The answer to your question depends on how you define creativity.

 

A noted psychologist found that the number of creative products a person produces increases with age until there is a peak. Then productivity declines. 

 

And that decline often occurs in the latter part of life. If we define creativity as the number of creative products a person produces, then yes, your husband is right. 

 

But the products produced in later life may be the masterpieces, the capstones of one’s career.

 

Looking only at numbers may be a narrow approach to creativity. The late Dr. Gene D. Cohen, psychiatrist, geriatrician and author of “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life,” viewed creativity as a process. He wrote that “creativity is built into our species, innate to every one of us, whether we are plumbers, professors, short-order cooks or investment bankers.” He recognized creativity as a basic human attribute, not a product or a function of age. 

 

If we take this position on creativity, then P.L., you are right. Creativity does not diminish with age.

 

A number of studies provide evidence that creativity is not only for the young. Professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Hitotsubashi University in Japan studied data from patent holders in the U.S.

 

Although the average inventor sends in his or her application to the patent office at age 47, the highest-value patents often come from the oldest inventors — those over the age of 55. 

 

Philip Hans Franses of the Erasmus School of Economics in the Netherlands studied the careers of brilliant, creative and accomplished people that included 90 Nobel literature laureates, 100 of the most popular classical composers and 221 painters whose work is most valued. He concluded the average age for their peak creativity was 62 years. That doesn’t sound “old.”

Here’s the kicker. These creative folks lived 61 percent of their lives when they finished their most notable work. That means they lived two-thirds of their lives before reaching their creative goals.

 

We can think about creativity in two ways — the “big C” which describes the extraordinary achievements of people such as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity or Monet’s impressionist painting. The “little c” applies to more everyday-life events such as writing a memo, developing a teaching method or creating a new recipe. 

 

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

 

Here are some “big C” accomplishments of individuals in their later years. At age 75, Helen Keller who was blind, deaf and mute since she was 19 months old published the book “Teacher” in honor of her miracle-worker teacher Annie Sullivan. 

 

Ethel Percy Andrus at 72 was the primary force behind establishing the nation’s first health insurance plan for older adults. At 74 she founded and became president of AARP. 

 

John Muir, the naturalist, wrote “My First Summer in the Sierra” when he was 73. 

 

At 81, the almost-blind artist Henri Matisse created brilliantly colored cutouts — from his bed. 

 

Martha Graham, choreographer, danced until 75 and choreographed her last work at 96.

 

And finally, Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature at 79.

 

According to Dr. Cohen, age is an added dimension to creativity. The unique combination of creativity with life experience adds to dynamic growth in our later years. 

 

All of us have the capacity for “small c’s” such as planting a garden, writing a letter to our grandchildren or developing a fundraising idea for a nonprofit. This type of creativity expands our lives, making each day more interesting and dynamic. And who knows, some of us may make the “big C” category.

 

P.L., I hope we helped settle the argument. You both are winners. 

 

Send emails to Helen Dennis at helendenn@aol.com, or go to www.facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity

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