Does creativity increase with age or diminish? Let’s take a closer look
Q. Could you please settle a slight disagreement between my husband and me? Our five-year-old granddaughter came home with some beautiful drawings. My husband was so impressed and suggested that youth was on her side, implying that older people typically lose some of their creativity. I strongly disagree and believe aging is an advantage. Your thoughts? P.L
I can understand your husband’s perspective since many physical and mental aspects of our lives do decline at varying rates with advancing 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 view on life.
The late Dr. Gene D. Cohen, a psychiatrist, international expert on age and creativity and former Director on 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 showed us that older age can be a time of creativity. And that’s not only in the arts, but also in creative thinking.
Here is one of Cohen’s favorite stories which I heard him tell at a conference. His in-laws, both in their 70s, emerged from a Washington, DC subway in a driving snowstorm. They were invited to Cohen’s house for dinner, which was too far to walk. Because of the weather, no cabs were available. Across the street, his in-laws spotted a pizza place. They marched through the slush, entered the shop and ordered a large pizza for delivery. The father-in-law gave the cashier Cohen’s address and added, “Oh, here is 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 considers his family story as an example of the type of agile creativity that the aging mind can produce. As noted in his book, it’s out-of-the-box thinking that improves with age. Each one of us is endowed with the spirit of creativity – everyone of us has the “right stuff.”
Creativity is a benefit to those in later life, according to Cohen.
Creativity strengthens our morale. It allows us to view problems with a long-range perspective making us more emotionally resilient while helping us to better cope with the losses and challenges that can occur 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 particularly true among older persons.
Creativity is our greatest legacy. 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 about aging.
When creativity is limited only to the arts, we may easily define ourselves as being uncreative. As one woman mentioned to me recently, “I flunked art in school and just don’t think I have the gene for it.” Researchers who study this subject take a more expansive 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 commonplace things in new ways — or unusual things that escape the attention of others — and realize their importance.”
We may not get a prize for our creativity, yet it is part of our DNA. Harvard professor Howard Gardner distinguishes two types of creativity: the big “C” and the little “c.” The big C is for extraordinary accomplishments of unusual people such as Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity or Picasso for his abstract art. The little “c” could reflect one’s interest, something at work, planting a garden or writing a letter to a grandchild.
Creativity also has been identified as a possible key to healthy aging. Studies show that participating in activities such as singing, theater performance and the visual arts may improve the health, well-being and independence of older adults. Creativity also has been associated with greater longevity and is part of our species, innate to every one of us. That includes plumbers, professors, cooks, musicians, artists and investment bankers. It’s that unique life experience combined with creativity that creates a dynamic opportunity to grow in our later years, according to Cohen.
I recall one of his lectures when he stated, “in older age we may not produce as many creative works, however, what we produce may be our best works.”
Next week, we’ll describe individuals who have expressed their creativity in later life – some of their best works – that have made a difference.
In the meantime, stay well and be kind to yourself and others.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity