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Successful Aging: Why staying creative as we age can take many forms

Last week, we addressed P.L.’s question of whether age was an advantage in expressing creativity. The quick answer according to the late expert on the subject, Dr. Gene D. Cohen, is “yes.”

There are several types of creativity identified by Cohen in his book “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life (Avon Books, 2000).

Personal creativity. This creativity might be a product, idea or new perspective. It’s something that you find satisfying and enhancing to your life. The public is not aware of it which may be your intention. Rather your creation is only important to you or to those close to you. This might be a new recipe, a floral arrangement, a poem or an email to your granddaughter.

Public creativity. These are creative acts that are recognized and celebrated by a community or culture. They may be obvious such as a sculpture or a garden. An example is the Getty Center Central Garden designed by Robert Irwin and completed when he was in his late 60s. Public creativity also can be local in the form of a newsletter or mural in your community.

Social creativity. An important component of social creativity is courage, a trait that comes with age according to Cohen. It’s having the courage to make a decision that is risky or controversial. An example is the back-door negotiations that lead to the 1994 Oslo Accords between the Palestinians and Israelis. The negotiations occurred among the late leaders of both parties: Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, (age 71), the Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (age 70) and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (age 64). Another example is Ethel Percy Andrus who at age 72 was the force behind the nation’s first national health insurance plans for older adults. At age 74, she founded and became president of AARP.

Collaborative creativity. Creativity is more than a solo act. Certain creative endeavors cannot be achieved by one person; they need an equal partner. Examples are a chorale, sports team or the need for a problem to be solved in the workplace. Today, multi-generational work teams are valued as driving innovation as well as motivation and production. A collaborator could be a friend, spouse or family member.

Intergenerational collaborative creativity. Here lies enormous potential for problem solving or for sheer enjoyment. Bringing together different ages to share their experiences, vision and energy can lead to special relationships where all parties benefit. A good example is Eldera, a global organization that connects children from around the world with vetted older mentors, one at a time, for weekly virtual conversations, story time and activities. The children benefit from social and emotional learning and older adults benefit from a sense of purpose and community as noted on the Eldera website.

The arts are an important example of creativity in later life. Consider the late Carl Reiner’s documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” Reiner found many celebrities in their 90s and a few over 100 who continue to practice their art. In addition to Reiner, the film includes Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Dick Van Dyke, the late Betty White and more.

Here are just 10 other notables who contributed to the arts in their later years.

  • Michelangelo at 72 was appointed architect of St. Peter’s in Rome, designed the dome of St. Peters and worked until his death at age 88.

  • Helen Keller who was blind, deaf and mute since she was 19 months old published “Teacher” at the age of 75 in honor of her miracle-worker teacher, Annie Sullivan.

  • Maya Angelou, poet, at age 85 published her seventh autobiography.

  • Henri Matisse, the great painter, created his famous cutouts in his 80’s.

  • Martha Graham continued to dance until she was 75 and choreographed her last work at age 96.

  • Rita Morena was in her late 80s when she acted and helped produce the recent West Side Story movie.

  • Arthur Rubenstein, pianist, was still performing at age 88 and wrote his autobiography at age 92.

  • Harry Belafonte, singer, actor, producer and activist became UNICEF goodwill ambassador at age 95.

  • Agatha Christie at the age of 84 oversaw the 1974 revision of the “Murder on the Orient Express” and wrote up until the age of 86.

  • Edward James Olmos, actor, director and activist starred in the movie “Walking with Herb” at age 74. Olmos considered this film among his best performances.

We can be inspired by famous artists as well as those who are everyday creators. Cohen reminds us that creativity is in our DNA and with experience and a long view of life, age is an advantage. Let’s acknowledge our own creativity and continue or expand it — for the joy it brings us and as an important component of successful aging.

Stay well and safe, everyone, and remember to 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 Visit Helen at and follow her on


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