My curiosity about aging and artistic interests started as academic. Soon, I had a personal interest developing my own artistic self. I wondered what life would look like without my profession. Working as a psychologist had been my calling, it had defined me.
The older brain has capacities that actually help develop the budding, late-blooming artist. Creating art benefits the aging brain. This circular, reinforcing process has profound benefits.
The Vintage Years is my book about pursuing the life of the artist after sixty.
I use the term artist very loosely.
An artist creates with openness and a child’s fascination.
But why late in life?
Late life may be the first time you have freedom to choose your own direction, freedom from constraints, freedom from others’ needs and expectations. More time is available to invent your life’s next chapter.
As I approached my seventies, I sought new ways to maintain brain fitness, by engaging my attention in positive ways. Writing and learning to play the cello jumped to the top of my list. Keeping neurons firing at rates that ensure brain flexibility is an important goal that requires effort. This is just the kind of effort that a post-sixty person is ready and able to give.
The brain’s ability to adapt, renew, and reshape itself over time is neuroplasticity. This is a powerful new idea—but neuroplasticity requires work. It’s not an automatic process.
If you retire in the literal sense, and sit on the sofa watching TV, you won’t be aiding your brain in its work to develop new connections, synapses, and neurons.
I interviewed “artists” who had not begun to explore their passion until age 60 or later. They shared significant similarities.
One was their ability to focus with laser sharpness while engaged in their art. Writing a poem, sculpting, or playing the violin, the artists described an altered state of consciousness. Alert, aware and without distraction, they created art in a cocoon where nothing else mattered at that moment. They were learning entirely for its own sake. They were much less worried about any lack of talent or what others might think than they might have been earlier in life.
Many of these biographies now highlight The Vintage Years.
Let’s meet some of the artists:
The Musician: Learning 300 Tunes
Don wondered out loud, “why in the world would a 78-year-old man keep trying to play the fiddle and keep taking lessons? To keep my fingers and my hand moving.
"I’ve memorized about three hundred tunes. That’s a good feeling. It’s also very satisfying to say that last year I couldn’t do that.”
Don, 78, wakes at 5:00 a.m. and plays the fiddle until 7:00 a.m.
“I keep a pretty rigid schedule for playing. If I didn’t get it done in the morning, I would never stop later to do it when I get busy with other things.
"My wife sleeps until 7:00 a.m., and I’m done practicing by the time she wakes up, which works out very nicely for me,” he says with a smile, implying that his sound might be annoying. I heard him play later and it was anything but.
The Painter: After Caring for Father
At 74, Julie is a botanical watercolorist with many shows to her credit. But a lot of water passed under the bridge before Julie came to her art. Until she was 62, she confined her creativity to dabbling in crafts: sewing, embroidery, hanging wallpaper, handiwork of various sorts, but never fine arts.
After retiring from her computer-programming job, Julie’s father died. While cleaning out his basement studio, she examined the tools of his career as an architect. “I became curious about all of his things. I was beginning to come out of a period when I was so busy taking care of him.
"I saw information about [a watercolor] class and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’ The teacher had drawings from her class pinned to the wall. ‘That looks easy.’” Well of course it wasn’t! But her initial interest was immediately kindled.
“Art is a really big thing for me. The people I’ve met, the seventeen artists I work with—we’ve been together since 2004. We’re friends. We meet every Friday and paint together for three hours.”
The people she’s met are now part of her extended family. Through them the artistic community at large is a friendly, receptive place for this once shy girl.
The Novelist: to Forget About Health Problems
Stan, at sixty-nine, is the picture of good health. But a decade before, he lay in bed, recuperating from a neck injury.
He wondered, “Can I write the end of a story at the beginning and keep people’s interest until the end? Can I give them the answer to who did what to whom, but then keep the action and the plot going?”
So began Stan's idea of writing novels, which grew as his recuperation dragged on. Time without structure was a new experience for him.
Stan was 59, a physician nearing retirement when his writing career took off.
He wrote to get time-out from problems. “When I’m at the computer and focused, everything else is in the background. I don’t do this to get away from something, but it is distracting.”
Laser-focus on writing gives Stan relief from family health problems.
“Fiction writing is fun. I can create people and I can get them to do what I want them to do.”
Take Advantage of Your Wisdom
A lifetime accumulation of knowledge and experience, with the added bonus of a calmer more focused brain, drives the process that leads to wisdom.
Wisdom is the product of a long and interesting life, cumulative decision-making, and stored patterns to facilitate new learning.
Wisdom is a fitting compensation for aging!
Arriving later in life, wisdom enhances the art and the late-blooming artist. Late-blooming artists could not possibly have blossomed earlier. Continuous learning is the ultimate stimulant for the brain of a wise elder.