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Creativity: As We Grow Old


Gene D. Cohen M.D., Ph.D.
Natalie Ring, Executive Officer, Southern & South East Arts. UK
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

Goethe, Titian, and Edison are testament to the vitality and creativity that can define people in their later years. Creativity need not decline as we grow older. If we choose, our later life can be a period of great creative productivity.

Live long and prosper
Goethe completed Faust at 80, Titian painted masterpieces at 98, and Edison worked in his laboratory at 84. Gene D. Cohen, the author of The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, defines creativity as 'our innate capacity for growth. It is the energy that allows us to think a different thought, express ourselves in a novel way. It enables us to view life as an opportunity for exploration, discovery, and an expanding sense of self... and it knows no age.'

Political pressure
The social landscape of our world is changing fast. The number of people aged 60 and above will have risen from 200 million in 1950 to 1.2 billion in 2025. This represents a six fold increase, from 8% of the world’s population in 1950 to 14% in 2025.

The United Nations turned its attentions to issues of ageing as far back as 1948. In 1982 the World Assembly on Ageing was set up in recognition that the world faces an ageing population and that this is both a great achievement and a challenge. In 1991 the United Nations Principles for Older Persons were adopted and subsequently the United Nations set Global Targets on Ageing, the aims of which were to 'support national responses to the ageing of populations as well as to create an environment where the talents of older people find full expression and their care needs are met'.

The principles adopted by many countries as a result of The United Nations initiative sought to address many issues relating to ageism by:

avoiding upper age limits for awards and schemes
seeking opportunities to celebrate and profile the work of older artists
giving greater support and a higher profile to participatory work with older people
giving greater support to audience development initiatives geared at older people
ensuring creative development courses meet the needs of older artists

Despite these and other initiatives that seek to improve the recognition and opportunities of societies towards older people's creativity, older people's status as artists in their own right remains largely ignored.

Brain power
Although there is no doubting the significance of our early brain development, research into the capacity for learning and creative development in the second half of life has shown that when the mind is challenged, the brain biologically responds in positive ways, regardless of age. The more we think and do, the more we contribute to vibrant cell life in the brain.

The brain responds physically and chemically to environmental challenge. Brain cells involved in thinking and memory communicate with one another in two fundamental ways. One, through branchlike extensions known as dendrites. The other, through the release of chemical messengers between the branches.

A stimulating environment results in individual brain cells sprouting new dendritic branches and an increased production within the brain of acetylcholine, the chemical messenger most involved in memory and thinking functions. The newest findings reveal that from an individual's early 50s through late 70s, there is actually an increase in the length and extent of the dendritic branches, which compensate for brain-cell loss that can occur over time.

The Four Phases of Creativity (as described by Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D.)
A look at developmental growth takes us into another part of the forest. Here we're talking about changes at different points in the life cycle; changes in how we view and experience life from a combined psychological, emotional, and intellectual perspective. Just as you can't teach a child to read before he or she is developmentally ready to read, certain qualities of mind and action in adulthood unfold at their own special time.

For instance, wisdom can't be taught. It is a developmental mix of age, knowledge, and practical life experience, and the brain function that allows us to integrate those pieces to achieve insight, which we can then apply to a variety of life circumstances. That is why it is typically easier for an older adult to define problems and envision multiple strategies to deal with them. In adulthood we can take advantage of this developmental impetus to energise our creativity and jump-start our efforts to explore new ideas or make changes.

Four developmental phases (re-evaluation, liberation, summing-up, and encore) shape the way our creative energy grows and the way we express it in our later years. Like so much of the human condition, the timing and duration of these phases are fluid. While they typically unfold in sequence, there can be significant variation. They can overlap, and precise ages at which they occur vary. We all have the potential to experience each phase, but not every phase may be significantly expressed. For example, little re-evaluation activity and little liberation activation may occur, but you might have strong summing-up action. Each phase is defined by a combination of our chronological age, our history, and our circumstances.

1. Re-evaluation Phase
In this phase, from our 50s on, our creative expression is intensified by a sense of crisis or quest. Although 'midlife crisis' is the term we so often hear, most adults are engaged in a search for ways to make their life and work more gratifying. The re-evaluation phase combines the capacity for insightful reflection with a powerful desire to create meaning in life.

2. Liberation Phase
In this phase, typically from a person's 60s to his or her 70s, creative endeavours are charged with the added energy of a new degree of personal freedom that comes psychologically from within us and situationally from retirement or from a change from full-time to part-time work. People tend to feel comfortable about themselves by this stage, knowing that if they make a mistake it won't undo the image others have of them and, more important, won't undo their image of themselves. Creative expression in this phase often includes translating a feeling of 'if not now, when?' into action. This provides a new context for experimentation, which is liberating and adds to the richness of life.

3. Summing-up Phase
In this phase, from our 70s on, we feel more urgently the desire to find a larger meaning in the story of our lives through a process of looking back, summing up, and giving back. We also begin to see ourselves as "keepers of the culture," and wish to contribute whatever we have gained in wisdom and wealth. Creative expression in this phase often includes autobiography and personal storytelling, philanthropy, community activism, and volunteerism.

4. Encore Phase
This phase, in our 80s or older, reflects the energy of advancing age, in which creative expression is shaped by the desire to make yet further contributions on a personal or community level: to affirm life, to take care of unfinished business, and to celebrate one's place in family, community, and even in the spiritual realm.

Creativity for all
Harvard professor Howard Gardner, a noted expert on human development, describes two types of creativity: Creativity with a 'big C' and creativity with a 'little c'. When Einstein developed the theory of relativity he was practising Creativity with a 'big C' and it changed an entire field of thought. On the other hand, creativity with a 'little c' emerges from the milieu of everyday life.

Creativity with a 'little c' is not of less importance than that with a 'big C', although it is usually of less notoriety and influence. 'Ordinary people's' creativity can be as powerful and enriching as those who influence all our futures by their creative efforts.

People the world over need and do create, but most often the fruits of their creative labours go unnoticed. Although public forums like the Exhibition Area at AbleStable® that encourage and present 'ordinary people's' creative efforts are few and far between, they can act as a crucial element in our path towards a more mutually enriching world.

Authors background
Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., the author of The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life (Avon Books, 2000), is a world-renowned gerontologist, psychiatrist, and the first director of the Centre on Ageing, Health, & Humanities at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Natalie Ring is the Executive Officer of Southern & South East Arts. Southern & South East Arts is one of nine regional arts councils and part of the national arts funding and development system in the United Kingdom.

Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®

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