Pursuing fine arts later in life is known to help stimulate the aging brain, with activities that involve problem-solving and complex tasks. Judy Lurie, of Portola Valley, had a lengthy and successful career as a social worker, now at the age 67, she paints glorious watercolors. Don Homan, who lives in the hills above Livermore, was a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, not at 80m he fiddles around – crafting violins and playing them in the fiddler’s group. Caroline Garrett from Cupertino, devoted many years to her family and her work as a nutritionist, now she is a twice-published author of historical memoirs at the age of 91.

Some researchers say that natural neurological changes later in life make us better suited to pursue creative endeavors. Francis Toder, a clinical psychologist recently retired from a private practice in Palo Alto and the Author of “The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty,” said, “Recent discoveries in neuroscience confirm that the brain, even beyond age 60 –  if it’s fed a diet of complexity, newness and problem-solving- can continuously develop throughout life. Lifestyle and natural changes in brain and hormonal functioning beyond age 60 actually facilitate mastery of the fine arts in ways that elude younger people.”

You’ll have the greatest emotional stability later in life she says. Lessened sex drive can lead to calmness. There is an increase in patience and tolerance for frustration, which can be a big help when learning something new.

“Basically, you are not over the hill. You are just on another hill,” Toder said.

Late-blooming abilities

Toder’s assumptions are borne out in real life with active seniors looking for adult education courses or those in the senior community taking advantage of some painting classes, poetry groups or art therapy programs.

Many of them have long been interested in arts, but they usually put them aside for building careers and families. Some of them never picked up a brush or a flute, but they are pleased to explore uncharted territory.

A retired Social Worker, Lurie says she never considered she would become an artist. She drop-in painting class 10 years ago, now her main source of joy is found in the cool, translucent tones of her watercolors. She now sees a clear connection between her chronological stage in life and the development of her visual art skills.

Lurie said, “For me, it is definitely an age thing. When I got to be in my 50s, the main thing I remember thinking was that I no longer have to impress anybody, I grew up in a family of very ambitious women. But taking up painting, I no longer felt the pressure to be outstanding or achieve a certain grade. It was painting for its own sake. And not only am I more relaxed, to begin with, but painting relaxes me.”

For Rafael Hernandez second-career for him. He is a professor and associate dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at Cal State East Bay, majority of the students there take advantage of the university’s programs for those 60 and older.

According to Hernandez, “This is more than just folks interested in casual learning. They are actually wanting to earn degrees.” Noting one of his students who is a retired computer programmer with a true underlying passion for music and compositions, another one is a baritone in his 60s who had sung in choirs over the years but wanted to get a training.

“Not that the kids don’t take it seriously, but often they’re meeting requirements, just trying to get through college. Whereas the older students often see the application of learning in a different way, with maturity over time and eye-opening life experiences. They still want results, but there’s a kind of way they can better savor and digest the meal. For them, learning music is not a chore. It’s a devotion,” he adds.

Enrichment coordinator and art therapist at Oakland’s Salem Lutheran Home senior community, Erin Patridge, sess the mental and physical health benefits of the arts.

“We have some lifelong professional artist and writer. One even started a group for people to share poems they’ve written. But more often than nor, residents say, ‘Oh, I am not an artist. I’ll just come in and see what you are doing in the class.’ Then all of a sudden, this creative side opens up, and pretty soon they’re making a college, then painting. It’s great to see how it helps people come back to life.” Erin Patridge said.

She also agrees that advanced years can actually nurture talents. “People are doing a lot more reflecting. They are engaged in that kind of thoughtfulness about their lives, more introspective, which lends itself really well to making art and writing and music,” she adds.

Boosting brains

Having a luxury of time is a clear factor in developing creativity after retirement, But that is only a part of it, says Toder.

“There’s a process called bilaterality. During youth and adulthood, the brain’s left hemisphere is busy processing information. Starting at midlife, the hemispheres are more functionally intertwined. With bilaterality, the left boosts the right. In addition, we have experienced more and can express it in art – all the emotions you’ve gone through that younger people have not experienced yet. It is related to a consolidation of a lifetime of learning – better known as wisdom,” she says.

Garrett lives in a retirement home in Cupertino and became a published author only in the past years. She wrote almost every day in her younger years, mostly composed of letters for her family back home while she served as a nutritionist in the Army Medical Corps during the World War II. Then after that marriage, family and continuous career moves consumed her attention.

Garret said, “ And then I thought, well, I’m too old to do anything new, teaching old dogs new trick and all. But I took a writing class, which is important. It takes a lot of discipline to write, and you need that once-a-week reason to make you do it. Plus the camaraderie that develops.” She took a computer class to help her in her writing. “Short Skirt and Snappy Salutes” was her first book that was published in 2004.

Garrett admits that sometimes she feels slower, which can be very frustrating. “I used to be able to write more quickly. At the same time, I can focus on this now. There are not as many things disturbing your mind as when bringing up a family. And it is enriching.”

Maintaining any kind of activity from doing gold, knitting, crossword puzzles and computer skills – is very beneficial as we age. But according to Toder, fine arts provide “more bang for the buck.”

According to Toder, “There are three ingredients that serve as a robust tonic for the aging brain: newness or novelty, complexity, and problem-solving. The fine arts have all these and more. They also have meaning and passion. People can be passionate about golf, but the arts offer the opportunity for transcendent experiences.”    


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