Art and seniors: Drawing outside the lines
- June 25, 2013
By Angela Hill
Feature Writer and Columnist
Oakland Tribune and Bay Area News Group
Judy Lurie, of Portola Valley, had a lengthy and successful career as a social worker. Now, at 67, she paints glorious watercolors. Don Homan, who lives in the hills above Livermore, was a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Now, at 80, he fiddles around -- crafting violins and playing them in a fiddlers group. Caroline Garrett, of Cupertino, devoted decades to her family and her work as a nutritionist. Now she's a twice-published author of historical memoirs -- at the young age of 91.
Pursuing the fine arts later in life -- activities that involve problem-solving and complex tasks -- is known to help stimulate the aging brain. But age just might be good for the art, too. Some researchers say natural
neurological changes later in life make us better suited to pursue creative endeavors.
"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," says Francine Toder, a clinical psychologist recently retired from private practice in Palo Alto and author of "The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty."
And what's more, she says, "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."
Later in life is when you have the greatest emotional stability, she says. The sex drive has lessened, which also leads to calmness. There's increased patience and tolerance for frustration, which can be a big help when trying to learn something new.
"Basically," Toder says, "you're not over the hill. You're just on another hill."
Toder's premise is borne out in real life with active seniors seeking adult education courses or those in senior communities taking advantage of painting classes, poetry groups or art therapy programs.
Many folks have long had artistic interests, but they put them aside for building careers and families. Others have never picked up a brush or a flute, but they are delighted to explore uncharted territory.
Lurie retired from her full-time career as a social worker in 2006 and says she never considered she'd become an artist. Thanks to a drop-in painting class about 10 years ago, her main joy is now found in the cool, translucent tones of her watercolors. She sees a clear connection between her chronological stage in life and the development of her visual art skills.
"For me, it's 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," Lurie says. "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."
Second-career musicians are a common sight for Rafael Hernandez, music professor and associate dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at Cal State East Bay, where many students take advantage of the university's programs for those 60 and older.
"This is more than just folks interested in casual learning. They're actually wanting to earn degrees," he says, noting one student who is a retired computer programmer with a true underlying passion for music and composition. And another is a baritone in his 60s who had sung in choirs over the years but "wanted to get training, put his nose to the grind and do it," Hernandez says.
"Not that the kids don't take it seriously," he adds. "But often they're meeting requirements, just trying to gett 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," he says. "But there's a kind of way they can better savor and digest the meal. For them, learning music isn't a chore. It's a devotion."
Erin Partridge, enrichment coordinator and art therapist at Oakland's Salem Lutheran Home senior community, sees the mental and physical health benefits of the arts.
"We have some lifelong professional artists and writers," she says. "One even started a group for people to share poems they've written. But more often than not, residents say, 'Oh, I'm not an artist. I'll just come in and see what you're doing in the class.' Then all of a sudden, this (creative) side opens up, and pretty soon they're making a collage, then painting. It's great to see how it helps people come back to life."
Partridge agrees that advanced years can actually nurture talents. "People are doing a lot more reflecting. They're engaged in that kind of thoughtfulness about their lives, more introspective, which lends itself really well to making art and writing and music," she says.
The luxury of time is clearly a factor in developing creativity after retirement, but that's only part of it, Toder says.
"There's a process called bilaterality. During youth and adulthood, the brain's left hemisphere is busy processing information," she says. "Starting at midlife, the hemispheres are more functionally intertwined. With bilaterality, the left boosts the right.
"In addition, we've experienced more and can express it in art -- all the emotions you've gone through that younger people haven't experienced yet. It's related to a consolidation of a lifetime of learning -- better known as wisdom."
Garrett lives in a retirement community in Cupertino and became a published author only in the past decade. She wrote nearly daily in her youth, mostly letters home to her family while she served as a nutritionist in the Army Medical Corps during World War II. Then marriage, family and continuing career moves absorbed her attention.
"And then I thought, well, I'm too old to do anything new, teaching old dogs new tricks and all," Garrett says. "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 also took on computer classes to facilitate writing. Her first book published was "Short Skirts and Snappy Salutes" in 2004.
Garrett admits she feels slower, which can be frustrating. "I used to be able to write more quickly. At the same time, I can focus on this now. There aren't as many things disturbing your mind as when bringing up a family. And it's enriching."
Of course maintaining any kind of activity -- from golf and knitting to crossword puzzles and computer skills -- is highly beneficial as we age. But Toder asserts that the fine arts provide "more bang for the buck."
"There are three ingredients that serve as a robust tonic for the aging brain: newness or novelty, complexity and problem-solving," she says. "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."
Lurie agrees. "Painting for me is a form of meditation," she says. "As soon as I start painting, it's a different zone. My brain sort of wakes up. It's really incredible."