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Get Creative to Live Healthier, Longer
Looking forward to retiring so you can finally just sit down? Or is your idea of retirement more like a chance to finally write your novel, take photography classes or create a nonprofit foundation?
If you lean toward something like the latter, you may be more likely to avoid the physical, mental and emotional challenges that degrade quality of life for so many in their mature years. A growing collection of research shows that staying active and creative as you age is linked to better health, increased mental abilities and a sunnier outlook on life.
Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center on Aging at George Washington University, has devoted his professional life to studying creativity in seniors. He co-authored a study published in the “New England Journal of Medicine” that looked closely at the positive effects older people experience when they take part in a community arts organization.
Compared to the control group, the participants who led more creative, active lifestyles needed less medication, had fewer doctor visits, and were less likely to feel lonely or depressed.
“The differences [between the two groups] were significant,” says Cohen, who also wrote the books “The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain” and “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life.”
Cohen also confirms the value of mental exercises often touted in the media as good for keeping the mind sharp as you age. “Reading, writing, crossword puzzles … the kinds of activities that make your brain feel like it’s working up a sweat” can help keep your cognitive abilities strong, says Cohen.
Do What You Love
For many who choose an active and creative lifestyle as they age, the real motivation is often the simple satisfaction of doing the things they love.
“Women in their 40s and 50s are often workaholics,” says 76-year-old Emily Kimball, a creative aging expert, speaker and author of “A Resource Guide for Aging Adventurers.” “But you need to be thinking about and starting to practice some hobbies that you joy," she advises. "This will lead toward a path you know you'll enjoy when you retire.”
For Kimball, the road to becoming an expert on creative aging began with her own retirement at age 60. “I had two goals: One was to ride my bike across America, which I did at 62, and the other was to hike the whole Appalachian Trail.”
That hike took Kimball almost 10 years; she finished a week before her 71st birthday. But there's — her current plans include a 10-day bike tour and camping along the California coast“I have a lot of staying power."
Redefine Your Sense of Creativity
It’s never too late to try something new, even if you don’t consider yourself a “creative” person. Cohen and Kimball agree that people often don’t realize just how creative they really are until late in life.
In fact, says Cohen, late bloomers are ultimately the most creative. “Folk art is dominated by older persons, and many of them didn’t get serious about their craft until after 65,” he points out.
Kimball emphasizes that “creativity” needn’t be only about the arts and humanities. “The whole point is to find something you’re passionate about,” she says. “Art and music are wonderful things, but creativity is a lot more than that. It’s making something of your life — a realizing of the possibilities, or bringing something new into existence.”
Look In Your Own Backyard
If you’re looking for opportunities to learn a new hobby or activity in your area, try your own community first.
“There are community art programs all around the country,” says Cohen. He recommends checking in with your region’s office on aging, a university “lifelong learning” program, senior center, community center or community college. “A lot of college art programs have become intergenerational, with older and younger people taking classes together,” he says.
Be a Trailblazer
Kimball admits she’s different from a lot of people her age — but she isn’t concerned with what others think.
“Older people these days have an extension of life — 30 years of health that [previous generations] never had before,” she explains. “Society hasn’t caught up with us. There’s a lot of ageism, but I’m happy to thumb my nose at those people who think I shouldn’t be doing this or that.”
Kimball, who is hard of hearing, says that that hasn’t stopped her from getting on with her life. “You work with the disabilities that age brings,” she explains.
As part of her consulting and speaking business Make It Happen!, Kimball says she often counsels or speaks to people who feel intimidated to try new things or take a risk by doing something that somebody else thinks older people “shouldn’t.”
“I encourage them to do what they want to do and not worry about what others say,” Kimball explains. “That’s the only way we can change the way society thinks.”