As my friends and I navigate our 60s and 70s, we notice — with amusement and consternation — how our conversations have changed. Instead of talking about our kids’ college applications and the best camping sites, we find ourselves discussing back pain and long-term care insurance. The bottom-line concern, of course, is how to create the best quality of life as we age.
My father, who died a few months ago at 94, is one of my best models for aging well. Although Dad could hardly move his body in the past year, he still made people laugh with his quirky sense of humor. He continued to use his imagination and kept sharing his philosophies about life with anyone who would listen. (Sometimes even with those who wouldn’t.)
In many ways, my father never grew up. He viewed the world with curiosity, he sought new experiences and he saw endless possibilities — as children do. I think this is the secret to aging creatively.
Keeping that inner child alive is not always easy, says Stephen Cohn, a Burbank composer who has taught classes on creativity.
“From the time we’re children, we’re told not to daydream,” Cohn said. “We’re expected to focus on the external necessities of survival and practicality. We’re not trained to take our dreaming and our imagination seriously. And yet that is the source of all great ideas. Great art, great physics, great medicine … it all came from somebody’s imagination.”
Of course, focusing on what’s practical allows us to make decisions, raise families, manage our finances and handle day-to-day responsibilities. That’s what adults do.
The problem is we become identified with a role, a job or certain physical abilities. Then, as we grow old, our lives change. A role or job ends. The activities we enjoyed — whether skiing, driving, traveling or cleaning house — aren’t as easy or aren’t possible at all. This transition can be frustrating and painful.
But along with the grief, a vitally important question might then be asked: “Now what?”
“I think too many people buy into the societal myth that when you reach a certain age, you’ve outlived your usefulness to yourself and society,” said Ronnie Kaye, a psychotherapist and author from Marina del Rey. “Accepting that belief is guaranteed to diminish your quality of life. Why settle for that when there is a world of possibilities out there?”
How does one discover new possibilities? How do we tap our imagination as we grow older?
Kaye suggests starting with brainstorming exercises. The purpose is to allow ideas to emerge, to bypass the practical, critical voice that often stops us from seeing outside of the box.
Here’s an example: Ask yourself, “What do I like to do?” Write down everything that comes to mind.
Gardening! Traveling! Hugging babies! Cleaning! Hugging dogs! Skydiving!
Don’t stop to assess whether you can still do it or whether it’s practical. Keep asking, “What have I enjoyed?” Then ask yourself, “What are my skills?” They might include balancing the checkbook, fixing things, organizing, reading, cooking or listening to other people. Write every word that randomly comes to mind — again, without judging.
OK, now use your rational mind — maybe skydiving isn’t such a good idea. Look around your home or community for opportunities to express pleasures or talents. It could be organizing the garage, coaching new entrepreneurs, taking a writing class or reading to children. The options are infinite. Consider brainstorming with others to enhance the process.
Aging creatively doesn’t have to mean that every senior citizen takes up watercolor painting or yoga; it’s about learning to think about your place in the world differently.
When Kaye turned 65 four years ago, for example, she started to rethink her career plans.
“After having been a therapist for 20 years, I wanted to know more, reach people in a different manner and use myself, my skills and my profession in new ways,” she said.
Her answer was to enter a doctoral program in psychoanalysis. Now, at 69, she is in the final phase of completing her doctorate at the New Center for Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.
Kaye also described an 80-year-old friend who led a very productive life, but is now barely able to walk. Many things she used to do are impossible. After thinking about what she still has to offer, however, the woman started reading to blind people several times a week.
“Finding a solution that would allow her to be useful and engaged, despite her limitations, was a genuinely creative act,” Kaye said.
Richard Braun, 82, is a retired thoracic surgeon from Encino. Since he stopped working, Braun, a violist, joined the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and plays in a weekly chamber group. He also teaches anatomy on a volunteer basis at UCLA.
“I wanted to use my medical knowledge in some way,” Braun said. “This requires me to invent stimulating ways to convey ideas. I’m so busy since retiring that my wife says I’ll have to go back to work to find more free time!”
As an artist and art therapist, Tobes Reisel often finds herself helping seniors discover a creative part of themselves.
“I work with many people who are not artists. I ask them to scribble with me,” said Reisel, 87, of Sherman Oaks. “They get into their childishness, and many say, ‘You know what? There’s a kid in me that isn’t having any fun!’ So we talk about how they can add that to their life.”
Creativity often evolves from one’s passions. This is definitely the case for artist Peachy Levy. At 82, the Santa Monica resident still gets commissions for creating her unique Judaic textile art.
“I am a passionate person,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t make time or space for their passions; their life is too frenetic. It might help to look back to your youth, to what you were passionate about. Perhaps those feelings are still there for you!”
Passion is what led Carey Okrand to want to become an entrepreneur at 60. Realizing she could go from preaching about the environment to doing something active and positive, she’s decided to start a business in Los Feliz that will be called The Refill Place. Based on an old concept of reusing containers instead of filling the earth with plastic, the idea will be for people to bring their empty containers to her store and refill them with environmentally friendly cleaning and personal care products.
“The everyday decisions and choices I have to make let me be creative,” said Okrand of Van Nuys. “Growing a business feels like working on a piece of art.”
Discovering or inventing new possibilities at 60 or 80 isn’t the same as it was at 20 or 30.
“To be creative at an older age,” Reisel said, “involves reviewing how you’ve lived your life and then using that in the way that is most honest and fulfilling and enjoyable for where you are now and what you can do now.”
Aging creatively, then, involves rediscovering passions, taking an inventory of current skills and keeping in check any tendency to tell yourself that you are too old to be useful or to have fun. It means reawakening the child inside that can laugh and imagine and create something new, in spite of — or sometimes because of — limitations.
Every day that my father woke up and remembered he could no longer drive or work or get from his bed to the bathroom by himself, I believe he asked himself, “Now what?” Then he made a choice to see possibilities. I hope I can follow his lead.
Ellie Kahn is a licensed psychotherapist, oral historian and documentary filmmaker. She can be contacted through her Web site, livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.