As We Grow Old
Gene D. Cohen M.D., Ph.D.
Natalie Ring, Executive Officer, Southern &
South East Arts. UK
de Sousa, Director, AbleStable
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.
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.'
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 worlds population in 1950 to 14%
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:
age limits for awards and schemes
to celebrate and profile the work of older artists
support and a higher profile to participatory work
with older people
support to audience development initiatives geared
at older people
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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