Thursday, April 13, 2017
Creativity in Aging
For several decades, our society has known that Baby Boomers would re-define what it means to age. Some aspects of “conventional wisdom” are now being challenged. I’ve recently challenged some of my students in a gerontology class to think about their own retirement. Assuming they will retire at the age of 65, and their life expectancy will give them quite a few healthy years beyond that, what would they want to do? Asking this question of people in their 20’s and 30’s can yield interesting results.
In Long Term Care, we’re developing an appreciation that quality of life is just as important as quality of care. What makes life meaningful and purposeful? Upon admission, we ask residents about their past hobbies and interests in order to support those areas. Often, though, I’ve heard people mention an area of interest that they haven’t pursued. “I’ve always wanted to take up painting, photography, music, reading for pleasure, etc., but between work and raising a family, I’ve haven’t had time.” The so-called golden years may be a time to take up a new hobby, too. We’re dispelling the idea that seniors can’t learn new things.
Elderhostel is a well-known program of designing classes for seniors. Teaching methods may differ somewhat from classes designed for “typical” college students, and the topics may not be commonly taught on college campuses.
Gerontological research is now showing that the abilities to think, learn, create, and innovate do not necessarily diminish with aging. People are often required to use these skills during their careers and child-rearing years. Upon retirement, the demand to use such skills may diminish, but the cognitive ability does not. Certain disease processes, such as dementia, may impact these skills, but aging itself does not. How can a senior use and sharpen such abilities?
First, the effort must be intentional. Pursue a new area of interest. Take classes through your adult education program or online (such as a course from Saint Joseph’s College!). Persist in learning a new skill, even if you aren’t proficient at first. The repetition of learning something new and practicing that skill can help to develop new neural pathways in the brain.
Secondly, hone your problem-solving skills. Mathematical puzzles such as Sudoku, and language puzzles such as crosswords, can train new neural pathways while also accessing previously known knowledge. I enjoy trying to figure out a mystery “whodunit.”
Third, view your personal history as an asset. By participating in classes with students from other generations, for example, you can lend your voice of expertise while also learning the new perspectives of others. I always enjoy teaching a multi-generational class where a variety of ideas can be shared. I’ve taken classes with students who were much older than myself, and I’ve admired them and the experiences they have shared. This may be the time to write your memoirs, make a quilt related to your family, or record stories about your family’s history, which will serve to benefit future generations.
Fourth, view your history in new ways. Gerontologist Harvey Lehman conducted a study of creativity in aging. He found that many of the most renowned sculptures in the art world were crafted by older artists. They used their life experience artistically in their work. If you create art, dance, music, etc., does the art you create at an older age take on a different, more mature meaning than it did at a younger age? The question may, or may not, be your skill level, but more importantly, the perspective presented by a more mature artist. Reclaim a long-forgotten hobby and compare your work of today with your work from decades ago.
Fifth, consider spending time in charitable work. Many seniors are taking time for short-term mission trips where they can use their skills for the benefit of others. Other cultures need your expertise in medical care, teaching, agriculture, and developing businesses, for example. Even if you can’t afford to travel to exotic locations, there are areas in the United States that need you, and there are growing opportunities for using these skills online. Many people express that they intended to bless others through their charitable work, but they received blessings as well.
Sixth, even if your senior years are compromised by health issues, find a way to give to others. In my work as a nursing home administrator, I found that depression and discouragement can be improved by focusing on the needs of others, not ourselves. Can you write letters to soldiers, knit mittens for underprivileged children, tutor children in reading, send care packages to college students, or record your own books for the blind? One of our most fun annual events was Bowl for Kids’ Sake, a bowling tournament to raise money for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization. While the organization’s bowling tournament occurred at a bowling alley on a Saturday, our event was held on Friday on Wii. The organization brought our residents t-shirts, snacks, and prizes. One year the top fundraiser for the entire community was a nursing home resident! An important part of having purpose is the ability to give to others, to be a provider and not just a recipient.
Don’t let your assumptions define how you’ll spend your senior years. After all, this isn’t your grandmother’s retirement!
Submitted by Philip C. DuBois, CNHA, FACHCA, Program Manager, Long Term Care Administration, Saint Joseph's College