Why The Elderly Are <em>More</em> Creative

The impulse to create art, music, poetry, literature is a basic human impulse. As humans, we are hard-wired for creativity, and this impulse does not deteriorate as we age.
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The impulse to create art, music, poetry, literature is a basic human impulse. As humans, we are hard-wired for creativity, and this impulse does not deteriorate as we age.

When we consider the basic impulse to paint on the walls of caves, we see that the impulse to record impressions of the world through art has existed before the written word. This is documented in caves with prehistoric paintings in France, Spain, in China, Korea, Japan; or on stones in the U.S. by native artists; in sand paintings and dream paintings by native artists in Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea; on bone in Alaska, in Newfoundland; in ice in Finland, Siberia. This impulse is part of our human heritage.

Not only do we find a continuum in the expression of the creative impulse, we find that there is a desire to communicate an impression of the exterior world. In the process of this communication, the interior voice of the artist is revealed. This is true in all fields of art, including weaving, music and the making of musical instruments.

Humans, as well as other animals, are hard-wired for creativity, but only the human animal engages a process that creates a product. The nature of the creative process is so basic to all human endeavors that we have lost respect for its importance. We take it for granted in the same way we take our sense of smell and taste -- it is just as basic. We are not only hard-wired for creativity, we are hard-wired for the process, and this does not change as we age.

When teachers use B.F. Skinner's theory of behavioral psychology -- which involves imitation and repetition by rote in order to acquire results that can be measured and tested -- students don't use the creative ability with which they are born. When students are not encouraged to use their innate creative ability, they learn to become submissive and accept directions without question. While this may be a useful training device in some situations, it is not useful for preparing citizens for innovative, responsible, creative solutions to economic and political problems.

The creative process encompasses the common human impulse to explore, test, evaluate and test again. Consider the way young children learn to walk, to use a pencil, pen or drawing tools.

The child stands, tests out stability, takes a few tentative steps, sits down, stands up again, evaluates what happened and tries again. This formula of try, test, evaluate, try again also applies to other forms of human endeavor. A good cook puts ingredients together in a pot or bowl, adds some known (or unknown) spices, tastes the combination and either throws it out and starts over, or continues depending on how it tastes. The evaluative part of this process is the most important.

All learning processes are creative. Yet, as we age, the effort to acknowledge our creative urge becomes harder and harder to encourage. Throughout our lives, we are barraged by negative judgments, which we internalize. We are continually told that our work (whatever it is) isn't good enough, isn't competitive, isn't likely to win first prize. It's easier to tell ourselves, "Ah, well, I'm never going to be good enough to have a gallery show; why bother? Might as well just forget about it."

My sister was a sculptor and her work definitely merited a public showing, but she continually demurred. Although she lived in an assisted living center whose director wanted to arrange a show, she refused to submit her sculpture for display. She allowed the negative judgments she dealt with all her life to discourage her, and she became almost paralyzed with inertia.

The question always arises, what to do? How do we, as members of the aging population, honor our creativity? The whole idea of trying something different, something new, requires a process of trying, testing, evaluating and trying again. It's fun, and even when we fail, it is the process that is so rewarding. I have a friend in her 70s who, after retiring from an exhausting executive position in a company, decided to study painting -- watercolor, acrylic and sculptural collage making. She finds the learning process so challenging that it takes her mind off her aches and pains.

We, the aging population, have reached a plateau that allows us to move beyond our self-imposed limitations. We can reach out to children in community schools as volunteers, helping children become better readers; we can become writing coaches for junior high and high school children. There are programs in place in our communities that train volunteers to use the skills they have forgotten they have. We can join the community at large on our own time, expending as little energy or as much as we decide.

What a liberating state to be in. Even with aches and pains, even with low energy, there's usually a bit left over for self-gratification.

Rhoda P. Curtis is the author of "Rhoda: Her First Ninety Years," a candid memoir of a first-generation American woman who was willing to change the direction of her life every 12 years, and "After Ninety: What." Read her blog on Red Room.