Easter weekend seemed the perfect opportunity to catch up with some reading and the book I selected did NOT disappoint. Instead of a novel, I chose “The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty” by Francine Toder, Ph.D. It offered such resonance with my interest in aging, Boomers and the arts that I simply could not put it down.
At age “60-plus,” Psychologist Toder, author and professor, simultaneously took up playing the cello and participating in a nonfiction writing class through the Stanford University Creative Writing Program. Tasked with submitting three book ideas in her class, she proposed a book for those in her life stage that would be “focused on finding and expressing an art form that would, in return, benefit their brain, body and psyche.” The result is “The Vintage Years,” a book that mirrors her experience with finding her cello.
I have many friends in their early 60’s who could have been profiled by Toder in her exploration of seniors finding their bliss pursuing the fine arts of one sort or another. In the past six months, my husband has taken up writing and is passionate about his blog, contributing something new several times a week. He has a bigger readership than I do and I write several blogs for different web sites. Another of my friends, Laurie, has taken up painting after years as a dental hygienist, mom and serious homemaker. And from what I have seen, Laurie’s painting is VERY good.
Toder makes an excellent case for a new interest in the arts in elders being very healthy for aging brains. She cites many experts in the field of neuroscience and gerontology to demonstrate how the arts benefit aging. Referring to her interviews with older people who took up the arts later in life, she writes, “One striking phenomenon was their ability to focus with laser sharpness while they were engaged in their art. While writing a poem, sculpting, or playing the violin, many described being in an altered state of consciousness, alert and aware but without distraction, in a cocoon where nothing else seemed to matter in that moment.”
This kind of focus has been described as “flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who wrote a book about the connection between the state of flow and well-being, who, Toder says, described it as “concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake.” In her interviews, Toder heard over and over that once her subjects “entered into a state of absorption with the art, they lost track of time…I also heard that pain often ceased to be a focus, even when it was acute.”
I read Csikszentimihalyi’s book when it first came out and relished learning about flow. I still notice it when I am walking, reading, cooking and writing. Toder’s book helped me realize why I am suddenly so interested in learning new stuff all the time and in supporting my friends in doing the same. My “new stuff” includes painting, keeping up with the latest technology and writing just for fun. Now I realize this kind of activity is also good for my brain, a kind of ongoing reinvention that helps to keep and build my brain’s robustness in this “third chapter” of life.
Near the end of the book, Toder quotes Albert Einstein: “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.” She says the Vintage Years provide “the ultimate laboratory where freedom to manifest creativity is possible, where creativity can freely bubble up and find expression.” She backs this up with studies explaining how the aging brain facilitates artistic expression. I don’t know about you, but this kind of information gave me great hope for my future, thanks to the arts!