Creativity Helps Keep Seniors Healthy; Improves Lives

By Jan Robbins

Negative stereotypes about older adults persist even today. But, when it comes to creativity, old age defies the myths.

Tony Bennett, a singer at 91 years of age, is still touring, standing for 90-minute-long performances. Rita Moreno, an 87-year-old actress, is starting the second season of her Netflix show, “One Day at a Time.” Mary Higgins Clark, the “Queen of Suspense” at 90, is still turning out two books a year.

Studies show that older adults not only exhibit creativity, but when they do their brains become more flexible, enhancing health and well-being. Participants in a community-based art program, part of a two-year study in 2006 by the National Endowment for the Arts, reported better health, fewer doctor visits, less medication usage, more positive responses on mental health measures and more involvement in overall activities.

Closeted Creativity

“Creativity has always been there with aging, but many have not recognized or searched for it in themselves in later life because society has so denied, trivialized or maligned it,” said Dr. Gene Cohen, a pioneer in gerontology research and author of the 2000 book “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life.”

Looking back, there are many examples of creativity marching into older age. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature at age 69, said, “You see things and say ‘why?’ But I dream things that never were and say, “why not?’”

Grandma Moses who starting painting at age 78, won international acclaim with 15 one-woman shows in Europe and painted until her death at 101.

But creativity is not just a bastion of famous people. And it is not some mystical or spiritual argument but rather something based on biological fact, argues clinical psychologist Francine Toder in her 2012 book “The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist after Sixty.”

“Creativity is a life force causing us to be resilient and adaptive,” she said.

In Pursuit of One’s Passions

Stuart Habley copy

Stuart Habley

Pursuing one’s passions easily describes retired carpenter Stuart Habley, 69, a Sunset resident who says he has “a lot of passions. I get easily distracted.” Those include writing poetry, making short films, painting in watercolors, writing a memoir and working on a screenplay based on his challenges living with bi-polar disease.

“I don’t consider it an illness, but rather a gift. There’s the disease and then there’s you,” he said.

Habley, who also collaborates with his wife, has a film studio in his basement. He calls his website

When Luck Provides Opportunity

Creativity is the flame that heats the human spirit and kindles our desire for inner growth and self-expression, according to Cohen.

Sunset resident Kaaren Staunch Brown, 82, sticks to a writing schedule of two hours every morning to keep the brain sharp.

brownk-opt_11 copy

 Kaaren Staunch Brown

“Writing keeps me interested in life because I really study people,” she said.

Drawn to science fiction and mystery, Brown aspires to emulate the late science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, whom she admires for her tough-minded, feminist bent.

“People write what they read. I liked fiction because, unlike in my past academic job as a social worker at the University of Michigan, I can write whatever I want. Science fiction can be hard science or social science, which is what I’m interested in. I like to fit together all of the pieces of a utopian society.

In “The Abril Legacy,” which she published in 2017 as an Amazon eBook, Brown explores corrupt and corrupting corporations and how therapeutic environments can lessen their influence on society.

“I have gotten some royalties, which makes me feel really good,” she said.

Brown has written three more mystery novels, which she also hopes to publish as eBooks.

Arts of Aging Well

Julene Johnson, associate director of the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California, San Francisco, was part of a 2010 study in Finland that showed older adults participating in a choir had higher levels of well-being.

Because the percentage of adults over age 65 in the U.S. is expected to double by 2030, Johnson says there is a need to focus less on the biomedical sciences and more in the area of the arts to find ways to keep older adults engaged and healthy.

Programs in San Francisco

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” wrote Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.

Adults ready for that step can explore art, music, film and writing at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (most classes held in the downtown SF State University campus at 835 Market St.), the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco and City College of San Francisco.

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