By Helga Gendell
Coming of age has usually referred to the younger years, but retired clinical psychologist Francine Toder says that the fine arts benefit the aging brain, and that brain has capacities that actually help develop the late-blooming artist. This is good news for those who will soon retire or have already reached retirement, many believing that their best years are behind them.
In her book, “The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty,” Toder explains the benefit of pursuing the life of an artist after 60. She defines this as writing, playing an instrument, pursuing the fine arts of one sort or another, or immersing yourself in any activity in a novel or creative way.
“I use the term ‘artist’ very loosely. It’s as much about the way you might approach things as the form it takes, bringing openness and a child’s fascination to your experience, that which the Buddhists call ‘a beginner’s mind,’” Toder said.
In her 20s, 30s, 40s or even 50s, she said that her perceptions of what others thought and even her own self-doubts might have made her pause, but fortunately, that no longer happens. “This is a new stage in a new age,” she said. “Coming of age may now refer to a number like 60, the first point in life marked by the freedom to choose your own direction and freedom from constraints like others’ needs and expectations.”
Now Toder is emeritus faculty at California State University-Sacramento. She said that while her curiosity about the relationship between aging and artistic interests started out as academic, she soon realized she had a personal interest in the topic – developing her own artistic self. She heard about a young cello teacher, Biana Kovic, in New York City, who in 2004, decided to do a music experiment to satisfy her curiosity.
Kovic stated, “I once heard that most people die with music in their heart. On hearing this statement, I felt a strong urge to do something.” Kovic planned to test her theory that older people could indeed learn to play music, and while most of her students were adults, she was curious about whether she could teach the cello to senior citizens, even very old ones.
Toder cites Kovic’s experience, noting, “While anecdotal and unscientific, Kovic and her 89-year-old student saw and experienced firsthand that old brains can, in fact, do some things as well or better than 20-year-old brains.” Toder said she first learned about Kovic’s experiment when she started to wonder about her own possible retirement and about the next phase of life. She realized there were “unexplored corners of my own life craving light and attention.”
After a six-month consideration of what life would look like without the work that defined her, she said, she retired and began to explore the void she would be creating, and decided that learning to play the cello. Toder said feedback from the outside world, especially younger musicians, was not encouraging. Her grown children were “amused at my interest in taming a cello, not in a disrespectful way, but with surprise. They didn’t seem to understand that retirement is not the last stop on the train ride.”
In her book, Toder explains that like muscles, the brain thrives on activity and use. If you practice what you enjoy, your brain will appreciate the workout and reward you in tangible ways for your effort. Between technological developments and breakthroughs in the further understanding of brain functions and the brain’s ability to modify itself in several positive ways, the new discipline of cognitive neuroscience of aging has found new methods for measuring the brain’s activity.
She interviewed musicians, visual artists and writers, from age 62 to well into their late 80s for her book, and tells the story of how each one is strongly and passionately involved with their particular interest, showing that aging is a new beginning for many, and a new frontier for learning.
Seniors: A New Stage in a New Age
By Helga Gendell