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Interview: Late-Blooming Artists Fascinate and Inspire

 

Francine Toder is the author of The Vintage Years


Many are using retirement to launch new life chapters.

The Vintage Years shows how those 60 years and older can rediscover themselves through the arts.

In this illuminating work, psychologist and emeritus professor Francine Toder interviews 20 men and women. They reveal how they took up new pursuits – glasswork, local history, African drumming – to revitalize life.

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Toder in Palo Alto, California.

Ruth Dempsey: Why did you want to learn the cello?

Francine Toder: As a lifelong listener to classical music, I was smitten by the cello early on. But prior to my 60s, it never occurred to me that I could actually learn to play this magnificent string instrument.

When I began to consider how I could spend my time after retiring from my work as a psychologist, I realized that there was nothing to stop me from trying.

Three years later, not only can I play music but I can more fully appreciate the experience of hearing beautiful music played by others. I opened a door to a part of myself that I didn't know existed.

RD: Why focus on the arts?

FT: Almost 50 years ago when I was in graduate school, very little was known about the resilience of the over-60 brain. At that time, there was no point in studying a life stage that eluded most people.

When I was in my 20s this seemed irrelevant, but, as I approached 70, I was very interested in updates in neuroscience that would shed light on ways to maintain brain vigor along with physical and psychological well-being.

I was betting that I would live a long life, and, if I did, I wanted to create the right tonic for stimulating cognitive functioning. But I wondered what would give me the most bang for my buck.

I decided to do some research, and several findings led to the fine arts. For one thing, the fine arts have survival value in terms of evolutionary psychology. Music may have predated language. Similarly, cave paintings were an essential part of communicating dangers and the life cycle events, and story telling was the precursor of writing.

They are also pursuits that give pleasure and meaning and they allow for intense focus, which are good for the brain and psyche.

RD: You talked to some wonderful musicians, visual artists and writers, Can you give me a thumbnail sketch of the musicians? Is there one that stands out for you?

FT: The musicians were drawn to their instruments for different reasons.

For some, it was an unrealized longing from the past to play the piano or cello, for example. For others, it was curiosity about what else they could do at this point in their lives. Sometimes it was just plain accidental, as in inheriting a musical instrument.

In general, fewer people choose to learn to play an instrument than dive into painting or writing. Learning to read music feels like a significant challenge. In fact, it's quite demanding but perfect for exciting the brain.

The viola da gamba player stands out. She picked a very exotic instrument. It's difficult to play, and it's held between the knees even though it's as large as a cello.

The 81-year-old woman, whom I write about in the book, practices for two hours a day and drives more than 100 miles roundtrip for her lessons.

RD: What about the writers?

FT: The single commonality was their desire to express their ideas in the written word. This had to wait until they had time to concentrate, meaning the retirement years.

None of the writers I interviewed had formal training; they just started writing. Whether it was short stories, poems, novels or historic nonfiction, all of the writers valued their carved-out privacy where they could enter into their work and become fully absorbed.

The oldest writer in my book didn't start writing until her mid-80s, when, after her mother's death at 107, she found the time and space to focus.

RD: I was enthralled by the visual artists. Henry worked in his family's meat business until he retired at 68, when he turned to woodcarving . . .

FT: Ironically, he whittled objects with his pen knife as a child, and used a knife as butcher long before taking up woodcarving in retirement. Unlike most of the artists in the book, it was easy to connect the dots in his life. At 96, he was still working his much-loved hobby.

RD: Julie, a former computer programmer became a botanical watercolorist . . .

FT: Her father was a well-known architect and, as a child, she was intimidated by his artistic abilities. Inheriting his artist tools after he died stirred her curiosity, which she put to good use after she retired. Now she spends her time creating botanical watercolours so exquisite you feel like you can touch and almost smell them.

RD: And Betsy, a research physicist, became a ceramics artist after illness forced her to take early retirement . . .

FT: She floundered for a while after her physical recovery while searching for something meaningful and pleasurable to do with her time. When she discovered her art form, she became hooked and she now feels passionately connected to her artist's lifestyle.

RD: You show how interest in the arts benefits aging brains. Can you give me an example?

FT: What I consider the magical triad of ingredients for stimulating brain activity: newness, complexity and problem solving are available in abundance by practicing one of the fine arts. Because these pursuits are so pleasurable and meaningful, it's easy to become immersed. The process is intense and very satisfying while it also stimulates cognitive functioning.

Beginning to play a musical instrument, sculpt or write a haiku checks the boxes for newness and also complexity as these art forms require some understanding of how ideas fit together.

Problem solving also comes into play, for example, with the stained glass artist I write about. He created larger and larger pieces and finally crafted a gigantic glass window for a church. He had to learn some structural engineering concepts to make sure his window was strong enough to account for its massive weight. It had to be more that a thing of beauty – it had to endure.

RD: What was the best thing about writing your book?

FT: Through my talks, I've met some extraordinary people who share their stories with me. Their enthusiasm about the subject of my book is very satisfying.

Also, entering into a fine art creates a new community of like-minded people. This is healthy psychologically, especially as we age.

In high school, I wanted to be a journalist but that goal got sidetracked pretty quickly. Now nearly 60 years later, I'm blogging for The Huffington Post as well as print and online magazines. I've come full circle and I love it.

Editor's note: The original article appeared in AHB March/April 2014