Getting older and more creative

Doug Wilson 15.01.21

Doug Wilson

The relationship between creativity and age has long been questioned. Academics conclude that the average peak of creativity is in our 20s, reaching a peak in early 40s, before declining.

However, this represents an average figure, assessed by measurable output in science and art. There are a wealth of exceptions. Many older people happily trundle along, comfortable in how it’s always been. But others ignore their age, diving into new projects, living a busy creative life.

Despite creativity fading on average with age, at 80 many individuals have exhibited they can create new stuff. If you’ve got enough to start you will still have tons left as age rolls on.

Frank Lloyd Wright finished the Guggenheim Museum, age 92, Verdi was 70 when he released his masterpiece Falstaff opera at 85, Michelangelo sculpted till his death at 88 and Grandma Moses began painting after 70. Perhaps creativity is fading in today’s world as screens and headphones create isolation bubbles, limiting the flow of ideas between individuals.

A friend, a past international political journalist, now in her mid-70s, takes every conversation into her unique world. She sees frailty in the self-confident, excitement in the banal, hope for the underprivileged. Most of us see two sides to many questions, she sees five or six sides. Take your pick. That is dazzling creativity.  

George Washington University conducted a formal study of creativity in older people. A group of 150 people with an average age of 80 met regularly with creative individuals in the arts and humanities. A control group of 150 enjoyed their cups of tea and their usual life, and the two groups were compared. After two years the study revealed the first group who pushed to exercise their creative skills gained immeasurably in confidence and independence. Pursuing the creative was not only a pleasant diversion but resulted in a positive gain in good living. Creativity improved wellbeing.

I was born in 1937, and I grew up in Auckland. We had no TV, and minimal radio for kids. Classic Comics and books were my stimulation. I had a vivid imagination, but my spelling dyslexia made it difficult to convert my ideas into stories that others could read. So I pursued a medical career in New Zealand, London, Oxford, Melbourne, Saudi Arabia, and eventually as a pharmaceutical executive in United States and Germany.

My wish to be a writer, remained as powerful as ever, but my writing and spelling incompetence continued the barrier. Spellcheck, and the dictating Dragon Speak, broke me through to the creative universe of writing. I published my first kid’s story aged 76. My hero Tom Hassler, arrived, firstly to battle the Rats of Droolmoan Cave. A series of kids’ books have followed to fair acceptance.

I’ve written 11 books for kids in seven years.

Publishing gives me an outlet for my pent-up wish to produce stories for others. I needed a creative outlet, and technology helped me find it. I’ve also published a guide for older individuals: Ageing for Beginners and have almost completed a successor book. How did it come together?

Stories were no problem for my imagination, but I had no experience of the technique of writing fiction. So various rewrites were needed to escape from the language being ponderous, and even archaic. My friend Spellcheck was there to overcome my dyslexia. A writing course with Tessa Duder followed and the task became increasingly easy, as the characters took on their own life and drove part of the script.

At 83 I’m still enthusiastic. I’m writing for kids, as well as translating complex medical and scientific information into useful communications. I’m a regular on Radio New Zealand with Kim Hill talking about ageing and my Ageing for Beginners podcasts have found fans around the world. In Kim’s words, I am reporting from ‘the frontline of ageing’. Live radio and podcasts force me to be more deliberate about selecting and marshalling of facts, all the time defaulting to make complex scientific communications simple.

And in my spare time my imagination conjures up books like Zeke Battle: Earthquake Boy.

Is creativity possible after the age of 70?

It sure is.

You gain, but so do others.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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