The upside of 70: are we more creative? Can we play better?

Bob Belinoff
SeniorPlanet.org

What am I supposed to accomplish in my act three? On stage, it’s the most exciting act, so why not in life. Is there something I may be better at now that wasn’t my forte in the past?

The answer, I’ve discovered, is yes. 

I’ve been making television commercials for the past 46 years and films on assignment for 30, but the idea of being an artist responsible to no client—responsible only to my inner sense of what’s pleasing, distinctive and works—has called to me for as long as I can remember. And this, the last third of life, may be a good time to be one. If I have improved in anything over the past 50 years, it is temperament. Balance and good heartedness are well suited to the creative process. And the elder brain, I’ve learned, if prodded to be playful, can still make the sparks that lead to breakthroughs.

At the age of 70 my brain and my elder self may be well suited to a kind of creative process that it balked at in my younger years. I can grasp the bigger picture more quickly now and I have the patience to take the many small steps to bring that picture to life. Because I know myself better, know my strengths and weaknesses, any journey I take will have fewer false starts and fewer dead ends.

My journey is to be a journey into the mysteries of art and the creative process. By art I don’t mean a million dollar museum-mounted masterpiece. I mean something original. I mean something driven by an irrational vision. I mean something almost nuts—but that works. Something aesthetically pleasing and created with an audience in mind but, crucially, that audience is not a marketplace or client.

Years of Possibility Ahead

So it is that I’ve begun to ply a craft I know well,  documentary filmmaking, in order to see if I might push it to a higher, dare I say celestial orbit. I will become an artist. Not a dabbler. Not a Sunday painter. Not a journal or letter writer. Not a whittler and passer of time , but a died in the wool capitol “A” Artist and seeker of truth. I doubt that I’ve made this mark in my decades of work for clients, and now I wonder if I can make it for myself.

It’s likely that I’ll have a lot of time.

Healthy Baby Boomers today can expect to live another 20 to 30 years, a lifetime in a previous age. Data suggests that only four percent of those now over 65 will ever be housed in the kind of nursing facility where we visited our parents and our grandparents. Only seven percent of those now between 75 and 85 will need any kind of assistance whatsoever for many years in the daily tasks of life. Disease will come and parts go, something will always be chasing you, but you might have a bigger lead than you think.

In “The Art of Aging,” Sherwin B. Nuland, MD tells us that the brain never stops growing in key areas of thinking. The number of brain cells in healthy older people decreases just slightly. The aging brain, he says, “may have decreased numbers of synapses in some areas, but this is compensated for by such factors as plasticity: the ability of the synapses to become stronger and therefore more effective.”

That’s interesting. Something actually improves. I can see it in myself. There is less spinning of the wheels, a talent develops for quickly seeing the gestalt, the big picture. Experience counts. Time and energy are saved. Perspective leads to proportionate response. Patience excels, and a lot gets done.

Older is better for being unruffled. Little things don’t bother me so much. The world goes its crazy way. I’m not buffeted.

I’m an American. I have food on the table, a roof over my head and a backyard. I’m the luckiest person on earth.

And I have all this old information. Good. New information is almost instantly obsolete. A grounding in old information drives most things anyway, even new technology.

And I can still think straight. At 70, I’ve learned, there is more than enough space left on the cerebral hard drive to accumulate more and distill what we have into original thinking. The vast superstructure of my 70-year-old brain, Dr. Nuland tells us, “contains increasing numbers of reference points to which incoming new material can be quickly categorized and stored.” Conceptual thinking. I may not remember my neighbor’s phone number or the name of the film student I just met, but a bit of short-term memory loss should not, I’ve discovered, slow down my journey into the mysterious land of art and artistry.

The Aging Brain and the Creative Process

The creative process is not solely a function of brainpower, anyway. It’s an emotional process supported by technique and craft, things that only experience can teach. When you’re older, god willing, your judgment is better; your discernment, critical in the creative process, may be better. You trust yourself more. And then there’s that matter of play, critical to the creative process—it’s uniquely accessible only to the old and the young.

Maybe, in fact, the last third of life is a bit like the first. There was no plan for those early chapters. You were simply plopped down, given some parameters, told to work within them and figure it out. Your brain cells and neural pathways grew by leaps and bounds as you backed into your future blindly or played at what you had a knack for until a path opened up and you found your way. “Play” is the operative word here — meaning risk without consequences, delight in the unexpected and a happy attachment to the here and now.

In youth the road is wide open, anything is possible — the job at hand is to poke and prod, test the equipment and strut your stuff. It was those intervening years with kids and careers that were more or less prescribed: food, clothing, cars, schools, flights. If you were white, male and ambitious — and, as I say, lucky — you rode the whirlwind as far as you could in a field where you staked your claim.

Now at age 70, I find once again there is no plan, there are no rules and no need to strut my stuff. I’ve staked a claim in my field and maybe even attained a bit of control — and I have nothing to prove anymore. Face to face with my certain demise, it seems I have plenty of fuel still in my tank, and once again there’s time to play.

Starting Down the Path to “Artist”

So off I go.

If you’re going to die anyway, maybe the third act is a great place to throw caution to the wind. Why not pursue that unicorn called Art? Spending less energy on the busyness of life, I can spend more energy at its edges, the place where eccentrics, fringe thinkers and artists reside.

With a knee replacement, a bit of hearing loss, a new pair of glasses and a layman’s understanding of the aging process, I’ve begun my journey into artistry by learning as much as I can about artists, especially the older ones. What is art and who is an artist are questions best answered by history. So I’ve started moving forward by looking back at those who history has accepted as artists. I’ve looked at how they lived their older lives and what they accomplished in their later, sometimes last years.

Here, by way of anecdotal evidence and a little help from the library, especially Nicholas Delbonco’s wonderful book “Lastingness,” is some of what I’ve learned:

  • Melville wrote his second masterpiece “Billy Budd” when he was an all but forgotten man in the final years of his life.
  • Thomas Mann completed what would be one of his greatest works, “Confessions of Felix Krull,” the year he died at 80.
  • In his 80s Peter Mathieson won the National Book Award.
  • Dorris Lessing, still writing, won the Nobel Prize for Literature at 88.
  • Ragtime pianist Eubie Blake was still at the ivories at 100.
  • Pablo Casals practiced every day and still played brilliantly at 96.
  • The painter Titan died, painting, at 99.
  • Picasso at age 87 produced 347 masterpieces of erotic imagination, nearly 50 pieces a month for seven months.
  • Carmen Herrera didn’t even sell her first work until age 89.
  • Georgia O’Keefe, though mostly blind, was still at work at 95, having moved from painting to sculpture, which she produced with assistance and by feel.
  • Matisse created an entirely new medium of expression, decoupage, at the age of 75, which he was still producing when he died at age 84.
  • Tolstoy gave up writing novels at 70, but the creative fervor carried on. He became a fierce revolutionary and then a peasant/recluse, but he was causing trouble until the day he died.

These and countless other tales of aging artists have been inspiring, and science is on my side. With a bit of good fortune, attention to self-maintenance (goodbye Jim Beam) and a little less exuberance, I’m continuing as a filmmaker down the rabbit hole called art.

Play—a New Approach to Aging

Initially, I gave myself a six-month window in which to produce an original work that satisfied my inner vision as well as others in my field.

I embraced the concept of process and play — “being” instead of “producing”—and worked to shed the lifelong ingrained idea of delivering a fixed product according to proposal and plan.

Going from product to process and play is a giant leap, but it’s not life threatening, as long as you’re comfortable with chaos. And chaos is welcome in the world of artmaking because, ideally, you should have no idea of what you’re doing—at least, no way of explaining it to anyone else. “It” doesn’t exist yet. “It” is a process.

So, in dramatic pursuit of my “art project,” I went into something of an undisciplined frenzy. I would make a film, I decided, by myself. I wrote and shot scenes. I went deep instead of broad. And not having to deliver a product or fulfill expectations, I was not afraid to play.

For many, this may be something of a new approach to growing older. It is certainly a healthy alternative to an extended life of consumerism: cruises that pamper, prepackaged experiences or the promise of a soft landing in a retirement village with endless rod iron railings.

The fact is that fully functional life may be twice as long as we thought it was. The whole field of gerontology is only 50 years old, and most of that was time spent studying disease and decay. Nobody studied the upside of age. People simply didn’t live long enough to make the case. The idea of living an original life at 70—or creating original work — was not a broadly accepted option.

At 70 I may be better suited to expressing my artistic sensibility than I was at 20, when I wanted to be another Ernest Hemingway. Will I now produce art? I have no idea. But this I do know. Moving into my 70s, I shouldn’t be limited by age from trying, and if art was ever your calling, neither should you.

bob-belinoffBob Belinoff is a filmmaker as well as a writer and speaker on creativity and aging. His first narrative fiction film, “Seventy,” opens at the Taos Shortz Film Fest on March 31You can reach him at bob@digitalwkshop.com. Visit Bob Belinoff on Facebook.

This story was first published as “The Upside of Seventy: How Brains Get Better with Age and My Journey Into Art” on Medium.com.