If you’ve always dreamed of playing an instrument or becoming a writer or artist, there’s a higher likelihood of it happening in your sixties than any other time in your life, according to Dr. Francine Toder.
Recently, I heard Dr. Toder speaking about her new book, The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty. She revealed some exciting news for all us baby boomers: there’s a magical triad that can keep our brains sharp and robust as we age. If the brain is fed a diet of complexity, newness, and problem solving, it can flower and bloom beyond age sixty.
All you have to do is follow your passion as Toder did. After 45 years as a psychotherapist, she was looking for a big new project to take on in her retirement. She took a creative writing class at Stanford University and wrote a proposal for a book focused on finding and expressing an art form that would benefit her brain, body, and psyche. At the same time she impulsively bought a cello and self-instruction book because of her interest in chamber music. And thus began her journey. As she writes in her book: “The juxtaposition of two disparate ideas, aging and beginning to learn, came together instantly as a book that perfectly mirrored my own experience with the Vintage Years and finding my cello.”
Whether you’re writing short stories, learning to play music, or painting landscapes, the brain benefits and continues to develop. The Vintage Years, according to Toder, comprise our ultimate life stage, beginning around age sixty, when new choices and lifestyles make possible new personal exploration, learning, and expression through visual arts, writing, or music.
In her book, Toder tells the stories of twenty late-blooming artists who first took up the violin, memoir writing, or other artistic pursuits after they turned sixty. Henry, now 96 years old, took up wood sculpting when he was 68. He also taught himself to play the organ and compose music. Another musician is 78-year old Don, who retired from a career in physics in his early sixties and learned to play the violin. He now belongs to a Scottish fiddlers group and has made eight violins.
Harold, a retired salesman, wanted to take an art class and the only class available was in stained glass. He enjoyed the class so much he’s been creating stained glass for almost 20 years. He gets commissions to do stained glass windows from the churches and synagogues in his town.
Toder explained that there are three creative stages in life: childhood, adulthood, and the vintage years, which can cover the last third of our lives. During childhood, we have uninhibited creativity but only 5% of children are encouraged to continue into adolescence. When we’re adults, we’re in overload and don’t have time for creative pursuits—there’s not enough bandwidth. But when we reach sixty, we have more time and focus. Our hormones drop off and that helps us focus for longer time and with a laser focus. She gave the example of Harold, the stained glass artist. He goes into his art studio at five o’clock in the morning and becomes so engaged that he works all day without noticing the time that’s passed.
Another concept Toder explains in her book is how the aging brain facilitates artistic expression. Starting at midlife, the right and left hemispheres of the brain become better integrated and more interdependent and functionally intertwined. The right hemisphere becomes less effective in learning and holding new information, a normal and natural consequence of aging. The left hemisphere compensates with its rich patterning ability. At this point, both sides are superior to one!
The stories in Toder’s book are extraordinary and so inspiring she hopes you’ll run out and explore the artist inside of you that doesn’t yet have a voice or that you had to quiet in order to satisfy the demands of your earlier life. She adds one final note: Your artistic expression need not be limited to writing, music or the visual arts. Her goal is to provide a template for identifying and pursuing your creative potential and making it happen in your Vintage Years—likely the best ones for exploring and release your inner artist.