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Timothy Carpenter

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Creativity and Aging

Posted: 02/21/11 08:53 AM ET

Pablo Picasso once famously quipped, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

There is a relatively new phenomenon that, truth be told, started decades ago, as phenomena often do -- it's called "creativity and aging." A landmark study by researcher Gene Cohen M.D., who passed away this past year, proves that older people who engage in arts programs taught by professional artists show improved health -- fewer doctor visits, reduced medication usage, overall improvements in physical and mental health. The programs studied drew upon a range of art and cultural disciplines, such as painting, pottery, dance, music, poetry, drama, material culture and oral histories in a creative context.

In older life, the most difficult thing to do sometimes is to simply admit you can be an artist -- to risk creating a new life for yourself. Suzanne Knode, a 67-year-old from Boston, spent a considerable part of her life as a single mother raising two children. When she talks about her life in her 50s, she says she thought it was over -- that she had lost all the things that made her interesting. She says it seemed less likely at that time for something new to happen to her than she does now, in her 60s. After moving to the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, Suzanne wrote her first screenplay as an assignment for a creative writing class. Her screenplay was made into a short film titled Bandida, about an elderly woman who plans to rob a liquor store, but during the course of the robbery, develops a bond with the older Armenian gentleman that owns the shop and in the end the shopkeeper lets her get away with the crime.

The making of the film was documented by This American Life, the NPR radio show hosted by Ira Glass, for their TV show on Showtime depicting Suzanne's late-life reinvention into an artist. Bandida also won into competition at the Valley Film Festival in the NoHo Arts District of Los Angeles, where Suzanne watched for the first time the premiere of her film at the El Portal Theater with an audience of more than 300 people, for which she received a standing ovation. Suzanne's life has been transformed and she continues to write, has taken up painting and filmmaking and mentors at-risk teens in her neighborhood. Here is what she said when profiled on the Experience Talks radio show: "I couldn't believe that there would be a community for me at this time in my life. I didn't think I'd be able to find something new inside of me. You know that same feeling when you got out of school and the whole world was open to you? Now, all over again, the whole world is open to me."

Taking a risk -- doing something at which you could fail -- that's true creativity and is often limited to the world of the young. It's nice to know -- for all of us to know -- that we have the opportunity to create once we grow up, as Picasso so aptly put it.