Its never too late for creativity, says gerontologist

When Dr. Gene D. Cohen sat down to write a book about creativity in later life, he faced one major problem: How could he fit in all the examples of creative older people he found?

Everywhere he looked, Cohen found countless examples of older achievers in the arts, sciences and social services. Yet cultural stereotypes persist of old age as an arid, unproductive stage of life.

Creativity "is a very powerful human force," Cohen said. "It's never too late."

A gerontologist and psychiatrist who heads the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, Cohen has come to see creativity as a powerful force for improving quality of life.

Part of exploring that potential is redefining what creativity is at any stage of life. It's not just about painting a picture or writing a poem, Cohen said.

Creativity can be as simple as looking at something differently, trying a new recipe or calling an old friend you haven't spoken to for years.

"It's bringing something new into existence that's valued," Cohen said.

This kind of creativity is not dependent on talent, intelligence or skills. It can be an extension of your existing skills or talents. An expert cook can look into redoing his garden to work better with his cuisine. A woman with skills in metal-working can explore sculpture.

"You don't have to totally reinvent yourself," Cohen said. "It can be a small interpretation of what you are already doing."

Exploring your creativity in later life is not just fun, it can have concrete benefits, Cohen said.

Watch for the following positive changes:

*Better health. Studies show that older people with hobbies and interests have stronger immune systems and are more able to cope with stress.

*Better morale. Creative efforts can make you more emotionally resilient, and better able to cope with change and loss. You will likely feel more positive about life in general.

*Better relationships. Why waste time watching TV with the grandkids when you can work together on a craft project? Creative activities enrich relationships with family and friends, and help you make new friends.

*Better future. Your example as an active and involved older person has a positive impact on society in general, and makes you a good role model for younger people.

Before embarking on a creative quest, Cohen recommends you first deal with any mental-health issues that may be holding you back, such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.

Then set small challenges for yourself, such as a new exercise, an effort to assert yourself in new ways or making a change in a negative family dynamic. Cohen's book "The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life" (Quill) is now available in paperback and has sparked widespread interest, including several hundred interview requests.

The book's reception reflects a cultural shift in perception of aging, Cohen said, a second revolution in thinking about old age. The first revolution came in the 1970s, when early studies in the field first defined aging and the problems facing the aged.

Now, with 75 million baby boomers moving through old age, another revolution is exploring the realms of possibility with aging.

"Our approach to the problem has been increasingly sophisticated," he said. "We're beginning to look at potential in later life."

Cohen first became interested in the subject of creativity in later life as a young doctor in the 1970s. Assigned to work in an housing complex for the elderly, he was shocked to find residents who confounded every stereotype of the elderly.

"These were men and women with some history, medical and otherwise; a past, to be sure; but also a future still rich with potential," Cohen writes. The best way to spark creativity in your own life is to be flexible and set realistic goals for yourself, Cohen advises.

*First create a list of things you do well, then add things that interest you — even if they seem outrageous, like bungee jumping. Try something new!

*Don't limit yourself to one type of activity or interaction. Mix it up with group and individual activities, things that require both high mobility or no mobility at all. If your circumstances change, you want to be ready to adapt.

*Get busy and call your local community center, colleges or universities to find programs and classes that interest you. Call a friend who may be interested in coming along for extra motivation.

*Follow through with your plan. Invest time and energy in your new endeavor to reap maximum rewards.