The late Dr. Gene Cohen is one of my heroes because he was part of a movement that’s redefining aging in a positive light.
A year before he died, I had the pleasure of watching a video feed of Dr. Cohen, then Director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University speak at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. His talk was part of the cathedral’s Sunday Forum series. These talks are archived, so you’re interested learning more about Dr. Cohen or in seeing this feed yourself, given below are two links.
- This link has more information about Dr. Cohen and some supplemental material on his work. It has not been updated since his death.
- This is the video talk, which is about an hour long.
Dr. Cohen proposed that, from about our forties to the end of our lives, four things happen to make us view the world differently. During his talk, I had one of those wonderful ah-ha moments when the world suddenly made more sense.
The first phase he described was mid-life reevaluation, which starts in our forties and lasts, more or less until our mid-sixties. And boy, has this time of life gotten a bad rap, under the header mid-life crisis. Think of all the jokes about men with red sports cars and hair transplants, or women with plastic surgery and toy-boys. Sisters, that ain’t what it’s about at all.
As creative people, we’re familiar with the right-brain, left-brain idea, the notion that most of us have a dominant hemisphere. When younger people do activities that stimulate whichever side of their brain is dominant, they feel more in their comfort zone. But, according to recent neurological research, what begins in our forties is that both hemispheres begin to, literally, think together.
New brain cells are created. Existing brain cells develop more synapses—imagine all those people milling about independently in Times Square on New Years Eve suddenly holding hands. And those synapses, in large numbers, begin to connect the right and left sides of our brain. We are on our way to becoming whole-brain thinkers.
This is where I had my ah-ha moment.
How many times have you heard someone say, “The older I get, the more time it takes me to do something?” This statement, inevitably, has a negative connotation. Getting older. Slowing down. Decreasing mental and physical faculties. The inevitable winding down of the car engine or the clock, to use two physical objects used as metaphors for aging.
Yes, there is a physical component to aging and, as a society, we have thankfully crossed beyond that mental barrier that once said all older people will inevitably grow physically weaker until they can no longer manage even simple tasks. So we’re out there pounding the pavement, or taking aerobics classes, or doing Pilates and yoga, etc. And still it takes us longer to do things as we get older.
It takes us longer to do things because, beginning in our forties and lasting the rest of our lives, our brains come to tasks working in a way that is more holistic, more whole-brain, more multi-focused. And, like baking multi-grain bread, which takes longer to bake than white bread, that way is healthier, more artistic, and more satisfying. In a world where nano-seconds are considered a reasonable measure of time, taking longer has a bad, bad reputation.
The second phase that Dr. Cohen described was liberation. It begins in the mid-fifties and goes to somewhere in the mid-seventies, though for all of these phases, there is no hard and fast end point.
Liberation is a change in consciousness: “If not now, when?” “What can they do to me?” Raise your hands, all of you who—like me—took up serious something sometime after you qualified for the “Over 55” menu at Denny’s. For me it was serious writing and art.
The third phase was summing up, and it comes to the forefront in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. People become more interested in philanthropy, in volunteerism, and in conflict resolution. This is the time many of us think about writing memoirs, or taking that special trip back to a place that marks a significant event in our lives.
The final phase is éncore, in the French sense, so let’s use the French spelling, as in pas éncore (not yet), or éncore un peu (just a little more, just a little longer), or Quoi éncore? (What else?) It’s the grown-up equivalent of “Can’t I play just a few minutes more?”
Dr. Cohen finished by saying that for most of our lives, we were nudged along. Parents expected children to do better. Peers influenced teen-agers in ways that parents and teachers could only dream of. We nagged our spouses, “It’s for your own good, dear.”
The older we get, the less people nudge us. Too old, they think. Slowing down. Takes them longer to do things. Not interested in new things. Not really keeping up. Living in a shrinking world. So sad, so why remind them of their frailties. Stop trying to nudge them along.
I think that you and I, as writers, as creative people, and as friends, have this absolutely sacred task not only to develop our own creativity, but to continue to nudge one another along in all creative areas. Forever. Éncore un peu.
“I attended a major retrospective exhibit of fifty years of folk art. Of the 20 artists featured in the catalogue, 12 of them, 60%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of sixty-five; and 6 of them, 30%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of eighty-five.” ~Dr. Gene Cohen (1944-2009), gerontologist, teacher, author