The Upside of Seventy

How Brains get Better with Age and my Journey into Art.

Is this trip really necessary? What does act three really add to the story?

What am I supposed to accomplish in what, on stage at least, is the most exciting act in the play? Is there something I may be better at now that wasn’t my forte in the past? The answer, I discovered, is yes.

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

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

I always wanted to be an artist, responsible only to my inner sense of what pleasing, distinctive and worked. And this, the last third of life, may be a good time to be one. If I have improved in anything over the last fifty years, it is temperament. Balance and good heartedness is well suited to the creative process. And the elder brain, I learned, if prodded to be playful, can still make the sparks that lead to breakthroughs and open doors.

So it was that I began to ply a craft I knew well — documentary film-making — in order to see if I might push it to a higher, dare I say, celestial, orbit. I would 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 doubted that I had made this esteemed mark in the preceding decades with work for clients, I wondered if I could make it for myself. Its likely that I will have a lot of time.

Healthy Baby Boomers today can expect to live another 20–30 years, a lifetime in a previous age. Data suggests only 4% of those now over 65 will ever be housed in the kind of nursing facility where we visited our parents and our grandparents. Only 7% 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 that you think.

In “The Art of Aging” Sherwin B. Nuland, MD tells us 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, “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.”

Thats 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 is 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 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 seventy 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 discovered, slow down my journey into the mysterious land of art and artistry.

The creative process is not solely a function of brain power anyway, it’s an emotional process supported by technique and craft, things only experience can teach. When you’re older, god willing, your judgement 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 to only 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 leap 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. Again, “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, kids and 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 seventy I find once again there is no plan, there are no rules and no need to strut my stuff. There is a field by now where I staked a claim and maybe even attained a bit of control — but there is nothing to prove. Face to face with my certain demise, there seems to be plenty of fuel still in the tank, and once again time to play.

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”. I may have the brainpower, the temperament and the time. And most certainly, spending less energy on the busy-ness of life, I can spend more energy at its edges, a vicinity known for its eccentrics, fringe thinkers and its artists.

With a knee replacement, a bit of hearing loss, a new pair of glasses and a layman’s understanding of the aging process, I began my journey into artistry by learning as much as I could about artists, especially the older ones. What is art and who is an artist are questions best answered by history. So I started moving forward by looking back at those who history has accepted as artists. I looked at how they lived their older lives and what they had accomplished in their later, sometimes last, years. Here, by way of anecdotal evidence, a little help from the library, especially Nicholas Delbonco’s wonderful book “Lastingness,” is some of what I 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 eighty. In his eighties 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 at the age of 75, decoupage, 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 were inspiring. The argument was made, the evidence was clear. The past was an inspiration and the current science on my side. With a bit of good fortune, attention to maintenance, (goodbye Jim Beam) and a little less exuberance — I continued, as a film maker, down the rabbit hole called art. I gave myself a six month window in which to produce an original work that satisfied my own inner vision as well as others in my field.

I had certain film-making technical skills and I knew what they were. The moves I knew, I knew well. But perhaps most importantly, I knew absolutely what I should not even attempt. So I went down deeper into my own familiar territory. It made life simpler. 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 are comfortable with chaos. Chaos is welcome, even sought after in the world of art-making 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…but within the limits of my known abilities and with certain knowledge, as I say, of what I could not do. I would make a film, I decided, like one writes a book, by myself. I wrote and shot scenes. My pallet was limited so it was manageable. 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 fully functional life may be twice as long as we thought it was. The whole field of gerontology is only fifty years old, and most of that was time spent studying disease and decay. Nobody studied the upside of age. There was no big group old enough. People simply didn’t live long enough to make the case. The idea of living an original life at seventy — or creating original work — was not a broadly accepted option.

At seventy I may be better suited to expressing my artistic sensibility than I was at twenty when I wanted to be another Ernest Hemingway. My father was something of an artist as was my uncle. My sister has been a successful painter all her life. Creativity was like a niche religion for me. I wrote and drew at a desk from the age of six. Being called an “artist” was as high as you could go in my field.

Will I now produce art? I have no idea. But this I do know. Moving into my seventies I shouldn’t be limited by age from trying, and if “art” was ever your calling, neither should you.

(Bob Belinoff is a film maker as well as a writer and speaker on creativity and aging.