Aging is not supposed to be pretty: Depends. Geritol. Nursing homes. Alzheimer’s. Loneliness. Isolation. Dementia. Walk-in bathtubs. But such a negative view of aging is false, insists Seattle author Priscilla Long in her fascinating new book, Dancing with the Muse in Old Age. She argues that old age can be a time of great creativity and happiness, using examples of aging artists, scientists, and others to show the wonders of old age.
“Old age is a prime time to flourish in creative productivity. It is also a prime time to begin creative work. As the National Institute on Aging recently reported, ‘participating in the arts creates paths to healthy aging.’”
At a time when 16 percent of the United States population is 65 or older, aging has become a timely topic. Unfortunately, ageism and negative perceptions of aging remain prevalent in American society. “Ageism poisons creativity. And ageism — the deep and often unconscious prejudice against old age and against the old — is, in our American society, rampant. We are saturated with it. Otherwise, why would people be so reluctant to state their age?”
The book argues for the virtues of old age: wisdom, patience, experience, judgment. Such virtues are often neglected in our youth-obsessed contemporary culture. Long’s book illustrates these virtues through examples of famous and not- so-famous artists, writers, dancers, and others.
“I think of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, who revolutionized dance; who continued to dance into her 70s; who created 181 original dances, twelve of them in her last decade; who choreographed her last work, ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ at age 96. I think of the painter Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021), actively painting in his late 90s. ‘What keeps you going,’ Thiebaud said, ‘is the thrill of experiment and expectation. You live on hope…that next picture.’”
Long acknowledges the challenges of old age – health, financial, or social – but insists these can often be overcome provided the person doesn’t indulge in negative stereotypes of aging which have been shown to cause decline. “Ageism hurts us all. As we’ll see, it hurts the young. And self-inflicted or internalized ageism is an important cause of decline.”
Against the ageist backdrop of American society, Long highlights the lives of extremely productive, inspiring older figures like Henri Matisse. “The painter Henri Matisse lived for 84 years. After being operated on for intestinal cancer at the age of 71 (in 1941), he could no longer leave his wheelchair or bed – and this is when he began his amazing cutout series. He constructed the group of works comprising Jazz by cutting shapes out of painted drawing paper, and, with the aid of assistants, pinning and repinning them to his wall, endlessly adding and shifting components.”
At the end of each chapter, Long includes provocative questions such as: What are your own negative and positive attitudes toward old age, toward old people, and toward your own old age? These questions help focus and personalize the discussion.
This is a refreshingly contrarian and readable book, but I wanted more detail. How did Matisse navigate the limits of old age? How did he and Martha Graham and others channel their creativity to make old age such a productive time? Perhaps that’s the subject of her next book?
Nicholas O’Connell is the author of The Storms of Denali and founder of www.thewritersworkshop.net.
Thank you, Nick, I’m grateful for this article. This is indeed timely for many Americans like me, with one foot trying out retirement & hating it– and the other foot dreading the cold floor of a Monday morning.
So much of it hinges on financials, of course — not everyone will be able to paint, compose operas, learn to dance, or just enjoy the exquisite lack of a boss to answer to. It’s her book and her perspective, I get that — but I’m more interested in reading how people who don’t want to quit working will be able to find anything satisfying to do. The current shortage of workers is not resulting in older workers getting hired. No surprise there: Does anyone really think millennials now in charge, dismissively tweeting “ok, boomer” will take on an older worker? Not likely. I. hope more retired and near-retired will think about how they can work independently. I would love to read more books that are grounded in reality of working at something satisfying, that pays, even if not wildly creative.
Just got back from a gig playing music at Long Shadows with my musical partner Dave Woolson. Our band(s) have entertained crowds at Tranche, Waterbrook, Long Shadows and several other venues this past summer. Heading into the recording studio soon as I approach my 74th birthday. I’ve never played better guitar, written better songs or sung with more emotion that I have since reaching my 70s. Music has taken over a bit from wine writing but not entirely as I post up weekly on paulgwine.com. Please forgive the self-promotion – the point here is to agree that old age can be a magically creative time of life if you are fortunate with your health.