As we get older, we use both sides of our brain, not in a compensatory way, but in a synthetic way.
– Wendy Miller, Ph.D. ATR-BC, LCPAT, REAT, LPC, BCPC
Thank you for joining us for This is Getting Old: Moving Towards an Age-Friendly World podcasts. This special series is sponsored by a 2020 George Washington (GW) University’s University Seminar Series award, Towards Age-Friendly and is brought to you by MelissaBPhD in collaboration with GW’s Center for Aging, Health and Humanities.
It’s been proven that when people challenge their minds, have a sense of mastery and control, when their social engagement is increased, they not only do better, they feel better. In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Wendy Miller, author of Sky Above Clouds: Finding Our Way Through Creativity, Aging, and Illness.
The key areas we covered in this episode:
- Understanding the work of Wendy’s late husband, Dr. Gene Cohen.
- Understanding the term “creative aging.”
- How the arts and art-making are like “chocolate to the brain.”
- The “Four S’s in Age-Friendly Creative Aging” and their importance.
Part One of ‘Towards an Age-Friendly World with Dr. Wendy Miller’
An important piece of creativity, particularly as we get older, is legacy work, what we do with the memories and the archives of people we love. She felt a strong responsibility because Gene Cohen had many published works, considering both of them are into creativity, health, and aging. He led the first experimental study examining the influence of participatory arts programs on general health, mental health, and social activities of older adults known as the Creativity and Aging Study.
When does a creative aging start, and how do we come to understand creativity? The thing is, the word creativity stirs up everything. Some people would say, “Well, you’re creative because you’re an artist, but what about me?”
Our understanding of creativity with aging has been limited. As a result of the heavy legacy of negative myths and stereotypes about aging (ageism), all of which have denied or trivialized our creative capacity and the accomplishments that we have in the second half of our life.
Aging is not just about surviving. It’s about growing in the face of diversity. – Wendy Miller, Ph.D. ATR-BC, LCPAT, REAT, LPC, BCPC
In 2001, Dr. Gene wrote the book: The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. It was the first book to articulate this new paradigm about looking not just at the problems of aging, but at this emerging field of creative aging. As a play on Einstein’s famous formula E=MC2, Dr. Cohen created a formula for Creativity. Influenced by the work of Howard Gardner, the big “C” is creativity expressed by accomplished formal artists, the little “c” is grounded in everyday creativity achievable by all.
C=ME2 =ME is Creativity = Mass of Knowledge + Experience2
His book documents discoveries in neuroscience that radically challenge these conventional assumptions about aging, and aging is really the best example of how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
There are built-in developmental drives that push us toward creative expression, and they push us towards psychological growth throughout our life cycle. His research didn’t just respond to aging. It’s shaped how we think about aging today.
Part Two of ‘Towards an Age-Friendly World with Wendy Miller’
Our brain is continually sculpting itself. The aging brain isn’t running out of gas, it’s moving into all-wheel-drive. This post-formal thinking transforms our life. It transforms our life experience into what we commonly call wisdom. The arts are like “chocolate to the brain”. Creativity is built into the human species. The arts can be singing, dancing, cooking, gardening and also giving back to the community and volunteering.
But creativity can also be designing a new lecture, a new way to teach someone how to do something, or learning a new skill that lets you do either of those things in an innovative way. What it boils down to is that as we get older, we use both sides of our brain not in a compensatory way but in a synthetic way. The more you use it, the more you are protected against Alzheimer’s disease. COVID has challenged everyone to be creative with how we connect with each other using technology.
Creativity encourages these evolving strengths. They don’t just happen on their own. – Wendy Miller, Ph.D. ATR-BC, LCPAT, REAT, LPC, BCPC
Aging is not just about surviving. It’s about growing meaning in the face of adversity. Creativity optimizes problem-solving and affects interpersonal connections that leads us into our strengths.
What makes This Is Getting Old podcast exciting is that it includes a focus on the humanities. This is a case for qualitative medicine – use of narrative, listening, writing, case histories, keen observation, and empathy, and imagination – to look at strength and satisfactions because they are the essence of human strength and resilience.
Many people in the world do not have the right image of aging. Intergenerational creative activities and interactions have the ability to change that. As a society, if we only look at the Signs and Symptoms of aging, we will miss the Strengths and Satisfaction with aging. It matters because creativity encourages these strengths that lead to increased satisfaction with our lives as we age.
Older adults have life stories that benefit younger adults, stories of resilience and overcoming hardship. Media outlets have reported many older adults are actually weathering COVID better than younger generations. Many older adults also are still experiencing higher levels of emotional well-being than younger adults. We can all learn from this group of Americans that are often age-segregated, and we need to find intergenerational ways to do just that – to benefit both older AND younger adults. Being age-friendly means things are friendly for everyone.
Wendy ends the interview with these words: “The creative faculty is what draws us to life, calls forth our love, our resilience, our strength, and our capacity to choose not only life itself but to choose what enlivens us. Sky above clouds opens us not only to potential, but to the essential.”
Wendy Miller, Ph.D. ATR-BC, LCPAT, REAT, LPC, BCPC is a writer, sculptor, educator, and mental health provider in expressive arts therapy. She taught for over fifteen years in various universities throughout the country, including John F Kennedy University, San Francisco State University, Southwestern College, Lesley College, California Institute of Integral Studies, and The George Washington University. She is the co-founder of Create Therapy Institute in Kensington, MD, which offers clinical services in arts-based psychotherapy and training in the expressive arts. She is a founding member, and first elected (past) executive co-chair of the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association, where she continues to be on their Advisory Council. She is also an Advisory Board Member of the Peter Alfond Prevention & Healthy Living Center at MaineGeneral Health. She continues the legacy of her late husband’s work, pioneer of creative aging, Gene Cohen, and his Washington DC Center on Aging, where she works on projects in intergenerational communication.
Miller’s skills take her into the worlds of fine art, writing, psychology, expressive arts therapy and mind-body medicine. She has published on medical illness and the arts as complementary medicine, the use of sand tray therapy with internationally adopted children, experiential approaches to supervision in expressive arts therapy, and on the cultural responsibility of the arts in therapy. She continues to research the relationships among the arts, creativity and health, particularly in her book which draws from the writing she and her late husband, Gene Cohen did together, entitled: Sky Above Clouds: Finding our way through creativity, aging and illness (Oxford University Press, 2016).
The Creative Age is:
The finding key for Gene Cohen’s archived works at U Mass Special Collections and University Archives is: http://findingaids.library.umass.edu/ead/mums1079
I earned my Bachelor of Science in Nursing (‘96) and Master of Science in Nursing (‘00) as a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) School of Nursing (SON). I truly enjoy working with the complex medical needs of older adults. I worked full-time for five years as FNP in geriatric primary care across many long-term care settings (skilled nursing homes, assisted living, home and office visits) then transitioned into academic nursing in 2005, joining the faculty at UNCW SON as a lecturer.
I obtained my PhD in Nursing and a post-Master’s Certificate in Nursing Education from the Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing (2011) ) and then joined the faculty at Duke University School of Nursing as an Assistant Professor. My family moved to northern Virginia in 2015 and led to me joining the faculty at George Washington University (GW) School of Nursing in 2018 as a (tenured) Associate Professor where I am also the Director of the GW Center for Aging, Health and Humanities.
Find out more about her work HERE.