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When my grandmother was about 50 years old, she started taking piano lessons. Her favorite piece has always been “Turkey in the Straw,” and I have fond memories of her playing it for me when I was a young child. Through the year, she kept improving and, because I was also learning to play piano at the time, we learned several duets.
She didn’t determine to learn to play the piano on a random whim. “My mother was really good at piano,” she says. Because of her mother’s talent, “I had a glorified idea of how good I might be … I can’t sing, but I could learn piano. I learned some of the same songs my mom played.”
So, for her, the piano is a link to her own childhood and memories of the family gathered around the piano and singing together. For her, and for me, playing the piano is a fountain of youth. It’s a vehicle to experience those pieces of our lives again in a very real way.
About a decade later, my grandmother joined a Knights of Columbus group that went to church events and entertained children. They did this by dressing up as clowns. She got the whole outfit, practiced some magic tricks, learned some jokes, and practiced her face makeup. All of these skills were brand new to her.
My memories are all jumbled, but I can recall that, mixed in there during those retirement years with the piano playing and clowning, she also learned square dancing, kickboxing, and tried to get the answers right on Jeopardy! every afternoon.
And she’s still at it. She has learned to make illustrated greeting cards to become a pen-pal to several of her great-grandchildren, learned to play Wordle, and explores the craft room in her senior apartment building to learn new skills.
“You’re supposed to keep learning new things,” she says.
Learning as we age, no matter what it is
It doesn’t matter if what you learn seems silly or goofy. It doesn’t matter if you only learn a few simple songs at the piano and never evolve into a concert pianist. The goal is to enjoy yourself, laugh a lot, and try new things. My grandmother doesn’t view her retirement years with dread. She sees them as an opportunity.
She’s onto something, here. Studies show that remaining creative into old age helps people to live independently for longer. And you’re never too old to learn. One research team conducted an experiment in which older adults enrolled in three to five college-level classes for a semester. At the end of the time period, their cognitive abilities were vastly improved. The researchers suspect it’s the equivalent of making the brain a full 30 years younger.
“In old age,” says the writer Simone de Beauvoir, “we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in on ourselves.”
Staying creative and engaged isn’t only about maintenance. It isn’t desperately holding on until your youth slips from your clenched fingers. It’s the willingness to keep growing at whatever age you are.
The goal isn’t to indulge in the unrealistic expectation of staying young forever. Rather, it’s to fall in love with your life, over and over, each day precious, each renewing and invigorating in its own way.
Old age ought to have the same excitement as young age
It isn’t the same as being young. Each age is its own season, and even if in older age, the creativity may seem more modest, less ambitious, it is nonetheless valuable and worthy. Because it is tempered by the wisdom of years and set free from the social expectations that often accompany youth, our creativity in older age really might be better than in our youth. Interests aren’t so narrowly focused on career and child-rearing; they can widen. We become explorers.
In order to clear up a few details for this essay, I spoke with my grandmother on the phone. After talking, she texted me a few more things she’d forgotten to mention, adding, “P.S. The fact that I am even sending you a text message means that I have learned something new.”