Reflections after a Week of Being Seventy

by L. DavisIt’s my belief that most seventy-year-olds in good health do not consider themselves old. I add the caveat “in good health” only because I have learned, at least for me, that even a day of the stomach flu can make me feel as if I’m on my “last legs.”

I just missed qualifying as a member of the baby-boomer generation, which has made common such statements as “50 is the new 40” and so on. But I believe that there have always been hale, generally hearty seventy-year-olds who do not feel old—at least most of the time.

Indeed, I hunt out such examples wherever I can find them, for I have very few in my personal experience. For me, nothing is as convincing as a good example. All sorts of marvelous things, it is said, move into the realm of possibility if one has seen it done even once.

That’s why such articles as “Finding Success, Well Past the Age of Wunderkind” by  Abby Ellin from the Personal Business section of last Saturday’s NYT draw me in. She gives many examples of her premise that “many people are discovering that the latter part of their lives can be just as (or even more) rewarding creatively, emotionally and spiritually.”

She quotes Karl A. Pillemer, professor of gerontology at Cornell University, who found, after interviewing 1500 people age 70 and older, “that a large number. . .said they had achieved a life dream or embarked on a worthwhile endeavor after age 65. ‘There was this feeling of somehow “getting it right” at 50 or 60 or older,’ he said, noting that this sentiment applies to creative efforts, relationships, and work.”

I agree, and am ever grateful to an old friend who, when I was in my 50s and thinking of starting formal piano lessons again, said, “Don’t wait too long.” He gave me that push that sent me on my way.

I also appreciate Pillemer’s connections among creativity, emotional relationships, and spirituality. There seems to be an experimental, unrushed openness that comes in later life–as well as a willingness to surrender absolutes of all kinds—that can free all aspects of life.

David W. Galenson, in his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, (2007) speaks of the difference between conceptual and experimental minds. “Conceptual minds tend to be younger and typically better with abstractions. Experimental minds, on the other hand, take longer to gestate, working by trial and error.”

Seymour Bernstein’s memoir, Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music (2002)—see my previous post –narrates his finding his main passion in life—teaching, NOT being a professional musician—when he was in his 50s. He says, “Ask career-minded students what their goals are in their study of music and you receive responses such as ‘I want to win a big contest!’ or ‘I want to perform with a major symphony orchestra!’ or ‘I want to concertize all over the world!’ Rarely do I hear from such students what almost all amateur musicians would say—that they study music for the sheer love of it.”

I taught my first English class when I was 23, and so I have been teaching for a rather long time. Last weekend I completed my first two weeks of part-time teaching for two classes of returning adult students at Marquette University, something I’ve been doing since I “retired” in 2007. I greatly enjoy teaching returning adult students, largely for the reasons Ellin outlines in her article above. The concept of Success shifts meaning as we grow older, and it often takes time to discover our personal, unique definition. Almost always, when students return to school after “stopping out” for awhile,  they have a better sense of what matters most to them than they did in their youth.

I know I do, and I’m still learning about it.




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