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Great Achievers Over 55

“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I admit that I, too, bought into a common misconception. And that is that our creative potential inevitably diminishes with advancing years.

How wonderful to find out that this is not TRUE!

As part of my research, I picked up a copy of The Creative Age (Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life) by Dr. Gene D. Cohen. The author is a scientist, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University and geriatrician who has worked with the elderly for over 30 years.

Through his book he shows how we can become MORE creative as we head into our sixties, seventies and beyond.

Recent research in neuroscience proves that we can actually IMPROVE our brain’s capacity as we age. Dr. Cohen explains how it “responds to mental exercise in much the same way that muscle responds to physical exercise.” While he does not deny the biological process of our bodies’ aging, he points out that many individuals live emotionally rich and creative lives despite their physical limitations.

I was inspired by the many examples in his book as well as those I found elsewhere – of people who made great achievements late in life. It’s reassuring to know that, if health permits, we can accomplish a lot as we get older, enriching our lives and the lives of others.

  • At 57, Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty.
  • At 65, Maggie Kuhn helped to found a well-known seniors group named the Grey Panthers.
  • The Russian lyric poet and novelist Boris Pasternak wrote his first novel – Dr. Zhivago – at age 66.
  • Hanya Holm, the dancer and choreographer, choreographed more than a dozen Broadway musicals including Kiss Me, Kate at age 55, My Fair Lady at 63 and Camelot at 67.
  • Jack Benny, the comedian, retired from his successful TV show when he was 71.
  • Betty Friedan, the American feminist author, published The Feminine Mystique at age 42 and at 72 published The Fountain of Age, where she debunks misconceptions about aging.
  • Margaret Mead, the first anthropologist to study child-rearing practices among primitive cultures, remained active in her field until one year before her death at age 77.
  • Grandma Moses, noted for her rural American landscapes, only started painting at age 78. At 80 her one-woman art show at the Galerie St. Etienne in New York City brought international acclaim. By the time she died in 1961, she had created over 1500 works of art
  • Henri Matisse, the great French painter, created six major illustrated books containing hundreds of paintings between the ages of 75 and 80. Before turning 82, he designed the stained glass for the Dominican Chapel at Vence, near Nice.
  • Mae West, an American stage and film sex symbol, starred in the film Myra Breckenridge at age 78 and in the film Sextette at 85.
  • Berthold Goldschmidt, the German composer, helped to complete Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony and conducted its first performance in 1988, when he was 85.
  • Mystery writer Dame Agatha Christie wrote until she died at age 86. Her books have sold more than 100 million copies.
  • At 87, Mary Baker Eddy created a newspaper with a religious influence, called the Christian Science Monitor.
  • Helen Hooven Santmyer spent her career as an English professor and librarian. She was 88 when she wrote And Ladies of the Club, which quickly became a bestseller.
  • At 90, Artur Rubinstein, an American pianist known for his interpretation of Chopin’s works, gave a stunning performance at Carnegie Hall.
  • At 92, Luella Tyra participated in 5 categories at the U.S. Swimming Nationals in California.
  • Playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote Back to Methuselah when he was 66 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925 at the age of 69. He continued to write for more than two decades and was at work on a comedy when he died at 94.

Of course these Great Achievers are all known to the public at large. There are plenty of seniors worldwide who accomplish wonderful things in their lives — but don’t make it into the news.