An Interview with Expressive Arts Expert Wendy Miller (Part Two): Creativity, Aging and Illness

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How can we learn to expresses ourselves creatively through disease, aging, and illness.

Today’s post is the second part two of an interview with Wendy Miller, a sculptor, expressive arts therapist and educator. (You can read the first interview focused on personal creativity and the ways that creativity supports us)

Together with her late husband Gene Cohen (considered one of the founding fathers of geriatric psychiatry) she wrote Sky Above Clouds: Finding Our Way through Creativity, Aging, and Illness.   The book explores how the aging mind can build resilience and continue growth, even during times of grave illness, thus setting aside the traditional paradigm of aging as a time of decline.

My conversation with Ms. Miller focuses on how we can use creativity to connect with our parents as they age and face illness.

Most people think of aging as a time of decline. What do you learn through your research and clinical practice that goes against that idea?

Many people see the second half of life (50+) as a period of aging.  To most, aging means physical and mental decline.  Many treat aging (that of their parents as well as their own aging experience) like a disease.

“Decline” is a simplistic two dimensional view that does not capture the reality; aging is a dynamic experience.

Gene’s clinical work focused on “healthy aging”. In his book,  The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain , he expanded on Erik Erikson’s model of adult development io illustrustrate the four developmental phases that shape the second half of the human life.

I will outline these stages (from Gene’s notes) to point to the focus on the second half of life.

I. Midlife Reevaluation Phase (from one’s mid to late 30s – ±65): Reevaluation/Exploration/Transition

In this phase sometimes starting in one’s mid to late 30s, or occurring in one’s 40s and 50s, powerful inner stirrings motivate us toward reevaluating our lives, often leading to new exploration of inner feelings and outer activities, resulting for many in a transition of how we deal with thoughts and emotions and the choices we make.

II. Liberation Phase (from ages ±55 – ±75 years of age): Liberation/Experimentation/Innovation

As one approaches their 60s to early 70s, creative endeavors charge with the added energy of a new degree of personal freedom that comes both psychologically from within us and externally through retirement. This period is a kind of personal liberation combined with life experience that lifts inhibitions and gives the courage to ignore social conventions that restrict our creative expression.

Creative expression in this phase often includes translating a feeling of “If not now, when?” into action.

III. Summing Up Phase(from the late 60s± – ±90 years of age): Recapitulation/Resolution/Contribution

In this phase, approaching one’s 70s and older, we feel more desire to find larger meaning in the story of our lives through a process of looking back, summing-up, and giving back. We also begin to experience ourselves even more as “keepers of the culture,” and wish to contribute to others more of whatever wisdom and wealth we may have accrued.

IV. Encore Phase (from one’s late 70s± – to the end of the life cycle): Reflection/Continuation/Celebration

The encore phase generally starts during one’s late 70s, becoming more pronounced during one’s 80s until death. Plans and actions form from the desire to restate and reaffirm major themes in our lives, but also to explore novel variations on those themes.

There may be the desire to make a final statement, or to seize a further opportunity to take care of unfinished business or unresolved conflicts or to surprise people with something new.

One continues to motivate life’s energy and the audience of others, reflecting upon and affirming life through continuing to live it in a vital way, and celebrating one’s place in a family, community, and in the spiritual realm.

The Encore Phase reflects what the word “encore” connotes.  It connotes “again” and “still”.  It is a phase that perpetuates the human qualities of humor and passion, intensified by one’s awareness of being near the end of the life cycle.

What effect does attitude and perspective have on a process like terminal illness?

What we ourselves do and how we “feel” alters how we experience illness. Once we accept this possibility, we calibrate to better cope with the course of illness or new illness episodes.

When a person is terminally ill, they learn about how “to be” sick.  Prior illness experience influences future illness experiences. One of the emotional tasks of illness is to discover better ways to cope with illness.  This includes diet, exercise, and attitude.

As our parents age, how can we (their children) use creativity to support them during illness and or their aging process?

Speak. One of the most creative actions you can take with your parents is to begin a conversation with them.  As their children, I believe we have an intimate opportunity to talk about many things with our parents, including illness, aging, death and dying.

One of my primary motivations for writing Sky Above Clouds: Finding Our Way through Creativity, Aging, and Illness was a way to end my own silence.  When my parents and husband died it became clear to me that there is a painful silence that surrounds illness, aging, death, dying and grieving.  This silence makes all of us feel alone and isolated.

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Also, as your parents age and perhaps face illness, it is soothing for everyone to indulge memory.

Indulge memory by:

  • Asking your parents to tell you stories
  • Looking through photo albums together
  • Requesting more information about your parents life experiences
  • If it interests you, record stories and take photos to share with your own children.

A personal story: It’s the small knowings that made all the difference to me when my mother was dying. I did two things to honor her and myself while she was on the oncology floor of the hospital for treatment for multiple melanoma.

First, I brought beautiful cloth place mats and napkins to put on her hospital food trays.  She was a woman of elegant grace and this small gesture made it possible for her to feel more dignity while she ate.

Second,I sketched her as she rested – gesture drawings in my sketchbook.

These were small moments of elegant creativity that helps us both cope with her illness.  The memories of these moments have helped me cope with my grief since her death.

What are some ideas about aging that are no longer serving us?

Many ideas we hold about aging arise from fear, assumption, and blame.  It is difficult to accept the changes that come with aging. Particularly when our loved ones move into a new or different state of physical or mental well being.

A common coping mechanism is to intellectualize the whole aging experience; Why is this happening? Who or what is responsible? What can I do to ensure this does not happen to me?  This line of thinking assumes that we have ultimate control over what takes place in our body, mind and spirits.

The truth is yes, there are some concrete actions we can take to improve how we age and there are healthier ways to live.  And still, illness and aging are part of overall health.

What are some ideas about aging, illness and creativity that we can incorporate into our thinking?

As we age and face illness, we can focus on creative growth because of, not in spite of, aging and illness.

Creativity:

  • Strengthens our morale allowing us to view our experiences with fresh perspectives.
  • Contributes to our physical health
  • Triggers our immune system
  • Enriches relationships by creating new bonds of hope, ideas, and conversations.

For women who want more resources on this topic, what books would you recommend?

I recommend The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life by Gene Cohen and The Art of Aging: A Doctor’s Prescription for Well-Being by Sherwin Nuland.

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