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Retirement Redefined: Lessons From Aging Artists
By Juliann Schaeffer

Retirement was once viewed as a stationary event characteristically defined with words such as “withdrawal,” “seclusion,” and “isolation.” The act of retiring is now viewed by many as a fluid process, allowing for fresh career choices or ventures, as well as the reemergence of long-lost hobbies. Yet after attaining the long-awaited age of retirement, many elders find themselves floundering in their newfound freedom amid too much time and too few ties to community, loved ones, and the like. But according to Joan Jeffri, director of the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Teachers College, Columbia University, an aging artist’s life could hold many answers for elders confounded and cut off from community in their third age.

Seeking to assess the needs of aging professional artists in the study IOA [Information on Artists] III: Special Focus NYC Aging Artists, Jeffri hypothesized that artists could serve as models for the country’s rapidly aging population. “The purpose of [this study]is to understand how artists, who often reach artistic maturity and artistic satisfaction as they age, are supported and integrated within their communities and how their network structures change over time,” Jeffri says.

What’s the best advice for older artists regarding retirement? “Artists don’t retire,” says Gay Hanna, PhD, MFA, executive director of the National Center for Creative Aging in Washington, DC. “[Artists] see life full of possibility vs. seeing life coming to a close—limited and depressing. Artists are often called “see-ers”—people that see beyond what’s there.”

In fact, while dissecting the desires from the needs of aging artists whose foremost requirements typically revolve around making art, Jeffri found in her research multiple areas where artists’ lives allow them to thrive in later life—and aging professionals should take note. “Our contention is that artists who have learned how to adapt their whole lives have a great deal to offer as a model for society, especially as the workforce changes to accommodate multiple careers and as baby boomers enter the retirement generation,” says Jeffri.

Indeed, artists’ entire lives set them up to age successfully. In art, they find meaning; through art, they adapt and stay engaged; and with art, they see themselves. While retirement finds many people disconnecting—from jobs or from community—artists know no sense of traditional retirement, since they’ve already found what so many search for—a sense of purpose.

Through her investigation into 146 educated professional visual artists residing in New York City, Jeffri argues that artists could teach an aging America how better to grow old, though many are without the financial assistance frequently stressed as a necessity.

Staying Connected to Community and Self
Ongoing research shows that robust social networks incorporate many benefits to elders with those more connected tending to steer clear of nursing homes. And while many elders find the aging process to be increasingly isolating, artists seem to show no disconnect with older age.

“Seventy-seven percent of these aging professional artists communicate daily or weekly with other artists; this trumps communication with mates/spouses, children, grandchildren, siblings, and relatives,” says Jeffri. “It is this communication, and these social networks, that keep artists vital. Ninety-four percent say that other artists are supportive some or a lot of the time, and 44% say that relationships with other artists give them a feeling of security. Almost three quarters say that making art helps them to resolve or confront conflicts.”

According to Jeffri, the tenacity of artists toward their work, their social networks with each other, and their continuous communication all speak to the glue that cements artists’ sense of self and propels society forward, generating an ideal recipe for successful aging. “As we live longer, making, cementing, and renewing these networks is energizing and fulfilling with the kind of health benefits others have proven that come from immersion in the arts,” she says.

Hanna says artists’ daily duties also maintain their community ties—something so important in a world segmenting many elders in suburbs. “People who are working every day have a built-in way to see people and make friends and maintain friends,” she says.

And art solidifies a sense of self that may contribute to higher self-esteem in elders. “While there are differing views on the relationship between age and self-esteem, over 83% of aging visual artists rated their self-esteem and their self-esteem as artists as good to excellent,” according to the study.

Adapt and Engage
Although artists face the same physical, mental, and emotional challenges other elders must confront, Jeffri contends that artists may be better equipped to adapt to these obstacles because of the irregular trajectory artists’ careers often take—multiple and sometimes discontinuous jobs, day jobs and art jobs, movement in and out of paid employment, and the documentation of major career turning points. As the number of self-employed Americans continues to rise, so do the lessons of successful aging that can be learned from artists’ ever-changing existence.

Consider health problems, an inevitable aspect of aging, artist or not. Where some elders might stray away from some activities due to declining health, artists repeatedly adapt life to fit their art. “In this case, not one professional artist expressed a desire to give up being an artist. When one artist whose medium was safety pins got arthritis in her hands, she simply changed her medium,” says Jeffri.

When life presents obstacles, artists “find ways to succeed,” says Hanna. Speaking of her own experiences with art, she says, “I truly am a stone carver, but there may come a time when I’m not going to be strong enough to carve stone. So I [may] switch to clay or drawing. But I’ll still keep passionate about making art.”

According to Hanna, the most valuable lesson artists can impart about aging may be this: Life’s real happiness, in general and especially in later life, lies in finding some area of work that you can feel passionate about and then using it to stay connected with others and continue lifelong learning.

“Find something that you’re passionate about doing, whether it’s cooking, gardening, playing bridge, having pets, or volunteering—something that brings you outside of yourself—that you can find many, many ways of doing and that brings you into community with other people and allows you to continue to learn. I think that’s key. It’s like people that say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to the gym every day,’ and they do the same set of exercises every day. It can become deadening,” says Hanna.

Adapt, engage, and embrace. In the end, Jeffri says, the principal point elders of all walks of life should take from her research is that come what may in life, it’s what you make of it that counts. “Being able to embrace life with all its negatives and positives, to pour conflicts as well as successes into one’s work, and to create something out of nothing—these experiences provide a very special kind of satisfaction,” she says. “The life of the aging artist is a microcosm of resilience and the artist’s response to materials, to his capacity with those materials, provides an extraordinarily special place, one where the opinions and influences of others, one’s physical condition, one’s emotional problems are both independent of and an integral part of the creative process, where the artist sets the bar—and decides whether he reaches it.”

— Juliann Schaeffer is an editorial assistant at Aging Well.