Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

Living Edition
| Editors: Danan Gu, Matthew E. Dupre

Late-Life Creativity

  • Aagje SwinnenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_268-1


Definition and Overview

Late-life creativity is an umbrella term that refers to the potential and/or accomplishment that are characteristic of the later stages of the life course. It emerged as a concept in the context of gerontology’s move beyond the staircase model of life with its clearly demarcated peak after which only decline can follow. Creativity itself is difficult to define. It can be understood individually or relationally, tangibly or intangibly, or exclusively or democratically. Depending on the framework in which the concept is used, creativity signifies a product, process, or skill. Often, scholars differentiate between big C creativity, the exceptional achievements of artists, scientists, and innovators, and small C creativity, more of a psychological skill rooted in everyday activities (e.g., Boden 2004). Within the field of gerontology and aging studies, the following discussions on creativity predominate: late style in artistic oeuvres, creativity as part of psychological growth in later life, and the effects of older people’s engagement in the creative arts on quality of life and well-being.


In order to fully understand the course that academic and social and cultural agendas surrounding late-life creativity take, it is important to acknowledge that we live in a time in which creativity has been commodified and integrated in the successful aging paradigm. Successful aging is a particular ideology that underlies most of the policymaking and some of the gerontology in the West. It emphasizes the individual responsibility of a person to age well by making smart consumer choices, presented as a specific third-age lifestyle (Katz and Calasanti 2015; Gilleard and Higgs 2017). This ideal of self-management and control (that denies and ignores meaningfulness in vulnerability and dependency) is perfectly in line with what Richard Florida (2004) calls the commodification of creativity. The latter means that creativity is commodified to fit neoliberal agendas of productivity and self-realization. A creative class of individuals that not only want but also feel the obligation to be creative has spread to all institutions and businesses (Reckwitz 2017). Vera Gallistl (2018) argues that this master narrative of the creative self, the so-called homo aestheticus, has now spread into old age as well where it coincides with the successful self-realizing aging person. Parallel to her argument, Katz and Campbell (2005) find evidence for the gerontologization of creativity in gerontologists’ assumption that artists working and living into old age are role models for successful aging. Scholarship into late-life creativity should be aware of the implications of this particular sociohistorical development.

Key Research Findings

Late Style

In the fields of literary studies, art history, and musicology, late style traditionally refers to the imaginative response of exceptionally gifted artists to the immanence of death, leading to the culmination of their work. Late works are characterized by a change in content, style, and tone and are said to anticipate future developments in the art discipline at hand. As such, works produced at the end of a career set themselves apart from the earlier output of an artist but do so in ways that are similar to the late work of other creative “geniuses.” These similarities include “a degree of transcendence, a stepping outside of the earthly, the material, and the normative” (Amigoni and McMullan 2015, p. 381). There is often confusion about the difference between the critical concepts of late style (Alterstil) and old-age style (Spätstil), as death can occur at any point in the life course and exceptional creativity does not automatically manifest itself in artists who have reached older age (Hutcheon and Hutcheon 2012).

Recently, the notion of late style has been seriously contested by scholars in humanistic aging studies (Hutcheon and Hutcheon 2012; Amigoni and McMullan 2015; McMullan and Smiles 2016) who are reluctant to bring the final works of artists as different as Euripides, Titian, Goethe, Rembrandt, Beethoven, de Kooning, Ibsen, Picasso, Stravinksy, Wagner, Monet, and Mann together. They question the usefulness of the concept of late style as a natural phenomenon that transcends the peculiarities of place, time, and medium. Instead, they approach late style as “a retrospective critical construct with its own aesthetic and ideological agenda and, most importantly, its own view of both aging and creativity” (Hutcheon and Hutcheon 2012, np).

Most of these scholars link the origin of today’s predominant understanding of late style back to romanticism and modernism. Characteristic of the German idealist and romantic approach to late-life creativity was the opposition between two narratives that follow biological and developmental theories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: an “organicist teleological narrative of peak and decline” and “a redemptivist narrative of apotheosis and transcendence in the last years of an artist’s life” (Hutcheon and Hutcheon 2012, np). The swan-song phenomenon, designating exceptional late peaks, is linked with the romantic myth of the genius who has the capacity to bring different aspects of creativity into a synthesizing unity. For Modernists (cf. Adorno 2002; Saïd 2006), by contrast, lateness implies the artist’s acceptance of the lack of synthesis, which takes the form of a loose, seemingly careless, vague, and indefinite style not unlike that of abstract expressionism and not easily differentiated from an unfinished work (Amigoni and McMullan 2015). In short:

The late-style trope takes from romanticism its emphasis on biography, subjectivism, the relationship between creativity and selfhood; from modernism it derives its interest in tradition, the avant-garde, abstraction, the subordination of self to epoch, the loss of linearity. (McMullan and Smiles 2016, p. 11)

Although different, both the romantic and modernist understandings of late style are indicative of a search for universal and transhistorical features of works produced in the later stages of a career, right before death.

Hutcheon and Hutcheon (2012) even go so far as to connect the concept of late style in its conventional meaning with ageism. They point out that both positive (apotheosis) and negative (decline) generalizations about creativity in later life disregard the differences between artists who grow older and refer to Philip Sohm’s statement that exceptionalism and gerontophobia are nothing but “masked twins” (Hutcheon and Hutcheon 2012, np). In a similar vein, Gordon McMullan and Sam Smiles point out that:

it can be argued that it is contingency, not transcendence, that is a, if not the, defining factor of late style, and if we ignore it we may well end up denying to artists in old age the actual nature of their achievement; perhaps in fact, we should redefine old-age style as something which is directly or indirectly the product of the adjustments and collaborations necessary for creative artists in old age, not something that exists despite such contingencies. (2016, p. 7)

These and other scholars have identified and practiced two distinct routes to move beyond the simplistic appraisal of late style. The first route is to approach the way in which works produced at the end of life have been valued from the perspective of reception history. This implies that a reconstruction of how certain works have been canonized by (often generations of) critics as examples of late style replaces a text-immanent approach in search of stylistic features of lateneness. The second route is to analyze how artists themselves have used the notion of late style in their self-fashioning and particular positioning in a competitive art world that values what is new and innovative (Amigoni and McMullan 2015).

Example of Application: Shakespeare

McMullan (2007) has written extensively on Shakespeare, one of the key artists to whom late style has been attributed, from the perspective of reception history. He argues that it took almost two decades after Shakespeare’s death for editors and critics to link the order in which his plays were written with the writer’s development as a man and as an artist. They interpreted the plays as expressions of Shakespeare’s artistic self in different stages of the life course: comedy resulting from the desire and patriotism characteristic of youth, tragedy from midlife crisis, and the late plays from the synthesis of a true genius nearing his life’s end. However, McMullan argues, if read in the context of commercial theatre in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (the context of production), Shakespeare’s plays were rather genre-driven and responded to the longstanding demands and desires of the audience. Moreover, Shakespeare was middle-aged at most when he wrote his alleged late works and continued to write after his so-called final and best play, The Tempest.

Creativity and Psychological Growth in Later Life

The previous section shows that, for centuries, so-called common features of late style have been paired with presumed psychological characteristics of artists approaching death. Not only the style of late works has been linked with the psychology of older age but productivity as well. Harvey Lehman (1953), for instance, equated older age with a decline in art production. In this section, I start from developments in psychology that oppose this peak and decline model of late-life creativity.

In his psychosocial theory of development, Erik Erikson (1980) characterized the final stage of old age as a balancing act between ego integrity and despair. Ego integrity implies a sense of closure and acceptance of the finitude of life leading to the virtue of wisdom, while dissatisfaction with later life and looking back with regret may result in loneliness, depression, and despair. Gene Cohen (2000, 2010) radically revised this theory by focusing on positive growth in older age and backed his view up with new neuroscientific insights into how the aging brain can grow brain cells and create new memories. He introduced four different phases of development in later life, the midlife reevaluation phase, the liberation phase, the summing-up phase, and the encore phase, which may overlap or can be experienced at different moments in the life course. Importantly, Cohen links continuous psychological growth with creative potential and enhanced quality of life. In this context, creativity is not confined to the mind of the artist but rather grounded in everyday activities and achievements, as Cohen is committed to debunking the myth that creativity is only reserved for creative “geniuses” and the young. Instead, he regards creativity as a life force or “inner push” that increases with age and experience. Cohen’s definition of the so-called “creativity equation,” C = me2, emphasizes this positive influence of aging on creativity:

It states that creativity (C) is the result of our mass (m) of knowledge, multiplied by the effects of our two dimensions of experience (e2). The first dimension would be our inner world experience, reflecting psychological and emotional growth over the years. The second dimension would be our outer world experience, reflecting accumulating life experience and wisdom in growing older. All the elements interact in a synergy that sets the stage for creativity. (2010, p. 186)

Cohen goes on to identify four basic patterns of creativity in the second half of the life course: continuing creativity, changing creativity, commencing creativity (also called late blooming), and creativity connected with loss (2010, pp. 187–188).

Cohen’s theory is first and foremost an example of the narrative of creativity as a continuous process of growth and renewal across the life span (cf. Katz and Campbell 2005). We could interpret this narrative as an attempt to counter the ageist implications of its alternative, the peak-and-decline model of late-life creativity. Replacing an overtly negative stereotype with a seductive positive one, however, does not fundamentally challenge the dangerous tendency to ignore individual differences, contextual factors, and artistic traditions in discussing late-life creativity. Cohen’s theory capitalizes on the inner self of the creative subject. However, increasingly, scholars (e.g., Hendricks 1999; Swinnen 2018; Gallistl 2018) address the relationality of creativity and creativity as a social practice through which subjects are created. Creativity in this sense is something that you do in a certain context in which other actors are involved rather than being what you are or have as an individual. Consequently, to put it in Vera Gallistl’s words, “creativity in later life … forms certain types of practice through which the image of the creative, self-realized aging self is constantly created” (2018, p. 94). This perspective on creativity opens up a new set of questions that can advance the scholarship on late-life creativity and put all too rosy generalizations of the psychology of aging into perspective. These questions include what it means for artists to grow older; how older artists perform age through their engagement in creative practices; how these performances relate to longstanding myths, images, and narratives of both aging and creativity; and how to connect art practices of professional artists with creativity as resilience outside the realm of the arts in scholarship.

Example of Application: Meanings of Late-Life Creativity for Artists

Gallistl’s own research (2018) did not start from a clear-cut definition of creativity or artistry. Instead, participants were recruited through an open call that invited anyone over 60 who was willing to discuss his or her creative practice. This resulted in the participation of 13 adults between 62 and 84 years old who engaged in self-identified artistic activities ranging from drag and body building to yodelling, acting, and painting. A situational analysis of data from extensive fieldwork including home visits, interviews, and participant observation at rehearsals and shows showed that creativity was used to maintain productivity across the life course and to hold aging at bay rather than creativity used as a creative expression. Sustaining their artistic practice required a lot of disciplinary action and boundary making on the part of the interviewees. These and other findings complicate all too positive understandings of creativity in the later stages of the life course because they reveal how artistic practices can be complicit in the production and maintenance of an ageist third-age-culture that emphasizes “business” and productivity. Swinnen (2018), by contrast, focused on the way professional Dutch poets experience, attribute meaning to, and understand creativity in the later stage of their career. Her interpretative phenomenological analysis of interviews with five poets between 65 and 92 illustrated that writing was experienced as a practice of good living and a way of keeping negative stereotypes of aging at bay. Because of Swinnen’s focus on a specific professional category, the role of aging within its corresponding artistic field was discussed openly by the participants. They understood change as increased knowledge and experience that was useful when dealing with challenges concerning being published and staying visible. The poets pointed out that the reception of their literary work was out of sync with their self-perception of creative growth. They found continuity in their creative process and investment in artistic self-development.

Older People’s Engagement in the Creative Arts

Since its launch, Cohen’s theory has served to stimulate and legitimize professionally conducted, participatory arts programs for older people, ranging from painting and creative writing to singing in a choir. The underlying idea is that the creativity that participants tap into and develop while being involved in such programs (as opposed to an average social interaction) improves their physical and mental health and social connectivity. Cohen’s own large-scale and multisite Creativity and Aging Study (Cohen 2010; Cohen et al. 2007), for instance, compared the health and social functioning of 150 adults in participatory art programs with a control group not involved in such programs. His results showed that after 1 year participants experienced improved health, had fewer doctor visits, used fewer medications, felt less depressed, were less lonely, had a higher morale, and were socially more active than at the start of the study (Cohen 2010, p. 198). Although this type of clinical approach to the impact of older people’s engagement in the arts – often referred to as arts “interventions” – has gained significant momentum over recent years, it has also been questioned (Broderick 2011; Gray et al. 2018). The focus on the effects of participation in the arts on health maintenance and promotion and disease prevention risks positioning artistic activities as a cure for all ills associated with aging (physical and cognitive decline, disengagement and isolation, to name just a few) rather than as a means for care and meaningfulness. The specific measurement of health outcomes of participation in the arts tends to obscure other meanings of this type of engagement, for instance, spiritual. As Gray et al. point out:

Any exploration of our engagements in and with art will challenge us to think deeply about signification – the way in which meaning is conveyed and expressed. Art does not always give up its meaning easily, and the kind of meaning-making that takes place when we ‘do art’ happens at unexpected times and places: within the practice of the artist or in the production of an art work, in a momentary interaction experienced by an individual engaging with art or with an arts practitioner or subsequently in the story of that individual. (2018, p. 780)

From this quote it follows that we have to be careful not to instrumentalize creative practices and uncritically incorporate them in neoliberal agendas that aim to encourage activity in older people to reduce health-care costs.

An especially interesting development regarding the participatory arts is their implementation in dementia care. There is a growing consensus that the arts can contribute to the transformation of the lived experience of dementia in the absence of effective medical treatment (Huebner 2011; Goulding et al. 2018; Camic et al. 2018). This may seem counterintuitive given that Alzheimer’s and related dementias are generally perceived as conditions that are the antithesis of creativity. Anne Basting pioneered arts projects that started from the premise that the creative process of imagination still can be stimulated and mobilized in people who live with dementia – a premise summarized by the catch phrase “forget memory, try imagination” (cf. Basting 2009). Engagement in the arts offers people who live with dementia the opportunity to escape from their patient role by discovering a creative role. Seeing people who live with dementia appear as creative subjects during arts activities has the potential to fight stigma and othering. Different creative approaches have been developed to invite people who live with dementia to fully engage in creative practices, several of which have crossed national borders, for instance, storytelling (Timeslips: Basting 2001), poetry performance and improvisation (Alzheimer’s Poetry Project: Glazner 2005; Swinnen 2016), and visual arts (Meet Me at MoMA: Rosenberg 2009).

It is even more challenging to properly understand what the engagement in participatory arts activities means for people who live with dementia than for older people in general, because the former may struggle to put their experiences into words (de Medeiros and Basting 2014; Gray et al. 2018; Zeilig et al. 2019). To include the voices of people who live with dementia in evaluations, methods such as ethnography and photo-voice may be more appropriate than cognition-oriented approaches such as interviewing. Another question is how to value not only the process but also the product of the creative activity. Scott Selberg warns against all too easily made assumptions about the arts as vehicles for the expression of personhood in dementia:

The biopolitics of creativity for Alzheimer’s are … fundamentally tethered to temporally oriented practices of self-making. It is a deeply human form of productivity. That creativity implies a movement forward in time not insistent on a compromised past is the root of its promise as a psychosocial intervention for people with dementia. But if creativity is a language of human progress and becoming, it is also enormously available to magical thinking and ideological slippage. It is with this in mind that we must think about the ways investments in art and personhood orient the subject of Alzheimer’s. (2016, p. 144)

In other words, we should be careful not to assume that art mirrors the subjectivity of its creator. Nor should we extend the ideology of the successful creative aging individual to the arts in dementia.

Example of Application: “Penelope”

“Penelope” (Rose et al. 2016; Basting 2018; Penelope: The Documentary 2014) is one of the projects that are testimony to Basting’s contribution to the innovation of the participatory arts in dementia care. This 2-year project capitalized on the collaboration between faculty and students of the University of Wisconsin, professional artists from Sojourn Theatre, and staff, residents, family, and volunteers of the retirement community Luther Manor (that offers a range of care from day services to skilled nursing). The project’s main end product was a play, set in the public spaces of the retirement community. The play started from the Greek myth of Penelope who waited for 10 years to be reunited with her husband Odysseus on the island of Ithaca. This theme was merged with a daughter’s reunion with her mother in the everyday setting of Luther Manor. For the residents of Luther Manor, participation in the project involved different creative activities such as weaving and performing scripts through call and response when the play was staged. “Penelope” is an exceptional example of a creative community of care (Basting 2018) that stands out for several reasons: because it engaged people of all abilities as equal partners in the artistic collaboration; fostered intergenerational contact; and created “a space that was dementia normal – in which dementia did not in any way limit one’s ability to make beauty and meaning” (Basting 2018, p. 749). For the evaluation of “Penelope,” Basting and her team made use of pre-/post-surveys, interviews, and focus group interviews with stakeholders (Rose et al. 2016).

Future Directions of Research

In general, all three different strands within the study of late-life creativity benefit from a more rigorous critical analysis of its underlying assumptions surrounding creativity and aging and the relation of these assumptions to subjectivity and personhood, as explained above. In relation to the topic of late style, the field would profit from moving beyond its canon of male artists and theorists to include women (Falcus 2019). This is echoed in McMullan and Smiles’ remark that “with late style it is almost always a ‘he,’ one obvious marker of the limitations of the claim of universality” (2016, p. 4). Also, it may be fruitful to study late style in relation to popular culture, as Willemien Froneman’s (2018) ethnographic account of aging and creativity in the everyday life of the South African accordionist Nico Carstens suggests. Regarding artists’ experiences of late-life creativity, it is worth further exploring what the differences and similarities are between artists operating in different art worlds. In addition, a more systematic exploration of the experiences of artists who have already had to adjust to the new realities of aging and later life (experiencing disability, for instance) and, therefore, had to (re)negotiate their relation to the successful aging paradigm could generate important new insights. Another possible future direction of research is linking these adjustments to aging with spatial (re)arrangements, especially in reference to artistic studios. As to the study of older people’s engagement in the participatory arts, more research on the conditions that enable and sustain art activities in residential and communal settings seems crucial. Also, the further development of methodological approaches to assess the meaningfulness of these creative practices is an exciting direction.


This entry explores three main strands within the research on late-life creativity. Discussions of late style are gradually moving away from conceptualizing it as a natural phenomenon that transcends time, space, and medium toward the understanding that contingencies might more accurately characterize it. Studies of late style increasingly focus on the function of late style in canonization processes and the self-fashioning of artists. The discourse of creativity as a psychological force that increases with age and experience continues to replace the decline model of late-life creativity. Valuing creativity in the later stages of age should stay away from the moral dictate to remain productive at all costs that characterizes an ageist third-age culture. Instead, the latest research reveals the many ways in which both professional and hobby artists understand and give meaning to creativity in the later stages of life. There is a general consensus that participation in the arts has a positive effect on the well-being of older people. How to describe and evaluate this effect while doing justice to the specificities of the artistic practice, especially in the context of dementia care, is an important and ongoing debate. In general, research on late-life creativity has to take into account that we live in a time in which creativity is both commodified and gerontologized in order to move forward.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Maastricht University and University of Humanistic StudiesUtrechtThe Netherlands

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sarah Falcus
    • 1
  1. 1.University of HuddersfieldHuddersfieldUK