Conventional wisdom holds that if you do not write your “Farewell to Arms,” paint your “Starry Night,” start the next Twitter or climb Mount Everest by at least middle age, then chances are you never will. But that idea is becoming increasingly outdated.
As a girl growing up in Jamaica, Queens, Lucille Gang Shulklapper dreamed of being a writer and “having a househusband like Edna St. Vincent Millay.”
Life didn’t unfold that way. She married, took a teaching job and raised two children. She wrote off and on, mostly for herself. But when she retired in her late 50s, “words came tumbling out of closets and drawers, leaking from rusty faucets and reappearing as character actors,” said Shulklapper, 80. She began sending out poems and short stories, and published her first book of poetry in 1996, when she was 60.
Since then, she has published four chapbooks, which are typically small editions of 40 pages or so, and a fifth is in progress. In January, Guardian Angel Publishing released Shulklapper’s first children’s book, “Stuck in Bed Fred.”
“I am living beyond my dreams,” said Shulklapper, a widowed grandmother of six who lives in Boca Raton, Fla. “I feel as though it’s my baby. A long pregnancy and now its delivery, all 10 toes and fingers.”
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Conventional wisdom holds that if you do not write your “Farewell to Arms,” paint your “Starry Night,” start the next Twitter or climb Mount Everest by young adulthood, or at least middle age, then chances are you will never do it.
But that idea is becoming increasingly outdated as people are not only having successes later in life, but blooming in areas they never expected. Maybe they are not making millions or wielding a brush like Rembrandt. Still, many people are discovering the latter part of their lives can be just as (or even more) rewarding creatively, emotionally and spiritually.
Examples of late-life triumphs abound. Ernestine Shepherd, for example, began bodybuilding (and running marathons) at age 56. Diana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida at 64, after several attempts. Harland Sanders started his KFC empire in his 60s. Frank McCourt won a Pulitzer Prize for “Angela’s Ashes” when he was 66. And Jurgen Schmidt, 92, a retiree in Huntington Beach, Calif., and a Senior Masters swimmer, recently starred in a three-minute video for Speedo.
“A lot of what it comes down to — are you cognitively able to do it?” said James Kaufman, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut. “Most software developers don’t suddenly start at 60, but being open to new experiences is one of the biggest predictors of creativity.”
“We absolutely have to revamp this idea of a linear pattern of accomplishment that ends when you’re 50 or 60,” said Karl Pillemer, a professor of gerontology at Cornell University, and author of, most recently, “30 Lessons for Loving.” “There are simply too many examples of people who bloom late, and it’s the most extraordinary time of their life.”
Pillemer, who has interviewed more than 1,500 people age 70 and older for The Legacy Project at Cornell, found that a large number of people 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.
Researchers distinguish between crystallized (acquired) and fluid (general knowledge) intelligence. Crystallized intelligence tends to grow over a lifetime, whereas fluid intelligence usually declines after a person reaches the late 20s.
That’s why deciding to become a mathematician or a chess master at age 50 usually does not work. “It is generally very difficult to get a late start in a field that requires lots of fluid intelligence from the get-go,” said Dean Keith Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of “The Wiley Handbook of Genius.”
However, Simonton points out, people differ at the rates and ages in which they acquire expertise. “Often people don’t even discover what they really want to do with their lives — or even where their talents might lie — until well past middle age,” he said. “Grandma Moses is the proverbial case.” (That’s Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses, the renowned American folk artist.)
In his book “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity,” David Galenson, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, argues that there are two kinds of practitioners in most given fields: conceptual and experimental.
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. This helps explain why, for example, conceptual artist Pablo Picasso produced his greatest work at age 26, whereas Paul Cézanne created his at 67. “To say every discipline has its peak age is wrong,” Galenson said.
Of course, everyone has his or her own definition of “peaked.” Marjorie Forbes was a 68-year-old retired social worker when she began studying the oboe. Although she played violin as a teenager, she had always wanted to learn a woodwind.
Now 81, Forbes said she initially was happy “tootling away” in her Manhattan living room. But as her prowess grew, so did her aspirations. After taking a music course at Oberlin College, she joined coached chamber ensembles at the 92nd Street Y and at Lucy Moses, a community-arts school in New York.
Today, she considers herself a “medium good amateur.” “I can’t make money doing what I’m doing, but I think I’ve reinvented myself to do something I’ve always wanted to do,” Forbes said. “I never dreamed I’d get to be as good as I am.”
Shulklapper is working on another book of poems inspired by the rhythm of the treadmill. She bought a keyboard and is writing and composing. Recently, she said, she met a “man friend.”
No one is more excited about her late-life renaissance. “There’s music in life,” Shulklapper said.