Palo Alto Weekly

- June 7, 2013

The quest to play, paint, sculpt, write in the 'vintage years'

Psychologist explores how artistic expression stimulates the aging brain

by Chris Kenrick

At 70, with no previous experience on a stringed instrument, Palo Alto resident Francine Toder drove to San Francisco and rented herself a cello.

She was wrestling with her decision to retire after a 45-year career she'd thrived in, teaching college-level psychology as well as maintaining a psychology practice.

"As I got to this stage I thought, 'What else do I want to do?' It's the quintessential question of these years I call the 'vintage years,'" Toder said in a recent interview.

She'd always loved the sound of the cello and felt inspired after watching a DVD documentary about an 89-year-old woman with no prior musical education learning to play the instrument.

That gave Toder the courage to come home with her rented cello and case. She later purchased a self-instruction book, music stand and metronome and eventually found a teacher, Lucinda Breed Lenicheck of Palo Alto.

Toder turns 73 this month and, after 18 months of weekly lessons and daily 40-minute practice, said she's "capable of playing beautiful music — at least to my ears."

Toder's journey with cello paralleled her simultaneous quest to explore her notions of how artistic expression stimulates the aging brain and, conversely, how the aging brain facilitates artistic expression.

The results of that investigation can be found in her book, "The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty," published this spring.

The book sprang from Toder's participation in a Continuing Studies at Stanford University class in creative nonfiction, in which the professor challenged students to come up with topics to write about.

"When I gave my instructor two titles he said I needed a third, and I spontaneously came up with this idea," Toder said.

"I thought the fine arts really have the elements — novelty, complexity and problem-solving — that can keep the brain strong. But I really wasn't serious about it, hadn't done the research. And that's the one he wanted me to pursue."

The final paper for the Stanford class became an early chapter in Toder's book.

Later she abandoned her original plan to interview hundreds of people to gather data for a scholarly conclusion in favor of anecdotal interviews with artists.

Her requirement was simply that the subject took up a fine-arts endeavor after the age of 55.

Toder's final product includes brief profiles of 21 musicians, visual artists and writers who began their pursuits later in life.

Don, a 78-year-old a retired physicist, took up fiddling at age 63, now plays for a few hours daily and has memorized 300 tunes.

Julie, a 74-year-old former computer programmer and homemaker, started painting botanical watercolors at 62 and has mounted two shows.

Stan, 69, a doctor who likes to hike and bicycle, took up fiction-writing just before age 60.

Marty, 84, now retired from pharmaceutical research, impulsively registered for a sculpture class in his 50s as part of his effort to "come back to the world" after the suicide of a son.

Charmion, 81, began playing viola da gamba at 71.

Although a handful of Toder's artists have earned public recognition for their work, she said that is in no way the point.

"Talent is irrelevant at this stage because people are not doing it for any goal other than their own pleasure," she said. "You're not doing it to get attention, necessarily, or to please anyone or to further your career.

"None of these artists embarked on their art thinking, 'I will become famous.' It's too intimidating an idea, not consistent with this life stage," Toder said.

Rather, in the vintage years, people "have the space, time and ability to focus with laser sharpness, which allows them to get into the art more fully."

One of her subjects, 86-year-old Harold, a retired food executive who first took a stained-glass course at a local high school at 65, eventually was asked to make windows for a local synagogue.

"I never thought about myself as doing something like this. I'm a very simple person," Harold told her.

Dan, a 64-year-old retired ophthalmologist and now a full-time art student, said: "You don't have to have talent; you just have to put in the time."

Another subject, 66-year-old retired research physicist Betsy, tried photography, succulents and knitting before finally settling on ceramics.

"Don't prejudge any of the possibilities until you try them," Betsy advised. "It may disappoint you or it may vastly exceed your expectations."

Toder does not judge the creative products of her subjects, preferring to focus on the social, mental health and healing benefits of artistic pursuits for any older person.

Barbara, a former therapist who took up African drumming in her 60s, described some of them.

"Music has introduced me to people who are younger and who are from different ethnic backgrounds, different socio-economic statuses, different professions and different perspectives," she said.

"Whereas therapists tend to be introspective, I've met people who just want to have fun."

As health problem creep into her subjects' lives, many are able to adapt different ways to practice their art as well as to embrace art as a distraction from pain and worry, Toder said.

Judy, a 66-year-old watercolorist, found her devotion to painting "re-oriented the content of her thinking away from fearful what-ifs and toward the wonders of art."

She fell and injured her knee on her way to an evening art class but decided to continue to class. The watercolors kept her so absorbed that she felt nothing until packing up to leave when she noticed her knee had swollen to cantaloupe size and she "felt the worst pain that I've felt in my entire life." Her husband took her to the emergency room.

Toder herself was diagnosed with lung cancer as she was finishing the book.

The terrifying possibilities, she said, "gave me the opportunity to put into practice some of the lessons I absorbed from the many artists I had the privilege to interview.

"I heard their words of support and encouragement in my head when I wondered how I would handle some serious and negative health news out of left field."

Toder decided to confront the uncertainties of her illness in what she calls "the artist's way — to practice my art every day, as much as possible, both to distract myself from fantasizing about the unknown and to write the last chapter of this book."

She continued to practice her cello "as if nothing had changed."

After surgery, which held out the hope of full recovery, was successful, Toder emerged feeling "grateful for learning to be so totally involved in writing and playing music that I did experience time-outs from worry and pain."

Through the book she hopes to spread the word about the power of artistic expression to enrich older adulthood.

"The vintage years can be the largest life stage; some people have 30 or more years left," she said.

"Receptivity to art continues to be something that humans value and experience with pleasure, even passion."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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