Did you ever have an experience with an elderly grandparent, aunt or uncle who said something that knocked your socks off? While in the U.S. Air Force, I was stationed in northern Utah. One Christmas, my parents came to visit from Texas and brought my 83-year-old grandfather. There was about four feet of snow on the ground, and while eating Christmas dinner, my grandfather very seriously pointed and said, with fascination, “Look at those two kangaroos in the backyard!” Everyone looked, but did not see anything but snow. My grandfather was suffering from dementia, and other things, but, basically, had poor brain health.
Growing old is not always fun, but the alternative is worse. Having a healthy brain as we age makes life changes more bearable. There are several things one can do to help keep your brain active and on the right track. Learning something new during middle age (45-65) can help keep the brain active and healthy. Learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument, doing arts and crafts or taking on a new hobby are often recommended activities to help achieve optimal brain health.
In Spring 2014, I had been retired for about two years. One afternoon, while I was lying on the sofa, my wife said to me, “You are going to have to get up and start doing something for your brain! You have not seen any kangaroos lately, have you?” So, with several other nudges and digs from her, I decided to take an oil painting class at the recreation center. I had never taken any art classes other than kindergarten finger painting. So, at age 64, I started painting for my brain.
A considerable amount of research has been done on how to keep a healthy brain as we age. In a recent Mayo Clinic study, researchers found participants who engaged in artistic hobbies such as painting, drawing or sculpting, in both middle and old age, were 73 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those who did not. Mindhow.com notes that creativity utilizes more of our brains than simple learning exercises. There are many studies that show we not only have to get off the sofa and physically exercise, but we must also do things specifically to exercise our brains for good mental health.
Leslie Rainey, the Frisco Senior Center supervisor, says, “Two programs that are a big hit for seniors here are Adult Color Therapy and Memory in the Making. Both programs use art as a highway to brain health.” The Memory in the Making class is operated by the Frisco Senior Center and the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Dallas chapter. It is a unique fine arts program for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia.
If you or one of your family members is moving into an independent living, assisted living or memory care facility, art will likely be offered as one of the activities. Since the arts have proven to be a pathway to better memory and brain health, classes and groups are common at senior citizen facilities.
As an example, Kristy R. Gallaher, the community life director at Parkview in Frisco, says, “Art, for our residents here, fosters creativity and a sense of purpose. Art also provides a sense of accomplishment and personal growth — all of which contribute to aging well and brain health. We encourage seniors to join us for all sorts of creative art classes. We welcome our residents’ guests to join the fun, too!”
Starting a hobby, like oil painting, is not always the easiest thing to take on, especially during working years and while raising children. However, by the time you are in the 45 to 65-year-old window, you may wish you had taken part in some type of creative hobby earlier.
For some people, starting a hobby at home without help is best. With great resources on YouTube and other websites, the basics for how to do almost anything can be viewed, including how to do arts and crafts.
If you enjoy the social aspect of being in a class, you need to know where to find the best ones. Frisco residents are lucky, as there are numerous art programs at the Senior Center, including the Ceramics and Crafts Corner, You Can Paint a Masterpiece, Crochet and Café, quilting and more. There are even classes focused on music and color therapy. There are also a variety of classes available for those of any age at local retailers such as Hobby Lobby® or Michaels®.
My experience of learning to oil paint has been a great journey, and I know it has helped my brain. In the beginning, learning how to use the palette knife was a challenge in not only hand-eye coordination, but also in painting something that resembled my reference photo or scene. After finishing my first painting of a tulip at the recreation center, I came home and showed my wife. She looked at it with a frown on her face and said, “What in the world is that?” My paintings got better from that point on.
As I progressed and felt more confident in my skills, I started doing more purely creative paintings, including venturing into the world of abstract and surrealism paintings. I also took on the challenge of making wooden frames, stretching canvases and applying several coats of gesso on canvases to make them smooth. A few times, I veered off the oil painting track and made sunflower “yard art” with acrylic paint and old cedar fence boards.
During this “learning to paint adventure,” my curiosity has risen and I strive to learn more about the masters — not only about what and how they painted, but also how they managed their lives when they were not famous. Oil painting has opened up a new world for me.
Now, many times when I paint, I do not have any reference. I sketch what is in my mind onto the canvas and then begin to paint. As the painting evolves, my creative side continues to kick in. As I absorb into the painting, I am able to calm my thoughts and get any troubles of the day into a clearer perspective. Like brain activity after playing a musical instrument, sometimes, my brain is in full operating status all night, thinking about what to paint or how to add or change a painting that is in progress. Many times, after a good night sleep, I wake up and find myself thinking, “I will paint something special today.”
Brain health is something many do not ever think about, especially when they are fairly young. However, when we encounter one of our loved ones who has dementia, Alzheimer’s or loss of memory, we ask ourselves, “How did this happen?” By taking preventive steps in brain health early, hopefully, when you are older, you will not see any kangaroos in your backyard!
Garry Beckham is a retired USAF Officer and Aviator and a retired high school computer tech. He is a hobby artist. One of his goals is to have a painting in a museum.