Will never forget the moment at my first (the first) National Center for Creative Aging Leadership Conference & Exchange when it hit me like a lightning bolt that the NCCA is the child of the great Gene D. Cohen, MD – a man I never met & who changed my life for all time.
There is not date inscribed in my copy of Creative Awakenings ~ awakening human potential in the second half of life to clue me into when I first came across it ~ my guess is it was well after its 2000 publication date, probably several years after Mom’s 2001 death. I remember buying it, then not reading it for several more years, so my best guess at when I actually settled down for a read would be around 2007 – ten years ago, seven years before that first NCCA Conference, two years before Gene’s death in 2009, at a mere 65 years old.
I have even less memory of what drew me to that first NCCA Conference. There wasn’t any buzz on it; the group was an enthusiastic circle of creatives who believed what I had come to see over two years, at that point, of working with Anne Davis Hyatt as our client – – that the arts are the key to full-throttle life experience, straight across the age spectrum & health condition. Through many years with Anne, John & I saw real-time the impact creativity can have on squashing the heartache of dementia. It was that new -found, present-moment awareness that lead practically penniless me to an auditorium at the Arena Stage in D.C., looking at a program that featured not a single name I knew.
When I heard one of the earliest speakers prepare to introduce Wendy Miller, no bells started ringing, no lights of recognition started flashing. Was still, incredibly, clueless as she was described her as the wife of the late Gene Cohen. But then Wendy started talking, opening up the umbrella in her hand with its under-canopy of clouds & sky, started sharing the work she had done with her husband, the amazing strides he’d made in a too short life & it hit me – SHAZAM! Everything fell into glorious place – literally, it was like little threads had been brushing past my face & magically coalesced into a beautiful shawl draped across my stunned shoulders.
Gene Cohen, first in Creative Awakenings & then The Mature Mind, expressed what I had observed over a lifetime of casual & intimate connection with the incredible oldsters elders ancients in my little hometown, particularly with my mother & her WOW! circle of friends. It made NO sense to me that surveys typically used “65+” to cover all the ages from getting-their-first-Social Security check to centenarians, because I could see, right before me, what differences are found in the years between oldster & ancient.
Not kidding – when I realized who Wendy Miller was, that many of the strangers around me were no strangers to the work of Gene Cohen, I started to cry tears of discovery & joy. After a lifetime of searching, I had found my tribe.
Gene Cohen looked like a larger-than-life pixie & brought a pixie’s joy of play & dusting of magic to his work as a geriatric psychiatrist. He famously teamed up with George Burns to produce Public Service Announcements on aging!
His outlook on what my mother described as “tripping the old-ometer” upward was upbeat & optimistic – a radical departure from the too-common prognosis of aging as constant decline & deterioration devoid of any up side. He was an early researcher into brain function in the elderly, a neglected area of study since young whippersnapper scientists assumed there wasn’t anything of interest to know about aging.
Even before baby boomers were old enough to make studies into aging financially viable, Gene was beating the drums that our brains are ravaged by diseases associated with age, not aging itself, and therefore many can be treated; that our brains are more flexible, that they are more attuned to creativity & blossom through the arts in ways few scientists or people who hold the purse strings to funding suspected. He showed that the neurons that engage us in creative endeavors are not profoundly affected by the ravages of Alzheimer’s – they follow a different track & can be accessed when others are shut down.
How he would have loved the video of the old man who had seriously declined to a virtually non-responsive state who LIT UP on hearing music – even when the headphones were taken off, he remained responsive & connected, talking where he had been mute. Gene would have grooved out over the story of Edward Hardy, a 93-year old jazz pianist with dementia who seemed to have given up, whose life changed due to a young activities director, also a musician, who reconnected Edward with music – and life.
There is so much I could write about Gene. It’s an honor to feature him in one of my first blog postings, since I am writing this & doing all that’s before me because of all he wrote & did. You can expect many more blog postings ahead spotlighting this remarkable man who had every grace except that of years.
I do want to recall the most special moment from last year’s 2016 NCCA Leadership Conference & Exchange. That first year found us in an auditorium-in-the-round at the Arena Stage; by 2015, the number of participants saw us moving to a considerably LARGER auditorium; last year sent us to the Newseum! I think it was the second morning of the conference that found me arriving late, having rushed so much I’d skipped breakfast at my delightful Airbnb. What joy to discover the breakfast buffet spread was still available. I’d picked up my bagel & fresh fruit, was pouring my cup of coffee, when I was joined by a lovely woman wearing an shawl that looked like it was spun of the sky. Her ID showcased not her name, but the front cover of a book – Sky Above Clouds. We talked about Gene, I shared how he was the one who woke me up to life’s calling. Several minutes went by before it hit me ~ SHAZAM! ~ that she was Wendy Miller! And she was talking to ME!
The short conversation & that 2nd awakened moment are with me still. They will be with me when I head to the International Association of Gerontology & Geriatrics World Congress in less than two weeks. They are with me always & forever.