Family Leisure Loving

Teaching an old dog new tricks – how I unlocked the artist in my dad

My dad was an ordinary working-class bloke who worked, semi-skilled, in factories until he retired at 58, and then he became an artist. He was a hobbyist painter who found no greater acclaim than his best work being accepted into a few local exhibitions but the transformation in his wellbeing and spirit, after finding his creativity, was profound. He died almost two years ago and I have not yet allowed myself to swim in the ocean of grief that laps at my feet. I have begun, however, to comfort myself with the realisation that one small effort on my behalf changed the last 20 years of his life.

 

It is possible to teach our parents something new and it really is never too late to learn.
 

It started after a conversation with my mother who was dreading my father taking an early retirement package from his employers who were trying to reduce their workforce. Dad was easily bored and while he loved his garden mum wondered how he would fill the long winter days that lay ahead without sinking into the depression that is part of our family DNA. She herself filled every spare moment with myriad crafts, everything from embroidery to card-making, sewing to knitting, quilling to flower arranging and she was loathe to give any of this up in order to entertain him. Out of nowhere I had the idea to get him sketching and one sunny weekend we sat together in the garden and I showed him how to draw the flowers in front of us. He took to it like a duck to water.

He did retire early, which was a good thing because as British manufacturing declined he would never have had that same generous handshake again. He immediately signed-up for adult education art classes and threw himself into his new hobby. Whenever my husband and I visited, both designers, he would show us his latest work which, with a childlike lack of inhibition, was already adorning the walls. Over the years he moved from watercolour to acrylic and his canvasses got bigger; he and mum turned the back-bedroom into a craft room and studio. He continued going to class for nineteen years until he was diagnosed with secondary liver cancer and chemotherapy made his hands too sore to paint.

My dad loved his retirement and I am so grateful that he found a passion that made him happy. His confidence grew and this opened him up to other adventures and new friends. The unhappy and depressed middle aged man that I knew as a teenager and twenty-something turned back into the fun-loving dad of my childhood. Now that I’ve reached midlife I’m watching male and female peers reach their own crossroads and some may need a bit of help discovering the creativity that will sustain them. Learning new things helps us stay mentally alert and cope with the changes that lie ahead. Whether it’s encouraging my 80 year old mum to use a kindle or my 50 year old partner to start bread baking (read full post here) I’ll never be afraid of encouraging my loved ones to find and follow their passions.

 

Five tips to teach an old dog new tricks:

  • Don’t make assumptions about what someone might be interested in. I had always assumed that my love of art had come through my mother’s side of the family. It turned out my dad had those genes too but had not once, in his whole life, been given the opportunity to explore it.
  • Don’t push. Lay the foundation of an idea and then let the individual explore it for themselves. We are talking about grown-ups here and none of us want to be coerced by friends or family, however well-meaning.
  • Discover which tv programmes, books or music your old dog enjoys – that might offer clues to the hobbies that might interest them. If they like cookery programmes why not try a cookery course, if they enjoy music why not learn to play an instrument.
  • Taster workshops make thoughtful gifts and can be a great way to inspire someone to take up an activity.
  • Be prepared to go with them (at first), doing something new together is much less daunting. You might even end up staying!

I would love to hear your stories about new found hobbies or careers – just comment below or email me if you have a post you’d like to contribute.

20 Comments

  • This is beautiful, Avril. It must feel wonderful to know that you gave him this gift. What have you done with all his paintings? Hope they are on display somewhere.

    • Thanks Gill – I know you’ve journeyed along this grief path and it has been important for me to recognise that I helped him. The paintings were distributed between family and friends but he gave away lots over the years. There was one very large canvas which we gave to the care home where he spent the last week of his life. It felt right to leave something of him there.

  • This is just lovely with a capital “L”! Everything: the idea, the way how you did it, the way you described it and of course the fabulous deer by your father! Loved loved loved it!!! Thank you so much for sharing it! I don’t have a story to share back yet, but I will be thinking about how can I inspire my mother who retired last year. 🙂

  • Fantastic Avril! Amazing that your dad has found something he enjoys doing and spending time on. I bet he’s very talented! Very touching post.

  • This is such a wonderful post. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d think from just the title…but it really was an interesting read. I’m so sorry about the loss of your father. My dad is my best friend. He’s older and so I often think about the quality of his life and what I could do to enhance it. Reading about your dad in retirement, and picking up a new hobby/passion is inspiring.

    Lauren

    • Thanks Lauren – and interesting about the title – it’s hard to know what will make people read on isn’t it?

  • What an extraordinary attitude! That’s the whole idea of the lifelong learning process! While the life-expectancy is growing, all of us must understand the need to educate ourselves permanently.

  • Very beautiful story Avril! You are talking about a sensitive topic as we are always told that young people learn from the older ones…
    I am sorry for your loss. You make him live through your writing 🙂

  • we were just discussing the idea of what can a retired professor can do? I gave a lot of ideas that were highly appreciated! but non of them were applicable for that exact person! I insist including youngsters relatives, and persistence for the journey, but I think I have just learned my mistake from your post today! It is such a good thing that I have just came by this subject , and then I read your very valuable piece!
    The difference you made in your father’s life is such great thing!

  • Although I am so sorry for your loss, this is such a beautiful post. I’ve always believed it is never too late to try a new hobby etc. at whatever age. And I am glad something as small as sketching flowers turned into this massive passion for your dad.

  • im taking these tips for my mum i know she wants to aspire to be more but im just trying to push her without pushing her.
    My new found love is blogging. Ive always wanted to be an actress and i am still pursing it but one day I thought let me start a blog. Why not get all my feelings out on to a page and then it happened and it was so organic and even though I do not have much followers i get joy when i get comments cause i know people are being inspired of affected by what i write !!! YAY great post

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