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 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.