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Living Longer, Living Better | Lifestyle

Pursuing passions

For many, extra time opens doors to finally being able to indulge in long put-off activities

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By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / February 27, 2011

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Real estate investment manager Peter Aldrich never thought small. The Boston firm he cofounded, Aldrich, Eastman & Waltch, financed the 1989 purchase of Chicago’s Sears Tower, then the tallest building in the world.

More than 20 years later, Aldrich is still thinking big, but in very different terms. He paints expansive landscapes that include the Zakim Bridge, the North Station drawbridge, and sweeping panoramas of Fenway Park. The 66-year-old businessman said he spends more time in his artist’s studio than the boardroom — and he couldn’t be happier.

“When I started painting, something special happened,’’ Aldrich said. “I totally lost track of time and it totally absorbed me.’’

Aldrich is among many older Americans tapping into educational opportunities to pursue old passions and find new ones. While age stops some from chasing fulfillment, it catapults others in new and unpredictable directions. Some, like Aldrich, pursue painting. Others try dancing or creative writing. Still others attempt more practical pursuits, such as cooking, investing, or writing software applications.

Such opportunities and a never-too-old-to-learn attitude may be key to personal fulfillment, said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “The Search for Fulfillment: Revolutionary New Research That Reveals the Secret to Long-Term Happiness.’’

Whitbourne tracked the personal development of 350 University of Rochester students from their college years to retirement age, collecting 40 years of data.

Her research found the most fulfilled stepped outside their comfort zones to try different things. Those who showed the least fulfillment tended to be people who feared change and accepted circumstances that made them unhappy. They were less adaptable to life’s inevitable twists. “The more different things you try, the better it is for the brain,’’ Whitbourne said. “Life is about change and adapting. It’s what keeps you going.’’

With so many universities, colleges, and other institutions in New England, there are myriad ways to push personal boundaries. Adult education centers in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline and elsewhere offer courses for every conceivable interest, from electrolytic etching to burlesque-inspired dance.

Susan Alt, a dance instructor at the Cambridge Center for Adult Learning, said her classes can be rigorous — whether “physically torturous’’ ballet or mentally challenging tap — but the benefits make it worthwhile for students of all ages and experience levels. Her oldest student is 90. “If you can learn to dance,’’ she said, “you feel really good about yourself.’’

Construction worker Lawrence Townsend began taking dance classes at the Boston Center for Adult Education a decade ago at age 45. He signed up as a break from the demands of caring for his disabled 60-year-old sister and a 13-year-old niece.

Townsend tried salsa, ballroom, even Irish step dancing. But it was ballroom that captured his imagination, particularly classes with Ernie Garcia, who trained under Fred Astaire. Townsend is now a Monday night regular at the center’s ballroom class, arriving each week in a suit, tie, and rubber-soled dress shoes.

“I love dancing,’’ he said. “It’s a great passion.’’

Whitbourne said her research found the most satisfied people were those who confronted areas where their life needed improvement, then addressed them. The most adaptable thrived, finding purpose in new experiences, such as becoming a mentor or taking up rock climbing.

She also said the cliché that money doesn’t buy happiness proved true in her research.

“It’s feeling like you made a difference in the world, feeling like you counted,’’ she said. “At the very end, that’s what’s going to allow you to feel like your life is worthwhile.’’

Aldrich, the real estate investor, took up painting in 2006. He said he never wanted to be like the men of his father’s generation, who “retire in the suburbs and die.’’

“My guess was that retirement was devastating,’’ he said. “They lost their reason for being, their social context, and the structure of their lives.’’

Aldrich said his philosophy was simple: retirement must be practiced. Over the years, Aldrich tested various hobbies and activities, including antique collecting and fly fishing.

Aldrich, a Harvard Business School graduate and returned Peace Corps volunteer, admitted he was nervous when he enrolled in his first studio art class.

Although he enjoyed painting and drawing in high school, and always dreamed of taking it up again, he worried other students would view him as a “fuddy-duddy.’’

Since then, he has completed scores of paintings in oil and watercolor, leasing a studio on Harrison Street.

He sometimes sets up his easel outdoors in unlikely spots: a state trooper was surprised to find him painting at the foot of the Zakim Bridge. When he goes to Fenway Park, he often sketches scenes or takes photographs of images he wants to paint. He sold a painting of David Ortiz hitting a home run in front of exuberant fans to Red Sox executive Ben Cherington.

Today, Aldrich paints more than 20 hours a week. His latest project: illustrating a classmate’s children’s book.

“I still love investing,’’ Aldrich said, “but painting has become my avocation.’’

Here are some tips from Susan Krauss Whitbourne, author of "The Search for Fulfillment: Revolutionary New Research That Reveals the Secret to Long-Term Happiness":

Take stock

Evaluate where you are and where you hoped to be.

Honestly confront areas of your life where you feel you're not making a difference. Then create an action plan. Do not fall victim to doubts.

Take baby steps

Don’t quit your job or move away. Think about small things you can change. Would exercise help? Mentoring? Remember, failure is possible, but trust that you can recover. "You are never too old to change," she said. "Never."

Seek a therapist's help if you are truly depressed or unhappy. Some changes are hard to make on your own.