Seniors Aging Artistically

By Sarah Griffenhagen

Mary “Molly” Lithgo’s art students know exactly what she is going to say when she finishes a critique: “Carry on. You’re doing great!” 

Two students have heard these words of encouragement many times. Shirley McElwee, now 88, and Mary Lib McCachern, now 86, were already enrolled in Forsyth Tech’s ‘Drawing in Color’ class at the Miller Park Recreation Center when Molly took it over in 1996. Now, 20 years later, Shirley and Mary Lib are still taking the class, still creating art, and still growing as artists. Soon, though, they will be receiving critiques from a new instructor. Molly retired recently to return to her first love: pottery-making.

“We all will miss Molly a lot,” says Mary Lib. “She was so patient. She would guide me whenever I wasn’t sure I was doing it right.”

Shirley adds, “Molly is the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

In addition to her keen artistic eye and ability to provide spot-on feedback, Molly had a gift for creating a close community where students of any age wanted to return week after week, year after year, to discover and develop their talents. The class also became a support network, where the students became interested in each other’s personal lives and cared about each other.

“This class has meant everything to me,” Mary Lib says. “It has helped preserve my sanity and has given me something to look forward to.”

Shirley feels the same way. “This class has been a wonderful experience. We see the same people each week. We are old friends.”

Studies have shown that creative pursuits can contribute to successful aging by fostering a sense of competence, purpose and growth. In addition, artistic creativity nurtures the development of problem-solving skills, motivation and perceptions that can translate into practical everyday activities. By all accounts, Mary Lib and Shirley are aging well.

Shirley lives in a retirement community in High Point and drives herself to the Thursday morning Drawing in Color class each week. She majored in art at Mary Grove College in Detroit, Mich., near where she grew up. While her art reflects all subject matter, she specializes in landscapes and portraits of her grandchildren and older people and works in the mediums of oil, water color and sculpture. The mother of six, including twin girls, Shirley is a member of an art group in her retirement community. She regularly contributes her work to art shows that change out every few months.

Mary Lib, who also still drives, lives in Winston-Salem and is often the first student to arrive to class by 9 a.m. every Thursday. She also studied art in college. She transferred to Salem College as a biology major and art minor, but got married before she earned her degree. In her mid-60s, after her husband died, Mary Lib discovered an aptitude for drawing. She has nurtured her passion for art with visits to 75 elderhostels (now called Road Scholars) in such picturesque places as Sedona, Ariz., Jamaica, and a monastery in Idaho.

Both Shirley and Mary Lib plan to meet their classmates every Thursday morning throughout the summer at Miller Park Recreation Center until Molly’s placement has been announced.

“I am going to continue to take this class as long as I can see and drive,” Mary Lib says.

No doubt, Mary Lib and Shirley will find a way to carry on. They’re doing great.

Sarah Griffenhagen is Forsyth Tech’s Coordinator of Community Service Programs, a position she has held since 2008. She earned a BSW degree from North Georgia University in Dahlonega, Georgia and enjoys reading, scrapbooking and walking. Her three children live on opposite sides of the “Big Pond” – New York City, Boston, MA and London, England.


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