Psychiatrist broke ground in geriatrics

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Gene D. Cohen promoted the idea that senior citizens have untapped stores of creativity.

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gene D. Cohen, an impish geriatric psychiatrist who championed the idea that people past retirement age have untapped stores of creativity and intellectually rigorous skills in their later years, died Nov. 7 of prostate cancer at his home in Kensington. He was 65.

In 1975, Dr. Cohen became the first chief of the Center on Aging at the National Institute of Mental Health and in 1994 he was the first director of George Washington University’s Center on Aging, Health & Humanities. He investigated wellness and illness of older adults in several longitudinal studies. He was also someone who could translate the latest research into everyday language.

"The magic bullets are all blanks," he said in 1998, advising people to rely on "intellectual sweating" instead of pills and herbs for good mental health. "Make it a point to learn something new, instead of turning to hormones or ginkgo biloba."

Although the medical establishment tended to treat aging as a disease when he started his career, Dr. Cohen found that the later adult years can be a time of great creativity. Brains create new brain cells as long as people are encouraged to keep trying new pursuits, he reported, and people in the traditional retirement years have almost limitless capacity for intellectual growth.

"He wanted to move the paradigm from a focus on problems to a focus on potentials," said Gay Hanna, executive director of the National Center for Creative Aging.

Among his many research projects, a 2002 study showed that those who engaged in the arts late in life had fewer illnesses and injuries and more independence. Dr. Cohen, as a former federal employee with an eye on the looming national health-care debate, reported that arts programs also appeared to reduce "risk factors that drive the need for long-term care."

"Single-handedly he changed the image of aging from a period of senescence to a period of creativity," said Dr. Walter Reich, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University.

Wielding a light saber at his lectures, with a cherubic face surrounded by untamed curls, Dr. Cohen sought to re-introduce fun to those suffering from physical ailments and provide a way for younger family members to engage with those whom he considered "keepers of the culture."

In the early 1990s, trying to make a connection with his father, who was in a late stage of Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Cohen hit upon the idea of creating a video biography, using old photos and panning through them in what’s now known as the "Ken Burns effect." His father, watching a photo of himself as a sailor aboard a Navy ship, smiled and had a moment of lucidity. "Oh, I must be important," the father said.

"That momentary smile for Gene was what his work was all about," said his wife of 13 years, Wendy Miller.

Those therapeutic restorative biographies are one of a set of intergenerational games Dr. Cohen created. Another was Word Wars III, a combination of chess and Scrabble, that could be adjusted to level the playing board for different ages. It was named the Best Party Game of 1994-95 by Fun and Games magazine.

"Since I hold the patent on WW III," he wrote on his curriculum vitae, "it is now illegal for any person or country to declare WW III."

He also patented his adaptation of the centuries-old game of cribbage, an exercise that his attorney called fruitless until, after an in-person appeal, Dr. Cohen came away with the rights to a game that was reconfigured for those with visual or other physical disabilities.

Born Sept. 18, 1944, in Brockton, Mass., Dr. Cohen early on showed an interest in research, winning first place at the state high school science fair with a project examining aging in a particular fish species. He graduated from Harvard College in 1966 and Georgetown University’s School of Medicine in 1970. He received a doctorate in gerontology at the Union Institute and University in 1981.

He joined the Public Health Service and set up the first federally supported national center on mental health and aging in the world. After more than two decades at the National Institutes of Health, he moved to GWU in the mid-1990s.

He wrote three books by himself, "The Brain in Human Aging" (1988), "The Creative Age" (2000) and "The Mature Mind" (2005) and co-wrote or edited more than 150 others. He was the founding editor of both journals of geriatric psychiatry and served as past president of the Gerontological Society of America, which will name a research award in creative aging for him.

He also appeared on TV network news shows and in an award-winning series of public service messages with the comedian George Burns.

His marriage to Joyce Tenneson ended in divorce.

In addition to his second wife, survivors include a son from his first marriage, Alex Cohen of Lincolnville, Maine; a daughter from his second marriage, Eliana Miller-Cohen of Kensington; a brother; and four grandchildren.


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