Art Therapy for Senior Citizens: What I Learned

Me teaching one of my classes.  One of my seniors snapped this picture.
Me teaching one of my classes. One of my seniors snapped this picture. | Source

Looking for a meaningful way to share my art

For 14 years I created and ran a series of art therapy classes for senior citizens in my town. It all started when I called around town one summer looking for ways to use my art teaching skills for the community. After calling a number of agencies, I ended up being transferred to the Parks and Recreation Department, which had a community service division furnishing lunches for senior citizens. The director of the program was intrigued when I said I could offer art classes in watercolor for a reasonable fee. She said she would ask around the seniors to see if they were interested and hung up. I figured I would never hear from her again.

However two weeks later she called back and said that the seniors were indeed interested in painting and she had been looking for interesting things for the seniors to do while waiting for lunch. She thought that this could be just the thing.

When I came into her office to iron out the details she made it clear to me that I was not a permanent employee of the city. I had NO job security and as soon as the seniors were no longer interested, I was OUT. I was okay with that since I figured I had only been looking for something to fill in the summer months. When the school year started in September, I usually had gigs going to grammar school classrooms with my art lessons. Imagine my surprise and astonishment when it lasted 14 years. It may have lasted longer if it had not been for the sever budget cuts that finally hit the city Parks and Recs.

Dragging all my supplies to the next watercolor class.
Dragging all my supplies to the next watercolor class. | Source

7 things I learned while offering Art Therapy to Senior Citizens

Over the years I learned many things about the senior citizens and art therapy, which I am sharing here. If you ever want to start an art therapy class of your own, you should keep these things in mine.

Have you ever worked with the elderly before?

  • No. Never gave it much thought.
  • No. But I think I will look into it now.
  • Yes. But it wasn't a pleasant experience.
  • Yes and I love it. They are awesome.
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The elderly really don’t want to learn new skills, like how to draw.

In the beginning I brought blank paper and pencils thinking I would teach them how to draw simple things like flowers and trees. Most of them looked at me with those sweet faces and begged me to do that part for them. After several weeks I got the 411. They just wanted to paint. A little like kids with a coloring book, they didn’t want to do the designing, just the fun part of filling in the lines with color. After that I drew all the pictures at home using a stencil I created myself. In this way I passed out the paper with the design already drawn on and we could all sit down to paint together. It made things very happy for everyone.

Teaching one of my classes with bunny ears on to make my seniors laugh.
Teaching one of my classes with bunny ears on to make my seniors laugh. | Source
Lots of drips and splashes in this one.
Lots of drips and splashes in this one. | Source

They all wanted me to paint with them so they could see the steps.

I brought a completed painting for everyone to see and then had to paint another one with them to show them how I got the completed picture. This meant for the 10 to 15 classes I taught each week, I had to paint one at each and ended up with 10 to 15 copies of the same painting. After a while it was fun to see the variations I could come up with on the same drawing and theme.

In the beginning I came up with paintings I thought would be interesting and fun for them and me. I saw right away that what I could complete in relatively little time, took the seniors much longer and often took more skill level than they could muster. After a while I managed to gauge the average skill level by figuring if I could complete the sample painting in 15 minutes, then they may possibly be able to do the same in 1 hour. Also I had to include large space with flat wash color and only a few final fine details. It was the fine details that they were intrigued by but often had trouble seeing well and completing with accuracy, so I made these as few and simple as possible. Some of the seniors really surprised me and over the years developed a real feel for the intricacies of painting. They got better and better the longer they painted with me.

One of our watercolor paintings.
One of our watercolor paintings. | Source

The elderly don’t like to be rushed.

Unfortunately, my boss wanted me to complete a class in one hour and clean up, jump in the car, drive to the next site, unload all the supplies, set up and paint for one hour again. I found it stressful because they were waiting for me, and the elderly didn’t like me to be late. Yet those at the first site hated to stop and clean up if they were still in the middle of their painting. The ideal thing would be to have no more than one class a day and spent two to three hours there. Unfortunately, I had to answer to a higher power: my boss, the director of the program. She wanted me at as many sites around town as she could get me to in a week, and all before lunch each day. Sometimes the seniors would get cranky with me because I had to take the paint and brushes and leave, but eventually they understood I had to. While I was there I tried to be a pleasant and as relaxed as possible, but I can’t lie; I was stressed with the time management. After a week like that I felt I needed the Art Therapy.

One of our watercolor paintings.
One of our watercolor paintings. | Source

The elderly will let you do it for them: so don’t.

I had more than one who wanted an excellent painting to take home… SO they wanted me to do it or at least “touch it up” after they painted. I did a few… BIG MISTAKE. I suppose it is like your kids. If you ever want them to tie their own shoes you have to make them do it themselves. Some kids want to and others want you to perpetually do it FOR them. The seniors were like that. Some didn’t want me to touch their paintings and others would rather I did for them so they could show family when they got home, how talented THEY were. I had to stop helping in that way or I’d be painting everyone’s picture from then on. I didn’t mind helping with a real problem, but doing if for them was just not an option.

Another simple watercolor painting for the seniors.
Another simple watercolor painting for the seniors. | Source

Seniors love conversation.

I think one of the biggest problems an artist faces is being quiet while painting. We get in that ZONE… the right side of the brain zone where you can’t talk and paint at the same time. However if you are teaching, you HAVE to give instruction from time to time. So I learned to do it. It took some training. I found that if I started a conversation with some interesting tidbit, the seniors would chime in and do the rest. The do enjoy talking and sometimes only need a small catalyst. Talk about your day, your husband/wife, your dog or pet, your mom, your kids, etc. It doesn’t take much.

Another watercolor painting.  Notice large areas with just color and only a few simple details.
Another watercolor painting. Notice large areas with just color and only a few simple details. | Source

They also love a good story.

I did find a few times when things got very quiet. We artists love quiet but when I was teaching I was always afraid of being boring. So I started learning and memorizing stories about famous artists. I made it a game telling a story about an artist without giving the name of the artist until the end. Some could guess who it was and others were just entertained. Later some of my faithful painters told me they kept coming back, not because of the painting (although they enjoyed that part) but because of the stories. I became known as the storyteller. Kind of funny when you think I only did it because I was afraid of being uninteresting.

Simplified leaves and reeds in the background work well.
Simplified leaves and reeds in the background work well. | Source

Some senior citizens are kleptomaniacs.

I hate to be the one to report this but it’s true. Not all of course, but many would steal paint brushes, paint pallets, and unguarded purses. One sweet elderly gentleman had a bag attached to his walker. He would sweetly shuffle up to the table, look over my set up, and stealthily sweep the brushes into his bag before shuffling off to the next table to sit down. His daughter returned them to me the following week, apologizing. His explanation was basically that he was old; that he had paid his dues, and everything, including my brushes, should be free to him now. I understand and I’m not mad. I just didn’t want to have to pay for new brushes out of my own pocket to replace the city’s equipment.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t really an isolated incident. There were several situations like that that happened over the years and I got to where I kept an extra close watch on my purse and my equipment. Dementia is a horrible thing, and but for the Grace of God, it could happen to me someday. I want to be as kind and patient with these sweet folks as I hope others are with me someday.

The grandmas loved this one.  Very simple water and a few details but lots of color.
The grandmas loved this one. Very simple water and a few details but lots of color. | Source
Seniors love lots of color.
Seniors love lots of color. | Source

Art therapy for senior citizens is rewarding, more that you will ever know.

I loved my elderly painters. Some came with vision problems and after a decade or so they painted like pros. Others had poor hand coordination, tremors, and advanced arthritis, but their dexterity improved as they painted. I think it has something to do with using the creative side of the brain during painting. Still others came because they had lost a beloved spouse and their children were afraid they had given up. This happened with a dozen or more of the 100 seniors who came to my classes each week. Coming to the center and painting once a week gave them a reason to get up and get dressed. One year, a sweet lady’s 8 children came and gave me a cake. They surrounded me and each thanked me for saving their mother’s life. They were sure after their father had passed that she had given up and there would soon be another funeral. But when she started painting with me she developed a renewed interest in life, and they said she wouldn’t miss my class for anything. They had me in tears.

Art therapy for senior citizens is rewarding, more that you will ever know.


More by this Author

Art Therapy Guestbook: please leave comments and remarks here. 16 comments

SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

SANJAY LAKHANPAL 5 months ago from Mandi (HP) India

Art therapy is one of the best option for the alleviation of stress and is not limited to Senior Citizens only. Thanks for the wonderful article.

PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 5 months ago from Fresno CA Author


I agree with you. I got a lot out of the session too. Thanks so much for commenting.



billybuc profile image

billybuc 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

I love your reflections and honesty, from my observations over the years, every one of your reflections is true.

Bless you for taking on the challenge, and thanks for sharing it with us.

sukhneet profile image

sukhneet 5 months ago from India

Again a heart touching article. I just love your concern towards the older people and the way you believe in dealing with them. And, this time art therapy becomes a medium. Hats off :)

MsDora profile image

MsDora 5 months ago from The Caribbean

I have worked with the elderly, and I think you highlighted some important features of the experience. Pleased that you realize that mental disorder, even the beginning stages of Alzheimer's may be the reason that some steal. Thanks for sharing your very beautiful work!

PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 5 months ago from Fresno CA Author


Well of course. Thank you for all your encouragement. Sometimes all a girl needs is a pat of the back and a high five to feel like any challenge is worthwhile.



PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 5 months ago from Fresno CA Author


Oh thank you. Yes, I believe I'll be there too someday not too distant and I sure want people to treat me with patience and tolerance. I'm already beginning to walk a little slower than I used to... Thanks for commenting.



PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 5 months ago from Fresno CA Author


I felt so bad for that dear man and could actually agree with him that he had paid his dues, served his country in the military and was probably due some free things. I felt bad that I wanted my brushes back from him and I'm really glad that his daughter brought them back covertly so that he never knew she returned them. He would have been embarrassed and angry with her. Indeed, I think I heard some people's life story a couple dozen times because they forgot that they told me that story the previous week. I didn't mind and each time would smile and nod like it was the first time I had heard it. What did it cost me to listen politely again? Nothing really. It's things like that that I hope folks are patient with me about later. I'm quite the storyteller and I figure I may be repeating things a few times myself. Thanks so much for your understanding and your comments.



denise.w.anderson profile image

denise.w.anderson 5 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

This is a wonderful commentary on the value of senior citizens centers in helping seniors continue with meaningful activity during their waning years. The difficulty that they face as they loose their loved ones companionship can be swallowed up in the relationships they form with those at the center. Thank you for providing this valuable service!

PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 5 months ago from Fresno CA Author


It's so true. And they are the sweetest people filled with awesome experiences and a lifetime of stories. Who couldn't learn a ton if they just sat quietly and listened? Some of the stories I heard would make your toes curl. Things were different in the 30's and 40's, we have no idea. It is so sad that they canceled my program for lack of funds. Thanks so much for commenting.



CorneliaMladenova profile image

CorneliaMladenova 4 months ago from Cork, Ireland

Thank you for this amazing hub, Denise! :) I absolutely agree that art therapy helps people to recover from illness and mental health problems. I myself suffer fatigue and art really help me to improve, to forget about all tragedies in my whole life and to survive! :)

PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 4 months ago from Fresno CA Author


Art is amazing like that. I'm so sorry to hear you have suffered tragedies, but glad that art is helping you survive. Good for you! Thanks as always for visiting my humble writings.



norlawrence 7 weeks ago

Great article. Seniors need things to do to keep them busy. They do not need to just sit and do nothing. You live about 90 miles from where I do. I think you are doing great things. Keep it up. Thanks

PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 7 weeks ago from Fresno CA Author


I absolutely agree. I think people live longer when they have something to occupy their minds and give then interest in life. As my dear friend put it, it keeps their minds from turning to mush. Maybe I'll see you around sometime. Thanks for commenting.



Jenae 4 weeks ago

I regularly volunteer at a local nursing home for art time. How they love to paint! Your thoughts and experiences are true to mine, and you have given me new ideas and inspiration. Thank you!

PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 4 weeks ago from Fresno CA Author


I'm so very glad if that's true. The seniors deserve all the extras we can possibly give them. Feel free to use my ideas and if you desire, feel free to contact me for more. Thanks for commenting.



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