Art Therapy for Senior Citizens: What I Learned
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Questions & Answers
How do I start to work with senior citizens in the beginning stage?
I have said it before, but you really should find a sponsor to pay you for your time and materials. The seniors usually are on a fixed income and cannot afford to pay for the joy of painting that you are offering. I began working with the seniors through the city parks and recreation department (under the recreation part of it) but you could also talk a retirement community into supporting you or an convalescent hospital/home. Check around to see who might be interested in starting a painting class type of activity on a weekly or monthly basis. If you just jump in and start classes paying for the paper and materials yourself on a volunteer basis, the authorities may feel that they shouldn't have to pay or help out with something you were willing to do for free. After you have funding and advertise that classes will begin on a certain date and time, make sure you are there on time. Seniors don't like having to wait and will go find something else to do. After you are established as coming regularly, they will be there faithfully waiting for you. Create simple project paintings that even the most unskilled painters will feel they accomplished something fine and fantastic. You don't want them to go away feeling that they are failures. They won't return if that happens. I tried not to make it too simplistic but also not too complicated. I also drew out the picture for them on the paper before I came. They don't want to learn how to draw; they just want to paint. This why I began using stencils, because I was drawing dozens of the same picture over and over again each week for the seniors to paint. Finally, enjoy them and their conversation. I found with little provocation they will tell you their life story. Many times it is fascinating.Helpful 9
How do I start in the beginning stage with senior citizens?
Set up a place where there is enough room for everyone to have a foot of so on each side of them and their paper, lay out all the supplies and paper and have a sample of the end painting they are all shooting to copy set up where they can all see it. I set a small table easel at the end of each rectangular table so they could look up at it as they painted their painting. Make sure the room is comfortable and air-conditioned. A barn will not do in the summer or winter months because senior citizens are too sensitive to heat and cold. I've seen well-meaning people set up tables in their garage or barn thinking it was the perfect space for classes because the cleanup would be minimal but the area was so hot and intolerable that I couldn't stand it let alone the seniors. Once you have space and tables, allow for enough time for each picture to be completed. It was hard at first for me to gauge how much time seniors would need to complete a small painting but I began to realize that too many details like little houses and flowers were just too much for the seniors. I started making landscapes with large areas of color washes that could be laid in quickly with a few swipes and only a few small details for interest. This made an interesting painting they could complete in just a little over an hour.Helpful 9
I'm just starting in the field as an independent contractor/arts facilitator, and I have no idea how I can charge for my services. What's a reasonable fee for senior centers, for example? I would greatly appreciate any leads you may have.
Before you ask for an hourly wage, consider that you will spend as much time at home prepping for each class as you do in class. So say, if you ask for $10 an hour you will be really making about $5 an hour. I asked for $25 an hour and felt that was conservative. They may not have that in the budget and if not, you have to ask yourself if you are willing to make the sacrifice for the greater good you will be doing for the elderly. I know I did. It was 1998 when I started and they offered me $14 an hour. I jumped at it because I felt that that would be increased over time. In 2010 I was still making the same $14 an hour because they said I was at the "ceiling" they were able to offer for part-time temporary employees. How many years do you have to work before they consider you better than part-time temporary? Anyway, you will want to think about that in the beginning. Also think, if you need to travel from one site to another, will you be offered milage or transportation compensation. Consider how many hours you will be offered per week and if you will be able to fill the rest of the hours with more work elsewhere. Also, the biggest thing for me was that they cover the cost of supplies on top of my wage. I was very conservative in the choice of paints and paper to work with so as not to overburden the city Parks department who were paying me, but it was essential that they cover all that up front.Helpful 8
What are the limits to be with the senior citizens?
There are very few limits to working with senior citizens. Working for the city parks department, I was fingerprinted, and my background checked, although I doubt that they were worried that I might be selling drugs to seniors. It was mostly a formality in working for the city. Unless you are calling yourself a therapist or some official title, you won't have much in the way of limits restricting you. You will want to show that you have a love of the art you are doing and a love of sharing it with people. You will need to show patience and tolerance for the handicaps that many seniors endure. I doubt that a racist or an intolerant person who doesn't like people speaking Spanish or some other language than English will get very far with the seniors. Other than that, enjoy the process.Helpful 5