Senior Health

1/22/2021 | By Annie Tobey

Give children some blank paper and a few crayons and they will scribble away contentedly. Besides just being a diversion to give Mom or Dad a break while Junior creates, artistic creation improves fine motor skills, self-esteem, self-expression, visual processing, and working memory.

Then we grow up. Unless we become professional artists, life gets in the way of continuing to create. Yet even when we’re in the “prime” of our lives, art has benefits. Girija Kaimal, professor at Drexel University and researcher in art therapy, says that art helps people imagine a more hopeful future, activates the brain’s reward center, lowers stress, and improves focus. 

While art can help maintain our mental health throughout our lives, it becomes especially important later in life. Besides the benefits that apply to anyone of any age, seniors can experience advantages specific to them.

Less well known is the effectiveness of incorporating expressive arts into programs for older adults and patients who are diagnosed with chronic degenerative diseases. 

“Clinical research validates what some professionals and others who work with older adults have known for years – that making art is an essential, vital component of activities that offer a wide range of health benefits,” reported art therapist Barbara Bagan in Today’s Geriatric Medicine. “Several studies show that art can reduce the depression and anxiety that are often symptomatic of chronic diseases. Other research demonstrates that the imagination and creativity of older adults can flourish in later life, helping them to realize unique, unlived potentials, even when suffering from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.”

Bagan has graduate degrees in art therapy, psychology, and gerontology and conducts therapy sessions with older adults. She has found that art 

  • helps individuals relax
  • provides a sense of control
  • reduces depression and anxiety
  • assists in socialization
  • encourages playfulness and a sense of humor
  • improves cognition
  • offers sensory stimulation
  • fosters a stronger sense of identity
  • increases self-esteem and self-expression
  • nurtures spirituality
  • reduces boredom
  • improves communication
  • improves overall quality of life

Art provides more than just soft benefits. Today’s Geriatric Medicine added, “Neurological research shows that making art can improve cognitive functions by producing both new neural pathways and thicker, stronger dendrites. Thus, art enhances cognitive reserve, helping the brain actively compensate for pathology by using more efficient brain networks or alternative brain strategies. Making art or even viewing art causes the brain to continue to reshape, adapt, and restructure, thus expanding the potential to increase brain reserve capacity.”

Before You Start

Two books that dig deeper into using art as targeted therapy are Essential Art Therapy Exercises: Effective Techniques to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD, by Leah Guzman; and 365 Days of Art in Nature: Find Inspiration Every Day in the Natural World, by Lorna Scoble.

In the meantime, these easy tips can get you going in the right direction:

  • Start easy. 
  • Consider beginning with colored pencils or other supplies that don’t have a juvenile connotation.
  • Use vivid colors.
  • If your loved one has mental challenges, don’t use materials that are toxic if ingested.
  • Be encouraging, not critical! The goal is to create a positive experience, not the next Grandma Moses.
  • Once the piece is complete, place it somewhere they can see it, bolstering self-satisfaction.
  • Or it can be given as a gift. You can give it a place of honor in your own home and take a picture to show appreciation.

Applying Art Therapy for Seniors

What exactly can you do to introduce more art to your life or to the senior in your life? Of course, the answer will vary for each person, depending upon their abilities, interests, willingness to engage, and so on. Here are 10 ideas to offer art therapy for seniors.

  1. Coloring books. Coloring has become the new yoga: a way to relax, focus, unwind, and just be. You can find plenty of coloring books with adult subject matter (not X-rated, simply not children’s cartoonish subjects). These include scenic landscapes, tropical venues, geometric mandalas, wine- and cocktail-themed pictures, and flowers. 
  2. Arts & crafts kits. The simplest way to introduce a craft is with a kit that includes the necessary materials, available at art-and-craft stores and online. Think paint by number, decorative coasters, felt art, potholder looms and material, and more. 
  3. Provide materials for doodling and dabbling. Art therapy for seniors doesn’t have to be anything fancy! Consider stocking blank paper, colored pencils, markers, journals, notebooks, etc.
  4. Renew a lost crafting hobby. Ask your loved one if they used to have a hobby in needlework, knitting, crocheting, woodworking, ceramics, paint-by-number, etc. Not only can you possibly help them re-create a hobby, you can enjoy reminiscing with them and learn more about their past.
  5. Draw from memories. Beloved pets, homesteads, friends or family members, favorite landscapes, etc. can do double duty – stir fond memories while stimulating the creative juice. You simply let memory be the guide or use old photos as starters. Some services will create customized paint-by-number kits based on photos. 
  6. Create “outreach” art projects. Thoughtful, positive cards do double duty – they reach out to others, while providing a creative outlet and warm feelings to the artist. Consider thank-you notes to health care workers, family members, police officers and firefighters, clergy, etc. or get-well cards to loved ones or even strangers. Be creative and think beyond the everyday surroundings: patients in children’s hospitals and their family members staying in Ronald McDonald Houses; kudos to favorite politicians; postal workers; and so on.
  7. Classes. Most midsize and large cities have art organizations that offer classes across a range of creative media. A class that spans weeks or months gives a long-term feel and a sense of promise. 
  8. Do-it-yourself art businesses. Franchises and independent businesses across the country offer DIY projects such as painting, ceramics, and potted plants and terrariums. Even better – the whole family can go to play and create together! Examples include Wine & Design and AR Workshop
  9. Engage traveling teachers for group events. If your loved one is living in a community, group art may already be available. If not, consider enlisting an art tutor or teacher to come in on a regular basis to present classes for groups of residents.  
  10. Engage with an art therapist. A trained art therapist can custom a program to achieve richer benefits when it comes to art therapy for seniors. Engaging a professional is advisable for deeper issues such as dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), difficulties related to medical treatment, trauma, and major life transitions. 

Expressive arts also include music, dance and movement, writing, and poetry – even more creative and enjoyable ways to let art enrich life and provide joy and other rich benefits.

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey