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How to Inspire Senior Citizens to Be Active

Updated on July 23, 2019
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Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

Two of my elderly painters pose for me.
Two of my elderly painters pose for me. | Source

My Search For Arts Programs

My work with senior citizens has given me a few insights into some special needs. Creativity was my introduction to the elderly through a painting program I created. While working with them, I encountered a variety of problems they face daily.

It was when I first moved to this city that I began searching for ways to share my love of art in the community. I tried many places with little luck. I called a number of private schools and day care programs to see if they needed an art and painting instructor. I called the local arts council but they didn’t have a program for artists to teach in the public schools.

I had been lucky enough to be included in a program called ArTree in my former city. They worked with the local arts council to place artists with specific lessons in public school classrooms to enrich the arts programs there. It was a fabulous program that I had participated in for several years before moving. It was quite a shock to find this much larger city didn’t have anything of the sort in place.

One of my classes at a senior center.  Men and women painted with me.
One of my classes at a senior center. Men and women painted with me. | Source

Art Therapy For Senior Citizens

I called some after-school programs and was told that most of the after-school programs were generated through the city parks and recreation department. So my next call sent me to the community service section of the parks only to find they didn’t need me either. However, instead of just dismissing me they kept referring me to other sections within the parks community service. The next thing I knew I was talking to a woman who was the director of a program providing a lunch program for the senior citizens. At first, I was put off because I couldn’t see myself serving lunch, but she explained that the elderly come in the morning and play cards or sit and chat for a few hours before lunch and having an activity like painting might be helpful. As I listened to her talk about her program, I thought senior’s skill level isn’t that different from children and my same program could work for both with some modification. So I pitched her my idea. She listened patiently, asked a few specific questions, and said she would call back if any of the seniors she worked with were interested. By this time I had gotten so used to rejection that I was sure we wouldn’t hear from her again. To my surprise, she actually did ask the seniors and many of them were interested.

At this point, we needed to get together, purchase supplies and schedule where I would go and at what times. It was laid out in a 5-day week, one hour per site and 10 sites to cover per week, all before noon each day when lunch was served. I think the hardest part of this job was driving from site to site each day, loading and unloading supplies, etc. This program was for seniors who still live at home, who have some mobility to be able to come, if not in their own car, then on a bus, and who can function well on their own. For example, most could walk well with a cane or even a walker, but very few needed wheelchair access.

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”

— Mae West


During these 14 years of teaching watercolor painting, I encountered sweet kind elderly people with severe arthritis. One woman had her fingers all twisted up like pretzels but she still wanted to paint. Her main challenge was holding the brush. She got to where she would wear fingerless gloves to warm her hands and to stick the brush in between the fingers to hold it. It worked well. Where there is a will there is a way.

Many of the less severely afflicted arthritis suffers claimed that painting was so enjoyable that they didn’t even notice the arthritis pain and after a few months the exercise of the hands had done them a world of good. Their hands were more limber and they endured less pain when using them. That’s a good thing.

My drawing of my mother's hands.
My drawing of my mother's hands. | Source

Would you go to a senior get-together place when you reach 60?

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Visually Impaired

Other folks had some vision problems and couldn’t see the lines very well. I brought the paper already drawn for them to paint on. For those visually impaired, I found if I used regular white glue with a little dark blue watercolor paint mixed in, I could squeeze the blue glue in thin lines all over the paper. As long as the glue was thick enough and I prepared the paper well enough in advance for it to dry thoroughly, my visually impaired seniors could both feel and see the lines more clearly than just with pencil lines. I literally created a Braille painting paper. And the finished painting looked a little like a stained glass window with the leading in between the colored glass.

One of my senior painters.
One of my senior painters. | Source

Loneliness and Depression

I remember meeting one lady on her very first day at one of the senior citizen sites. Viola had been quite a painter all her life but with oil paints. Watercolor was a bit out of her comfort zone. She sat there staring off into space but I engaged her in conversation and asked about her family. She said her daughter had “dragged” her down there because she thought it would be good for her to get out of the house. The daughter worried that since her husband had died, Viola was wasting away. Then she began painting and told me all about her husband. As she did so, she smiled for the first time. He sounded like a wonderful man and she was glad to talk about him. She was a faithful attendee from that day till the day she passed 5 years later.

Another similar story involved a whole family of children (8 of them) dragging their mother to one of my classes. After a year of painting with me, the 8 of them told me that I had saved their mother’s life. She had an interest in life again and it was because she had a regular painting class to attend that she enjoyed immensely. I find that depression is a serious subject, and after a certain age, you begin losing people you are close to. It is a difficult thing to regain joy without something to put your interest in. I’m grateful for some that interest was painting with me.


It was always a bitter blow to find one of my faithful elderly painters had passed away. I suffered the loss of dozens and dozens before my program was cut due to budget cuts with the city. However, I will always cherish my time with them. I don’t know how much I enriched their lives, but I do know how much they enriched mine. I will never be the same because of their sweet stories and genuine love.

I am the one with the black hat.
I am the one with the black hat. | Source

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