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Art Therapy for Senior Citizens: Do’s and Don’ts

Updated on January 12, 2021
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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.


Dos and Don'ts

For a decade and a half, I was privileged to bring watercolor classes to the elderly in my community through a city program. It would still be going on today if not for the budget cuts that brought the free program to an end. These are some of the do’s and don’ts I learned from the experience.


Don't Rush

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 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.

Show them but don't paint for them.
Show them but don't paint for them. | Source

Don't Paint For Them

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 it for them was just not an option.

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

— George Eliot
My demonstration
My demonstration | Source


Beware. 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, this 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 will be with me someday.

A change of scenery is always nice.
A change of scenery is always nice. | Source

You will never win if you never begin.

— Helen Rowland

Dos And Don'ts

Do remind the elderly that this is Art, not math. It doesn't have to be perfect - only creative.

Don't repaint anyone's work. It leads them to believe they aren't good enough. Even if they ask you to touch it up, you shouldn't. First, you would end up "touching up" everyone's painting from then on. Second, "touching up" would tear down the confidence you were trying to build in them. Encourage them to try to you (and they) will be amazed by what they can accomplish.

Do remind them, "There are no mistakes in art - only happy accidents." Bob Ross

Don't leave them to figure out what to do by themselves. Paint the picture with them to demonstrate step-by-step how you achieved the end result.


More Dos and Don'ts

Do bring a finished painting "sample" for them to see.

Don't create a picture with too many complicated details. Most seniors cannot see as well as they used to and need large areas of color to paint. Big blue skies and big oceans; purple mountains and big green trees; close-up pink and red flowers. On these, you can add a few details to make the picture exciting to look at. It will be a challenge of balance for you each week.

Do bring the drawing already done for each student. If the drawings are already prepared the "fun" can begin immediately.

Don't create anything you could not paint in 15 minutes or your elderly will not be able to finish it in an hour.

Do make sure you have space enough for everyone to paint comfortable and still see the original "sample" picture you brought. A long 8-foot table works best.

Don't point out a "problem" in a senior's painting without drawing attention to something they painted well first. Also, be prepared with a solution to the "problem" you point out, such as adding a shadow, lightening up a dark spot with more water, or blending a "hard-line".

Do enjoy the company of the senior's of your community. They are such wonderful people to be around and full of sage advice and amazing anecdotes.

One of my classes
One of my classes | Source

“Fine Art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together”

— John Ruskin
One of my classes
One of my classes | Source


Encourage seniors to exercise.

My painting program was not the only program for the seniors waiting for lunch. They had some very gentle chair exercises a couple of times a week. There was an elderly generated band once a week that encouraged dancing and singing some oldies. During the summer, there were even some water aerobics classes available. Many would play cards or board games as well as sitting and chatting. It was a great program for people who need to get out and do something. If you want to know if there is something similar available in your town, check out your local parks department and see.


Final Thoughts

I hope you have gotten something out of all these observations. Let me know if you have any questions or thoughts in the comments below.


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