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Therapeutic Art for Senior Citizens Q and A

Updated on October 3, 2018
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.


Sharing Watercolor With the Elderly

A few years back I wrote about my experience teaching a watercolor art class to the senior citizens in my town. It was a very popular article and prompted much discussion. After many years I am still getting questions from people wanting to know more about the benefits of sharing art and painting with the elderly in their community. There are so many that I thought I would share some of the most asked questions and my answers here.


How Does It Work? Who Pays?

Basically, it is one of those things where you need to find a sponsor. Because the elderly usually are on a fixed income and can't afford to pay for the services they need most. I started by calling summer programs like the local adult school or retirement places. When I got nowhere with those I tried the city Parks and Recreation department. They gave me a run around for many days... each department saying they didn't have anything/openings right now but try so-in-so... until I came on a program called Senior Hot Meals. They serve free/ low-cost lunches to the seniors year round at several gathering/Senior sites around town. I thought she was talking about hiring me to serve the lunch and was about to hang up when she said that before lunch she wanted to implement things for the seniors to do while they wait. She had talked to yoga instructors, dance instructors and lifeguards for swimming. She said she would ask the seniors if they were interested and get back to me. Usually, that means you'll never hear from them again but she was serious. Two weeks later she called back and wanted a budget and see my portfolio. She loved my pitch and budget and hired me on the spot. The city program paid for the supplies and an hourly wage for me to go to 10 sites per week before lunchtime. I thought it would be something that would last maybe 6 months or a year... and 14 years later I was still traveling from site to site painting with these lovely people.

My articles above tell how I drew the papers ahead of time because mostly the seniors didn't want to learn how to draw, they just wanted to paint. So we all started with the same drawing and I gave step-by-step directions to end up with a finished painting in one hour. Of course, it had to be sort of small and little detail, but that's what their hands and eyesight could handle best anyway.

I feel sure every town has an arts council or Parks and Recreation department you can check with. Once you have someone picking up the bill, you can breathe easier supplying a need the seniors can't really pay for.


Questions About The Stencils I Used

1. How did you use the stencil?? How did you get the picture into the paper? I must be really dense!
2. What size paper did you use?
3. This is a corker- how would you respond to an activity director who says "oh so this is just like coloring in a coloring book but using watercolor?"


I was buying 80 lb parent sheets from the paper company and they come in 35" x 23" sheets. I would tear the paper into four pieces each measuring about 11.5" by 17.5". That's not very standard really but it works for the seniors. It isn't so small that they have trouble seeing it and isn't so big that they usually can finish it in a little over an hour. The Classic Laid (brand name) parent sheets in natural white aren't archival quality but more like a student grade paper that works well for the amateur and only costs about 80 cents per sheet. I felt like that was affordable.

I started by creating a painting that only took me 15 to 20 minutes. I figured if I could paint it in 15 minutes then the seniors might be able to finish it in an hour (wink, wink). Sometimes I was having so much fun painting that I looked up at the clock and found I spent almost an hour on a picture... which would never work for the seniors. Obviously too many details. So I would have to start over making it more simple.

Once I had an acceptable sample, I traced it onto a piece of drawing paper using a lightbox. Then I cut the stencil from the drawing paper myself using a Xacto knife. I only cut out the lines so I can draw each paper with a pencil through the openings in my stencil.

A lot of people asked why I didn't just photocopy the drawing onto the paper. Two reasons: 1: the paper is too large and too thick and 2: the printer ink is water-based. the moment you touch it with water it runs and bleeds. That won't make a nice painting with grey/black streaks through it. The stencil and pencil was the best method.

As for the art director asking about coloring books... basically, yes. It is a little like a coloring book for the elderly with watercolor instead of crayons. However, your average coloring book paper won't allow for watercolor so you have to use the watercolor paper and draw the designs on yourself. Still, I found that even with the same drawing and my sample, I painted with them to show what to paint first and second... and so on. But each one came out a little different... each senior added their own style and personality... and shakiness.

You'll need to carry all your materials with you.  Invest in a trolley to help get from site to car and back again.
You'll need to carry all your materials with you. Invest in a trolley to help get from site to car and back again. | Source

Do I Need To Go Back To School To Offer These Senior Classes?

It is thrilling to make these sweet elderly people happy by bringing a bit of art into their lives. To answer your questions: No, you do not need to go back to school to teach art to the elderly. You can't really call it "art therapy" without the degree but you don't need it to share what you know... color theory, line, shape, value, etc. I find they don't want to know all the rules and particulars... they just want to paint with a little direction. If you share like that you can't go wrong. Where therapy comes in is color choice and peaceful scenes. Every artist knows that. Blues are calming, purples uplifting, green serene, yellow cheerful, orange invigorating... go with what you know and you can't go wrong.

As for volunteering, you can if you really want but my caution is that if people think they can get you for free then they will find no reason to pay you... ever. Find some city or county agency (local arts council, city parks and recreation, etc.) that would be willing to fund an art program for the elderly and go from there. Some retirement communities or building complexes are willing to fund an art program to keep their clients/tenants happy and healthy. Make sure you tell that that is more than arts and crafts, that it is healthy and therapeutic for the elderly, for their eyesight, dexterity, and well-being. Like I said you can't call it "art therapy" but you can say it is therapeutic, which it is.

Beyond that, I encourage you to jump in. It is very exciting and satisfying. The only real downside is that you will get to know and love these people and without a doubt, some will pass on. It broke my heart the first time it happened. Later I got to expect it but it still broke my heart that a beloved elderly artist wasn't going to be coming anymore. One sweet lady painted with me every week for 10 years. She was 95 and still painting faithfully when one day she didn't seem quite right. Her eyesight and dexterity were off from her usual skill level. Two days later she passed. Steel yourself that it will happen and you will hurt for the loss.

One of my senior projects along side of the stencil I created to draw it for the seniors.
One of my senior projects along side of the stencil I created to draw it for the seniors. | Source

You Can't Call This Art Therapy


This is phenomenal work you do but as a Master's level, Board-Certified Art Therapist with thousands of hours of supervision and extensive training, I ask on behalf of all trained Art Therapists that you call your work something else. It's misleading. Art Therapists are also trained as mental health professionals. We don't own art and you hit the nail on the head that art is tremendously healing. You offer a great gift, I'm not denying that. Maybe call it therapeutic art? Something else, please.


Your point is well taken. Although I also have a Master's level training, it is in art and not mental health. I have great respect for mental health professionals and in no way would I want to be offensive to you or your title. I want to say that I never called myself an Art Therapist. THAT would be misleading. However, I still feel my beneficial art classes were and are therapy. I understand that laymen are taught to be therapists all the time and run therapeutic events. That is all I was doing. Not holding mental health conferences, but offering the benefits of art to my elderly community. Also, I have to say that until I came along there were NO art therapist classes available for the elderly in my city and I still don’t see anything for them along those lines. I was filling a need and hoping by my writings to encourage others to come along in my wake and take up the gauntlet I leave behind to help the elderly with the healing nature of art. Still, I will in future call my beneficial art classes therapeutic art. It's not a bad suggestion.

Have you ever taken an art class? Did you enjoy the process?

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Closing Thoughts

Thank you all for your insightful questions and even the comments that keep me on my toes. I appreciate that art for the elderly is both beneficial and controversial. I actually hate that so many wait all their lives to be able to pick up a brush and enjoy art again. One senior told me he hadn’t painted since he was in kindergarten. Isn’t that sad? Still, my hope is that more artist will come forward and offer the therapeutic benefits of art to the elderly who so richly deserve and desire it.


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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 months ago from Fresno CA

      My dear Rachel Alba, I am a firm believer that everyone has an artist inside just waiting for some time and help to come out. Most people explore some art during their life even when they think they have no talent. Bakers and cooks are artists, home decoration is an art, even putting on your own makeup each day is an art. So should it be any different putting the paint on paper? Some of my dear elderly friends haven't held a paintbrush since kindergarten. Isn't that sad? Thanks for commenting.



    • profile image

      Rachel Alba 

      4 months ago

      What a lovely thing for the elderly (like I'm not one myself lol) to do and for someone like you to teach them. I always wish I had a talent for art. Thanks for sharing this idea.

      Blessings to you.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 months ago from Fresno CA

      Dora Weithers,

      Well, thank you, Dora. I was worried that I was too pushy with that one but she isn't the only one who has written to me asking me not to call what I do Art Therapy. Yet it is and no one denies that it is and has been valuable therapeutic art classes for the elderly. They just don't like me calling it that. So I'm trying to be sensitive and still doing what I can do for those who need it most. Thanks for supporting me.



    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 months ago from Fresno CA

      Mary Wickison,

      Thank you, Mary. I certainly hope I brought some joy to the lives of those sweet people. It was a shame to leave them. They didn't have the funds to hire me personally or they would have, they told me. Since then I have had some physical issues that would prevent me from doing the same thing again. Thanks for commenting.



    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 months ago from Fresno CA


      Absolutely. I can testify to that. I've seen people with Alzheimers come to my painting classes agitated and at the end seem more relaxed and coherent. They loved to tell me stories of their life, especially their childhood and young adulthood, over and over. I didn't mind hearing the same story a dozen times. I found it sweet. Thanks for commenting.



    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 months ago from The Caribbean

      You're a good example of willing service to the senior community. Especially love your attitude and response toward the Art Therapist. Happy that you are not discouraged. What a source of joy you must be to the old folks!

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      4 months ago from Brazil

      What a wonderful way to improve the lives of others. I am so pleased that they saw the sense in hiring you.

      My sister has done some painting classes in the evenings since retiring, and enjoys it.

      Because you didn't give up when others might have, you have brought joy to so many over those 14 years.

    • Glenis Rix profile image


      4 months ago from UK

      I'm reluctant to label myself as a senior citizen as I am only 70 years young, but I have attended art groups since retiring from paid employment and can confirm that it is an extremely relaxing and satisfying way to spend a few hours. Researchers have found that it is a very helpful therapy for those unfortunate people suffering from Alzheimers. Keep up the good work!


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