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Art Therapy For Senior Citizens

Updated on April 19, 2017
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.

One Of My Classes


Six Steps To Creating Your Own Art Therapy Classes

Anyone who has put brush to paper knows the exhilaration of design, the pleasant calm of pleasing colors, the magical moment when images appear. Having painted all my life, I've known the joy and peace of being carried away by paint and brush. Now I find it's not just art; it's "art therapy". This realization came when I began teaching watercolor painting to senior citizens through the Community Services department of my city's Parks and Recreation Department some fifteen years ago. At first it seemed just a nice diversion for the seniors but it has transformed into an event most seniors will not miss for love, money, or doctor's appointments. Most recently, I was approached by eight siblings who thanked me for saving their mother's life. They said that before coming to paint with me, she had no interest in life; taking her medication, she ate and slept, nothing more. They were expecting a funeral soon. Then a friend brought her the center where I was teaching a watercolor class. Now she is angry if any of them should try to cut into her painting time. She may not be the next Grandma Moses, but how many of us are? I don't expect my work to hang in the Louvers later, but it doesn't stop me from expressing myself creatively with color.

Many of the senior citizens I have taught have decided to deepen their knowledge in the art field by taking drawing or additional painting classes at the city college. I take this as a complement. Most tell me they had no idea there was any ability there and now could not see themselves without art in their lives.

Do you have a desire to help people? Consider starting a similar class in your community.

The Science Of Happiness

“Everyone has talent at twenty-five; the difficulty is to have it at fifty.”

— --Edgar Degas

Plein Aire Painting

One of my students painting in the park.
One of my students painting in the park. | Source

The Benefits To The Elderly Are Many

Improved eye-to-hand coordination

Improved concentration

Calming effect/lower blood pressure

Colors invigorate, cool and calm, enrich

Self esteem boost when friends and family see results

Confidence builder

Reason for leaving the house, interacting with people

Reason for engaging in life and enriching relationships


“A room hung with pictures is a room hung with thoughts.”

— --Sir Joshua Reynolds

1. Watercolors

Watercolors are relatively inexpensive and require less time to complete a picture so they are my medium of choice. Because I was working mostly with beginners, I decided not to spend the extra money on archival quality paper, and bought a cheaper grade wood-pulp paper. Yes, it will yellow with age but the seniors don’t mind and the city can afford to supply it.


Happy Artists

Lynda | Source

2. Bring The Paper Drawn And Ready To Paint

In the beginning, I tried to teach the elderly to draw their own picture but they lacked the experience and the confidence. The entire hour was taken up in the drawing process and no one had time to paint. Those seniors who already know how to draw probably won't be taking an "art therapy" class. Those who will benefit most probably don't know the first thing about drawing. I realized early on that it was the painting part that gave them the most pleasure and therapeutic effects, not the drawing. That's when I started drawing the pictures at home. I'll explain how I did this below.


“Art’s whatever you choose to frame.”

— --Fleur Adcock

3. Create An Image They Can Complete In The Time Allotted


In my case, the city wants me to travel around town each morning staying only one hour at each site. It is hard to calculate what a senior may be able to finish in one hour. In order to make this work, I time myself when I paint the original picture. I figure if I can finish the picture in 15 to 20 minutes, most of my seniors can finish it in one hour. If it takes me longer, no matter how exciting the picture is, the seniors will be discouraged that they couldn't finish it. Even sending them home to finish it doesn't help as most don't have their own paints or brushes and those who do would rather paint with me sitting next to them. This means there had better be few details in the picture.

70 Year Old 2-Stepping

4. Cut A Stencil -- These Are Examples Of Paintings And Stencils I Have Used

Painting with stencil
Painting with stencil

Government Funding

Should the government pay for elderly art therapy programs?

See results

Cut Stencils

When I first began 15 years earlier there were only about 40 seniors painting with me in a given week. After just a few years the numbers increased to about 100 who paint weekly, and some who follow me from one site to the next to paint the same picture again. In order to draw that many pictures all the same I started cutting a stencil for each weeks drawings. I traced the original and using an Xacto blade cut the lines to create my stencil. I tried using a copy machine once but the size and the weight of the paper made the copier inefficient. Also, most copiers use a water-soluable ink that bleeds black when you add water. This looks terrible. Gratefully the city paid for my preparation time.


Paid For By The City Parks, Recreation and Community Services Deptment

Do you believe Senior Citizens should have access to free government programs like this one? When the budgets get tight, the government has to cut programs and usually the elderly and the children suffer most. Should arts therapy programs be paid for by the government or should private organizations pick up the slack. Unfortunately in our area, the only private organizations offering this kind of therapy charge a price most seniors on a fixed income cannot afford. What is the solution? Do you have one?

“Art made for the people and by the people, is a joy to the maker and user.”

— --William Morris

5. Ask Around.

Sunflower and stencil
Sunflower and stencil

If there isn't a program already in place, ask if you can begin one. Believe me you will benefit more that the senior citizens you teach. That's exactly what I did. Before I asked there was no painting program for the senior citizens. I was calling to see if there was a children's program with the city Parks and Recs department that I could teach for. I was transferred from program to program until the lady in charge of the senior program got me. She said she would ask the seniors if there was an interest and get back to me. Since I was sure I had gotten the royal run-around, I didn't really expect her to get back to me. However, two weeks later she called me. She had indeed asked the seniors and there was interest in getting a painting program going. She practically hired me sight-unseen. She warned me that when the seniors were tired of me that I would be out. I figured that would tire of it in 6 months to a year. To my surprise the program went on and on picking up more and more participants. I was given an award by the city mayor for my contribution to the elderly. I feel humbled and honored to work with them. They are dear people.


6. Dos And Don'ts

My Cartoons About Trained Brushes


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 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.

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.

“Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”

— --Chinese Proverb

About Me As An Artist

"Persimmons" | Source

Art Therapy for Older Adults

They Come And Go

I've been painting for many years. I love oils and acrylics but watercolor has the appeal of working fast, costing less and transporting easily. I can take watercolor out on open-air outings with little mess or fuss. Oils have the bad habit of smearing on the way home. I have won many awards over the years, including my signature membership with the Society of Western Artists. Teaching art is just a way to get to paint all the time.My philosophy has been to encourage everyone in their art. One little (short) elderly lady who painted with me for the first time was very skittish and hesitant with her brush. She kept saying that she was making a big mess and she was good for nothing. I hate this kind of talk from anyone, so I went out of my way to praise her and her small effort. Her first paint was really not that good, but I praised it like it was a Rembrandt. She left encouraged and came back the next week. I made her my special project, making sure she got lots of attention and praise. Soon she was turning out fabulous work (really). But by this time her friends and her daughter who came with her, began teasing her calling her "Teacher's pet, teacher's pet." By that time she was the teacher's pet. She was dear and special to me. She will live forever in my heart. That dear sweet lady passed away this spring. I write this with a tear in my eye. For you must know, working with seniors, you will see some of them pass before you are ready to see them go. Dearest Betty, save a seat for me in heaven. We will paint the celestial shores together.


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    • profile image

      Diana Davis 2 months ago

      Diana Davis

      I work with older adults as a caregiver and am a college student. I did an independent study on alternative therapies and a whole new world opened up to me. I have worked with older adults in many different stages in their life many with dementia. This article has encouraged me greatly and what a fantastic way to reach into their creativity and keep them active and engage. I might see about doing the same thing.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 2 months ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Art is vital to health in my experience! In GED classes we included arts and achievement in math and English skyrocketed. Buzz Aldrin promotes arts added to STEM to make STEAM classes.

      I even am tking up art as an older adult. Thanks for the article.

    • profile image

      Erika 9 months ago

      Hello. I'm just wondering if you are actually an art therapist. You may not be aware of this but if you don't have a degree in art therapy you really shouldn't be calling your art classes "art therapy".

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 9 months ago from Philippines

      I think you are doing a truly lovely thing for your community. The seniors whom you are making very happy are so blessed by your kindness and generosity of time and patience. Bravo!

    • profile image

      Annie 10 months ago

      Absolutely inspiring....I teach seniors how to use and be safe with Apple iPads and Mac computers. I try to encourage the crossover in fun and joy when discovering articles like this or should I say Links. As I am always learning further in my skill so I can. Continue to keep up and teach, I find my art workshops give me a balance. I will definately be sharing this Link with my younger group at Watercolour classes. Thank you for posting these inspirational videos......

    • Gina Welds-Hulse profile image

      Gina Welds Hulse 14 months ago from Rockledge, Florida

      Great tips! I did a program with Seniors many years ago that involved all the arts. It was very eye-opening. I also worked for 6 years in the Juvenile Detention system using art as therapy. I learned so much from that experience as well. More recently, art has been my own personal therapy dealing with chronic illness myself.

      Thank you for this article. You have given some great tips, and I will certainly be implementing some of them.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      I'm so very happy that you got good ideas from this, Sunnydays. Thanks for commenting.



    • profile image

      Sunnydays4all 2 years ago

      thank you for your wonderful article. I'm looking to change my career from high stress business to teaching art in MA. Your article gave me some great ideas.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Home Care Edmonton,

      I appreciate the visit and the comment. I found my senior citizens really loved to come every week just to see what art piece I was going to present next. The only one they really didn't like much was the painting of a cow. lol.

    • profile image

      Home Care Edmonton 2 years ago

      I really enjoy to read your articular! i think this is very amazing idea


    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 4 years ago from Fresno CA

      @Corrinna-Johnson: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

    • Corrinna-Johnson profile image

      Corrinna Johnson 4 years ago from BC, Canada

      Wow! I really enjoyed reading this article! I think this is a wonderful idea and the seniors in your community are so blessed to have you as their teacher and friend.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 4 years ago from Fresno CA

      @John Dyhouse: It's so true. They can't be rushed, but that is the beauty of working with them. You learn to slow down and enjoy the moment, too.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 4 years ago from UK

      A great lens and a very worthwhile idea. More artists should be giving back to their communities in this way. Great idea to provide stencils. I know from experience that too short a time is provided for older people who are naturally slower to really enjoy the painting

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 4 years ago from Fresno CA

      @delia-delia: They are such a joy and such funny people. Too bad society tends to neglect them. Thanks for liking my lens!

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 4 years ago

      What an awesome lens! I love teaching seniors as's been a while and might get back into it...thanks for sharing your love for art and teaching deserving seniors.