Art Therapy in Senior Living

Do you remember those art projects you did as a kid? It was a chance to be messy, creative and social. Whether you built a ship out of popsicle sticks, drew a turkey using your handprint or made necklaces out of macaroni, you created something that was an expression of you. 

As we age and take on more adult responsibilities, we often lose touch with this creative, playful side — but it’s never too late to pick up a paint brush or lump of clay and rediscover our creativity. 

And, it turns out, making art provides numerous benefits, especially for seniors coping with the transitions we experience in our later years. 

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a type of expressive therapy “that uses the creative process of making art to improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.” Through a variety of creative techniques, such as painting or drawing, art therapy promotes self-expression. A trained facilitator encourages clients to explore their feelings and memories, often helping clients process grief, loss and other emotions associated with aging.  

Benefits of Art Therapy for Seniors

Making art is good for the mind, body and soul. It helps people express their thoughts and emotions and share memories through painting, drawing and other creative projects. Even if people don’t consider themselves “creative,” art therapy promises many benefits. 

Benefits for the Mind

Our aging brains actually respond well to seeing and making art. The creative process causes the brain to reshape and adapt, increasing its resilience. The act of creating produces new neural pathways and stronger dendrites while also helping the brain’s two hemispheres work together. 

As our brains age, we may face cognitive decline in the form of memory loss, language loss and in other ways. However, research shows that even though our brains age, our creative capacities do not. 

In fact, sometimes the loss of language is what helps a patient unlock their visual creativity. “We think that in patients with language loss, the visual side of their brain stops being inhibited by the verbal side and that allows their visual creativity to be released,” says Bruce L. Miller, M.D., professor of neurology and director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

This is particularly important when it comes to patients with dementia. For those who struggle with language loss, visual arts tap into a different part of the brain and enable patients to communicate in ways they can’t through language. 

Benefits to the Body

One of the more surprising benefits of art therapy is that it can also help with a number of physical ailments, including pain. 

Through slow, deliberate movement, art therapy engages the use of fingers, hands and arms, which can help stimulate sensorimotor function, and promote better circulation and dexterity. It has the added benefit of helping some clients relax. By focusing on creating art, clients may also experience a lessening of pain symptoms. 

Benefits for the Soul and Emotional Health

Research shows that art therapy and expressive art activities are powerful ways to combat anxiety, depression and boredom; reduce social isolation; and improve quality of life for seniors. 

Seniors can use art to express pent up emotions, find an outlet for boredom, and nourish play, all of which can reduce depression and anxiety. Further, research on dementia has shown the link between music and memory recall, and visual art projects can also help clients tap into a cherished memory.  

Each Generations community participates in a collaborative art project, with the intention of bringing staff and residents together with a shared purpose. These shared art projects can provide self-expression while promoting a sense of community bonding. In addition, some Generations communities have art studios and hold art classes for individual exploration as well.

Visit Generations to learn more. Contact us today.

Tips for Finding Purpose Through Art 

  • Making art / creating something can help us achieve personal and spiritual growth
  • If you feel “stuck” in your life, creative endeavors can ease your struggle and help you find purpose and meaning
  • Creative pursuits can be solitary or collaborative. A group project may help us connect with others emotionally while creating something beautiful.
  • Creative outlets can include handicrafts such as knitting and sewing, or traditional arts like painting, drawing, singing, dancing, and writing. The important thing is not the end product, but the process of creating something.
  • A visual journal or sketchbook is one way to create a project that you can keep private or share with others.
  • If you’re having trouble getting started on a creative task, crank up the music. Art and music go hand in hand. There’s no “right” kind of music — just select something that matches the energy you seek and puts you in the right mood.
  • Leave art supplies lying around. You’re more likely to create art when you have easy access to the tools of creativity.
  • Take a walk. Feeling uninspired? Put on your sneakers and start moving. Walking gets your blood pumping, arms swinging and endorphins circulating. While it’s especially beneficial to walk in nature, even a city stroll can stir up your imagination and get your creative juices flowing.
  • Remember, you don’t need a class, a book or permission to begin. You already have everything you need to start tapping into your creativity today.
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