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Art Therapy For Senior Citizens

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

Five 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 a drawing or additional painting classes at the city college. I take this as a compliment. 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.



1. Watercolors vs other media

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 program can afford to supply it.

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

— --Sir Joshua Reynolds

Happy Artists




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 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

My sample with the stencil I created for it.

My sample with the stencil I created for it.


Time Sensative

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 a few details in the picture.

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70 Year Old 2-Stepping

Examples Of Paintings And Stencils I Have Used

Painting with stencil

Painting with stencil

Government Funding


4. Cut A Stencil

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 week's drawings. I traced the original and using an Exacto 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-soluble ink that bleeds black when you add water. This looks terrible. Gratefully the city paid for my preparation time.


City Programs

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

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?

Sunflower and stencil

Sunflower and stencil

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

— --William Morris



5. Ask Around.

If there isn't a program already in place, ask if you can begin one. Believe me, you will benefit more than 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.


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

— --Chinese Proverb

Art Therapy for Older Adults

Leave Comments

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on February 28, 2021:

Micha ELa,

I have several articles on HubPages about watercolor and where to start, what to buy, and how to begin. I hope you look into some of them. You may find some inspiration there. Thanks for commenting.



Micha ELa from Philippines on May 01, 2020:

I'd love to enjoy art but doesnt know where to start.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 03, 2018:


I'm sure you will do great. You seem to be taking on a treat deal: sketching and painting. I applaud you. Don't worry about what to say. They will do most of the talking. It seems to me from my experience that many/most long for someone to just listen to them. And they have so many stories about life and all they have lived through. Just prompt with a few questions about husband/wife and kids or grandkids and they will tell you more than you ever wanted to know. If you are talking about the subject matter for the art, keep it simple is a good rule of thumb. Use fruit or simple flowers to start. Move to landscapes that have few details like buildings and trees. They want to feel successful because they often feel they just can't do what they used to do when they were younger and it makes them feel less than. So art that makes them feel they've accomplished something is stellar. Thanks for commenting. Feel free to ask me anything else you may feel unsure about.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on October 03, 2018:

Cathy Rosa,

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 will in future call my beneficial art classes therapeutic art. It's not a bad suggestion. Thanks.



Cathy Rosa on July 02, 2018:

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 Thearapists 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.

Angie on June 25, 2018:

Hi I`m a rising senior in high school and i`m pretty shy around most people but, I`ve read your article and i can`t even begin to tell you how inspiring this was for me. I`m doing a art class for senior tomorrow for the first time and i have the option of doing it or not, and i`m paid to do it by the way. But, i`m not sure what to do or what to say, i feel like i`m going to say something that will offend them or make a fool of myself in front of my elders. I really want to make this fun for them and engaging, they`re in a senior citizens home and i can`t imagine what some of them may feel everyday or if their families visit often or not. I would greatly appreciate some pointers from an artist like yourself or anybody willing to give me ideas! I`ll be teaching a sketching class so, they won`t be given the colors and proper materials. Thank you for your time.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 07, 2018:

Diana Davis,

I'm so very glad you agree with me that art is therapeutic. There is a bit of controversy about it but no one can deny the seniors benefit and respond strongly to that creative side of things. I'm very happy to hear about college students studying alternative therapies. We throw pills and drugs at way too many simple problems these days. Thanks for commenting.



Diana Davis on February 11, 2018:

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 from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on January 28, 2018:

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.

Erika on July 21, 2017:

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".

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on July 17, 2017:

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!

Annie on June 03, 2017:

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 from Tampa, Florida on February 02, 2017:

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.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on December 15, 2015:

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



Sunnydays4all on December 08, 2015:

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.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on August 16, 2015:

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.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 22, 2014:

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

Corrinna Johnson from BC, Canada on April 22, 2014:

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.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on April 14, 2014:

@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 from UK on April 14, 2014:

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

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on November 09, 2013:

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

Delia on November 09, 2013:

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.

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