Art Therapy and Working With Senior Citizens

Updated on October 17, 2019
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.


My Background as an Artist

I've been painting for many decades. 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 and recently won the Best of Show award at the SWA Annual Show. On top of that, I recently earned my master's degree in children's book illustration.

Some people try to turn back their odometers. Not me, I want people to know 'why' I look this way. I've traveled a long way and some of the roads weren't paved.


My Teaching Philosophy

Teaching art for me is just a way to get to paint all the time. My philosophy has been to encourage everyone in their art. One small 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. To me, it means someone in her past has convinced her that she has no talent or no creative ability. So I went out of my way to praise her and her every small effort. Her first painting was really not that good, but I praised it like it was a Rembrandt masterpiece. 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.

Age and Loss

Seniors often have more than just aging to deal with. With aging comes aches and pains they never had before plus the grief of loss. There is the loss of family members and loved ones, loss of mobility, even loss of lifestyle as they cannot afford what they used to be able to. Many seniors have to deal with theft of their savings and even their possessions from family members or trusted “workers” that come into the home to help and leave with their keepsakes. There are many ways for seniors to improve their days by keeping busy and creative. That is one of the reasons I loved creating these watercolor classes for them.

A reporter interviews a 104 year old woman and asks “What’s the best thing about living to 104?” She said, “No peer pressure.”


To Start

The first thing you must overcome in an art therapy class is doubt. They will tell you they aren’t creative or can’t “draw a straight line” or they only “draw flies”. But once you convince them that this is for fun and no one is expected to come up with a masterpiece, you will find lots of curiosity. I can’t tell you how many times people told me with a smile and a twinkle in their eye that they haven’t painted since kindergarten. Isn’t that the saddest thing you ever heard? A lifetime of not exploring creativity and painting.

So this elderly man is telling his neighbor over the fence about his new hearing aide. It cost him $4000 but it’s state of the art, and he can hear perfectly. “Really?” the neighbor says, “so what kind is it?”

The man replies, “It’s about twelve-thirty.”


Bring Everything

The seniors will be more likely to sit down and try this creative outlet if it is all laid out for them. Bring the paper and paint, watercolors and towels, brushes and water, laid out neatly and ready to create. My seniors were very excited to inter in when they saw that I had already drawn the images in pencil on the paper for them. All they had to do was “color in” the lines. This is an important key to art therapy. It is beyond calming to have the hard part done for them and all they have to do is work out colors. This tells a lot about mood and emotional status. For my classes, we just concentrated on the painting. There was no time to go beyond that and the seniors had little desire to go beyond that.

Many enjoyed the painting but didn’t even want to take their paintings home. They just painted and left.

Doing what you love is the cornerstone of having abundance in your life.

— Wayne Dyer

Potential Benefits of Painting With Watercolor

  • Improves eye-to-hand coordination
  • Improves concentration and focus
  • Calming effect/lower blood pressure
  • Colors invigorate, cool and calm, enrich and encourage
  • Self-esteem boosted when friends and family see results
  • Confidence builder
  • Reason for leaving the house, interacting with others
  • Reason for engaging in life and enriching relationships

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

— George Eliot

Why Watercolor

I choose watercolor because of its ease in clean up, its affordability, its vibrancy, and its quick drying time. I met with some resistance at first because many of my seniors had “heard” that watercolor was hard but they changed their minds when I assured them that it wasn’t hard only different than oils and that I was going to lead them through the steps. Once they entered into the experience, almost all of them loved it.

Many ask why not acrylic paint which has just as fast drying time. It’s true that the drying time is fast with acrylic but there are other considerations. One is the expense. It is more costly in more than just the initial cost. Many seniors are a bit shaky and constantly drop their brushes on themselves as well as the floor and other people. Acrylics stain. They also ruin brushes if the paint is left in the brush too long and you can’t monitor everyone as much as you would like. In those respects, watercolor is far more versatile. I did find that Prussian Blue watercolor tends to stain clothing, at least with watercolor you have time to wash it out.

One of my classes
One of my classes | Source

Final Thoughts

That dear sweet “teacher’s pet” lady passed away this last 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers


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      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        4 months ago from Fresno CA

        Sheila Kay Springer,

        Dear lady, I'm sure if you look in your area you may be able to find a similar class to the one I had going on. All the materials were supplied free by the city for my program. You may need to check with the Parks and Recreation Department or the city chamber of commerce to see if they offer a program like this. I totally understand things being tight. My husband and I are currently retired and are struggling as well. Thanks for commenting.



      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        4 months ago from Fresno CA

        Linda Crampton,

        You are so welcome. I really enjoy what I do and what I have done. Thanks for commenting.



      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        4 months ago from Fresno CA

        Eric Dierker,

        That is very nice of you to say so. Thanks for commenting.



      • profile image

        Sheila Kay Springer 

        4 months ago

        I'm a disabled senior and love to work with my hands doing everything from sewing to macrame, painting, working with clay, I even used to make & sell jewelry.Now I just sit here wishing I could do something again, can you please help me with any of these supplies? I can barely afford a loaf of bread. God Bless You All., humbly...S.K.S.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Your classes sound like a wonderful idea for seniors. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and skills with your students and with all of us.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        How cool is this. Thanks for doing that for our people.

      • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

        Denise McGill 

        4 months ago from Fresno CA

        Mary Norton,

        Thank you so much. You have encouraged me with your travel articles too. I do wish we could live closer together and make trouble together. Thanks for commenting.



      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        4 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        I would love to be in your class as you build up confidence and make a difficult thing fun. You have encouraged me with your articles.


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