Art therapy can be an extremely beneficial therapeutic practice for people of all ages. This is especially true for older adults with memory loss or difficulties communicating.

The American Art Therapy Association defines the field as using art media to “help people resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.”

Whether it be drawing, painting, sculpture or some other form of visual art, older adults can create their own art with help from an art therapist. The benefits of this can be immense.

Jenn Ross, an art therapist at Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services, notes that art therapy often helps with “reduction in anxiety and depression, improving personal communication and relationships, and overall improvement of quality of life.”

Communication and Memory Loss

As we’ve previously written about, people with memory loss often have trouble communicating. We assume that memories naturally begin to fade, but sometimes take for granted that the ability to speak and write can also disappear.

Art therapy allows us to reach past the haze of memory loss and draw out unengaged creativity. With the help of a trained instructor, these adults can be guided through a process of either interpreting art or creating it themselves. For people of all ages, this act can be an excellent release and outlet for expression.

Studies in recent years have backed up this line of thinking.

One published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found, “With appropriate structure, patients with dementia can produce and appreciate visual art. Case studies and several small trials suggest that art therapy engages attention, provides pleasure, and improves neuropsychiatric symptoms, social behavior, and self-esteem.”

Simply put, art therapy allows these older adults to communicate and express themselves. This is an invaluable tool for those trying to improve the lives of older adults with memory loss.

Art Outreach

Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services has taken great steps to offer a wide variety of art classes and therapies. These include open studios, watercolor groups and working closely with the Art Institute of Chicago’s Art in the Moment Program – specifically designed for older adults with memory loss.

Ross also notes that, “volunteers from the Art Institute of Chicago come to our communities and give art history-based slide presentations through a program called Art Insights that the residents become very engaged with.” Although Ross would not label these efforts as art therapy, they share the similar goal of engaging older adults through art.

Along with these programs, Ross works individually with older adults to craft individualized programs while also participating in group classes. “I believe this to be one of the most beneficial parts of the practice,” she said, “Because services can be tailored to meet anybody’s needs, as long as the proper guidance is provided.”

Art for Anyone

Ross’ point about the proper guidance is one to take special note of. A qualified art therapist understands how to put older adults in a comfortable situation, and can help them participate in an art therapy session.

If you’re interested in art therapy for your loved one, we recommend that you find an art therapist or group to develop a specific plan built around engaging their creativity. But if you aren’t in the position to provide this kind of assistance, there is no reason why you can’t encourage them to create some visual art at home.

A good place to start is painting. Choose a bright color pallet, as it can be more stimulating. Make a loose plan for a project that your loved one can get started with, but avoid setting end goals. There really is no wrong way to engage older adults with this activity, as long as they are enjoying the experience.

Most importantly, listen to them and respond to what engages them. That may mean you need to try out different mediums. If they don’t connect well to painting, try drawing or coloring with colored pencils. Allow you loved one to indulge their creativity, and keep trying things until they find a medium that feels right.

Focus on nurturing creative impulses and try not to worry about specific outcomes.

“Art therapy has many benefits and can look completely different for each participant,” Ross said. “The flexibility of art therapy services is just one of the reasons there can be such powerful results. The practice of creating, observing, and/or discussing creative practices can help to alleviate many mental health symptoms as well as work in an occupational manner to improve physical mobility and reduce pain.”

It’s remarkable that such a seemingly simple activity can have tremendous impact on the wellbeing of participants. Art connects us to each other and even to ourselves. By helping your loved one dive into art therapy, you may  help them reignite a spark in their lives.