The Creativity Connection - Art Therapy Groups for Seniors

Art therapy, a holistic approach to healing, growth and change, improves physical, emotional and spiritual conditions. It is used as a stimulus for the aging group as they sort through life changes and losses, and is used therapeutically with seniors in crisis and with the frail and debilitated.

Seniors may engage in a life review through the creation of a Mandala (circular drawing) to hold memories that stand out over various stages of life. Through this process a sense of wholeness and unity of self results. Past issues are brought to the surface for reflection, and life events are celebrated. The use of life review in a group setting through art images lends itself to shared stories and shared problem-solving. This senior was deaf and mute from birth. She communicated with the group through her Mandala, portraying her life in China, her immigration to Canada, and the building of her family. Art therapy provides a nonverbal, visual means of communication for those whose language skills are compromised e.g. Dementia, Stroke.

Health issues are addressed through spontaneous art making. Seniors are guided into body sensations through guided imagery, music, and relaxation exercises. They are directed to “not think, just paint” in order to tap into the symbolic language of the right brain. Body sensations are externalized through spontaneous art images, releasing repressed emotions and memories from body tissue. This woman suffers from fibromyalgia and was able to discuss its impact on her health, loss of her husband, a life time of stressful employment, and her increasing sense of isolation. The making and sharing of art images stimulates caring and support from group members and releases emotions trapped as psychosomatic symptoms. It is a safe and natural form of communication.

Art therapy fosters creativity, and creativity is directly connected to longevity. The creative process of art expression lifts morale, increases cognitive skills, decreases neuroses, stimulates the senses, and brings new energy. The introduction of a wide variety of art materials (clay, paint, pastels, markers, charcoal, sparkles, etc) creates an atmosphere of free child-like play. Seniors may begin in a playful way but they soon enter a transitional state, connecting with the unconscious to recall forgotten or repressed material. This information can be surprising and healing, and brings forth inner wisdom. This senior created Reiki hands out of clay, symbolizing receiving and giving hands. As the hands dried they split apart. She saw this as a symbol of our need to leave earthly possessions behind, let go, and be unburdened as we enter the state of death.

Mask-making may be used to express various aspects of the self, including the Shadow. This woman had neglected to decorate her mouth, leading to recognition of her inability to speak up for herself and the problems this created in her family and her life.

It is important that group members process art images at their own pace, to be free to be original, and to feel a sense of self-worth and integrity. Group rules are put into place to create a safe and nonthreatening atmosphere, where members can speak about their art without interference or analysis by others. Many seniors are initially bashful about creating art. They are told that “anything they do is fine,” there are no restrictions or judgments, and by playing with the materials creativity and free association take over, absorbing them in concentration. Such absorption distracts members from psychological needs and physical pain and they are able to release emotions in the art object. This senior made a clay candle holder to assist her in grieving for a lost grandchild.

The making of creativity dolls out of various materials is another means of externalizing and honouring the Self. This senior represented the four seasons for balancing and nurturing, and the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. The wings are concerned with spiritual life and the awakening and connecting with the divine. She added a strand of pearls to represent getting in touch with pearls of wisdom and her own inner wisdom. The throat is red to symbolize her need to develop communication and unblock her dry throat and mouth.

Art therapy groups for seniors enhance creativity, cognition, sense of wellness, social connection and support, spirituality, problem-solving, and sense of pride.

Marilyn Magnuson MSW RSW CCAT