Art Therapy with Adults and Aging Populations

By Danielle Swaser

Art therapy involves making one’s internal states, thoughts, and feelings external and tangible using various art media, which can be very healing and self-informative.  Children do this almost automatically.  Kelsey talked about this concept in her recent blog post.  She mentioned how amazing it was to witness children in her open studio instinctually process traumatic events they went through using various art materials, sublimating all on their own.  Children have such great imaginations and creativity that spouts out of their ears!  It is no wonder that art therapy works so well children.

Recently I have had conversations with older adults about art therapy and it has been interesting to find similar thoughts among them.  They told me that when they think about art therapy, and who would benefit from it, children are who come to mind.  One woman explained that, at least here in the U.S., most children already draw and paint and are excited to do any kind of art, so using art as a means for therapy seems logical and very beneficial for this population.  But what about adults?  Because this topic has been brought up so much in my life recently, I wondered if maybe there are many other people out there who share this association with art therapy and children, and perhaps that it warrants some further explanation and exposure of how art therapy can be introduced to, and beneficial for the adult and elderly populations.

As mentioned earlier, it can be more common among children to take part in art activities.  When we grow up and become adults and go further into the aging process, art can be lost and can become a foreign activity, maybe even scary and intimidating.  As I train to become an art therapist, I wonder just how I will introduce the idea of doing art as therapy with the aging population, some of whom may not have engaged in art in a very long time, if at all.  As we set out for our trip to Cambodia, I think of when we will visit the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC).  There will be more adult and elderly women and I envision different scenarios of working with them and incorporating art.  Just how is art therapy beneficial for adults?

As adults, we tend to intellectualize things more than children.  It may be difficult for some adults to take that first step and pick up a paintbrush or chalk and make a mark.  Some may wonder how smearing green paint on a canvas is going to be therapeutic for them (just as an example).  I have recently learned about gerontology.  It is the study of the social, psychological, and biological aspects of aging.  Some of these common aspects of aging need to be considered and addressed when working specifically with the aging population, they are different than when working with children.  According to the Area Agency on Aging (2013), “the aging process happens during an individual’s lifespan and is associated with growth, maturation, and discovery.”  No matter what the age of a client, the art therapist must strive to stay curious and learn about them as much as the client is willing.  As an art therapist when working with the aging population, it may be beneficial to familiarize yourself as to where the client is at in regards to their life stage and how they view the concept of their own aging.  These insights could help in using art as therapy. 

Some therapeutic issues that may bring aging clients into art therapy may have to do with biological aging, the physical changes that reduce the efficiency of organ systems (Hooyman, 2011) such as stroke, cancer, and pain or disability (MHAMD, 2014).  Other therapeutic issues could have to do with social aging, which could involve an individual’s changing roles and relationships with family, friends, and other informal supports, productive roles, and within organizations (Hooyman, 2011).  As well as involving therapeutic issues that have to do with psychological aging.  These could be changes that occur in sensory and perceptual processes, cognitive abilities, adaptive capacity, and personality (Hooyman, 2011).

Keeping all of this in mind, here are a few benefits that art therapy can have with the aging population:

  • The creative process can rekindle new energy and reawaken potential in older adults.
  • Specifically, art therapy can help to increase and sharpen cognitive and perceptual skills, stimulate the senses, and regenerate social interaction.
  • Art can assist in the exploration of legacy and what individuals are leaving behind, such as creating and writing a memoir book.
  • Art can help manifest a sense of self-worth and foster reflection on life.

(Wald, 2003)

  • From a systems approach, art therapy can enhance relationships between the elderly and their families by bringing everyone together and helping to establish better understanding.
  • Art can cultivate humor and allow for expression of fear, anger, and grief surrounding the concept of death and dying.
  • Focusing on creating can transport clients into art and experience relief from illness related to stress and medical conditions.

(Wadeson, 2010)

Recently my mom has gotten back into art.  She has been exploring watercolors and different watercolor paper.  She meets quite regularly and paints with another watercolor artist who has been teaching her some techniques.  Since my mom has started painting I have noticed positive changes in her and her outlook on life.  She explains that “when I paint it is similar to a meditative experience. It feels freeing and allows me to let go of my thoughts and stressors of everyday life.   I am transported into a different state where I can be totally absorbed in my art process.  I can concentrate on color and the composition of my artwork.  It is so soothing.”  Although my mom is not in art therapy, this is a wonderful example of how art can have beneficial effects on an adult.  Here is one of her artworks.




Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, Inc. (2013). What is normal aging? Retreived February 3, 2014, from

Artwork by Rasma Swaser (2014).

Hooyman, N.R.; Kiyak, H.A. (2011). Social gerontology: A multidisciplinary perspective (9th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education. ISBN 0205763138.

Mental Health Association of Maryland. Mental health and aging: Physical changes. Retreived February 3, 2014, from

Wadeson, H. (2010). Art Psychotherapy. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Wald, J. (2003). Clinical art therapy with older adults. in C. Malchiodi (Ed.), Handbook of art therapy (294-307). New York, NY, Guilford Press.


4 thoughts on “Art Therapy with Adults and Aging Populations

  1. Art therapy with elderly clients from my working experience is very different from working with children. The elderly don’t like to share too much, are very self critical & need lots of support & guidance. I plan sessions around positive psychology – as most of them are not in sessions by choice & these go very well. Doing sessions with watercolours & mandala templates is extremely relaxing & clients sink into a real flow. It is wonderful when they do share their thoughts.

  2. I am an adult in art therapy and there’s so little out there about my age group (30’s) participating in art therapy. I’ve found it really beneficial in helping me communicate when words fail me. I started my own blog about my journey thru art therapy because I could find so little information from a clients perspective in the hope that it will encourage other adults to consider art as a therapy choice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s