Example of Arts Activities Helping Seniors With Alzheimer’s and Dementia Remember

The following is a guest post by one of our Featured Authors, and an accomplished weaver and fiber artist, Aneesha Parrone. This article is the second installment about Aneesha’s work with residents of an assisted living facility. These residents are senior citizens and elderly adults who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. You can read her first article: Assisted Living Activities for Seniors. The following article describes her journey of leading group art activities with seniors at an assisted living facility. We hope you enjoy it!

Sublime Community Art Activities for Seniors

“When I walk into the room, several women are selecting yarns, untangling skeins. More wander in, some in walkers. There is a grace hanging about the room. Their smiles are gentle. Quietude pervades the room. It is not
energy of silent lack, but that of a garden gently swaying in the wind. “

For the last 5 months, I have been working with art therapist, Sue Wood, in collaboration on an art project with residents of The Retreat Assisted Living Residence in Broomfield, Colorado. We have been fortunate to have partnered with Ballet Nouveau in an exhibit of expressive responses to the Ballet’s performance, Chasing the Sublime. Dance is innate in our expressions as humans. Our breath dances around our hearts as we remember the sublime moments of our lives, and it bursts through in the light of our eyes and our smiles. Chasing the Sublime has been an inspirational springboard for us all to explore our sublime moments and create our own works of art. These are not independent expressions. The movement of the Dance has woven colors of joy through each visit, and is reflected in each work of art. The eloquence of line and shape of body in movement to music, in rhythm with the beauty of our heartbeats, lovebeats, lifebeats is interrelated with the works of art we created.

Sue and I are very aware that here, at The Retreat, no one is defined by the events of his or her life. We are full, lovely human beings. For many, the present “event” carries the name dementia, for some, Alzheimer’s is the declaration. For others, The Retreat is a choice of senior residential living. No one is characterized by a label. Each person has lived a life valued and honored In working with art, we explored various aspects of sublime moments. We came together for a short while to share an experience that involves looms, both frame and table looms, yarn, paint, paper and canvas….and smiles. Providing a balanced art experiences one of reciprocity. Slowly we are experiencing a relationship of joyful sharing. We all have stories that have given us joy or sadness. We have a genuine sharing and interest in each other. Connections begin; an inner tapestry gathers invisible threads. Our dance has begun.

Photos from the Art Activities with Seniors

In this workshop, we talked about how some of us used to write in a journal when we were younger. Some still do. We talked about the secrets we would write. “Today, let’s think about our ‘happinesses’….What gives us that Ah! of joy in our heart….do we have something right now? Is there something from childhood?”

Some pondered the question. We went around the table. “Well, I used to love to play bridge, but we have only 3 people here who play and we need a 4th. Playing bridge gives me that happiness!” Our quilter and newly initiated tapestry weaver was next. “So many things make me happy: painting, music, even playing bridge, too.” Oh! And connections were made. One woman remembered playing jacks and jumping rope with her girl friends, someone else said she loved to play the piano….and then added, “Being alive makes me happy! I want to be alive.” For another woman it was the rag rugs her mother made. Another woman hooked rugs, and a conversation was ignited between the two.

We then taped strips of cloth in front of each person. They would write their happiness and then choose a colorful strip and come and weave them into our community tapestry. Conversations continued. One by one, weavers stepped up to the table loom to weave in their strips of cloth. Somehow our conversation drifted back to the jump rope…Someone remembered the childhood jump rope chant, and bit by bit others chimed in phrases…laughter…joy ! One woman who thoughtfully contemplated what her happiness was continued to untangle threads. When it came her time to weave the strips, she had carefully written, “untangling threads in a basket of yarn.” Happiness and colors became the backdrop of our large fiber art display.

The relationship of artist and workshop participants is very organic. It grows naturally, we accept each other, are open to each other, and the bouquet of trust slowly releases and fills the room. It is not something we have an expectation for, or look for, or even when it wafts through the room, it is not something we long to hold and keep. It simply is or isn’t and it is okay. We have an attunement that will carry over into all our art visits.

As we investigated how we could have fiber dancers express our sublime happiness, workshop participants explored how their own hands could express their creativity.

“These hands, so wrinkled ~ so old… and yet, I look at them and then…Things we have in our heads are interpreted through our hands. I look at hands, even my hands…Oh, I love yours…”

“What is in you hands?”

“She could wave, even if she was tied down.

“I think what you are saying is so profound. Can we find it
in the waving of a flag?”

“Dolls are magical, were even worshipped.”

“You can add more to express other things?”

“I would hug a dream”

“I would hold it close”

“My rabbit expresses a type of chasing the sublime ~ Free ~
Totally, free.”

Through expressive painting, workshop participants have been delving into memories. Sue Wood has initiated and developed an ongoing program entitled, Prisms of Memory. The emphasis is on process…the process of exploring the deep memories, sometime hidden away in secret recesses of the mind. Access to these memories is unlocked through the key of painting. The end product, a work of visual art, is an outgrowth of the true art, which is that of living and remembering life lived. That process is as natural as our breath and as we witnessed Ballet Nouveau on stage, residents of The Retreat were making connections with their own art with enthusiasm. Long after the house lights came up and we returned home, the Dance, continued. We were reminded that our Journey in Life is, indeed, an ongoing process.

Finally, the residents came together for an exhibit reception of their art displayed at Ballet Nouveau. What a delight to watch young dancers take a break from class and join us. One woman, who was a retired school teacher, drew her young audience into a conversation and pointedly asked open-ended questions that allowed the children to consider more deeply what they were doing with their art, the dance. Relationships, bridges, moments of deep sanctity, our conversations were more than mere chatter. The mysteries of life are deep and unfathomable. Through the expression of art and dance we came together for a short while and experienced our Sublime, suspended in the chasms of our heart.


  1. says

    I am an artist and writer aspiring to study Art Therapy in the future. This project is amazing. My grandmum is losing ehr memory as well and is terminally ill. She never did art before, mainly knitting. But I think something like this would be of a great benefit to her. I think I might try some form of expressive art project with her. Thank You for sharing this post!!!

  2. says

    Hi, Jamie ~ You are very welcome. Sue, the art therapist at the assisted living home, and I are very excited about our work. We have also found that many of our friends who have never done art are actually very talented and enjoy sharing their expressions and enjoy participating. Sometimes, someone will only want to watch and that is ok, too. The giving and receiving boundaries are so blended, we simply “are” ~ a true gift of experience for all of us. I wish you much joy and success in all of your endeavors.

  3. Elesha says

    I would so love to be an art therapist but obtaing a masters degree at my age seems overwhelming. I went thru a bad time in my life where art and music therapy was my saving grace. It helped me to escape the madness around me. I was considering working with seniors, children and developmentally challenged but I’m not certified. Good job! Love your work.

  4. says

    Hi Elesha ~

    I am so happy to hear of your interest in art therapy. Oftentimes, the areas where we are helped most are also the areas we can be of great assistance. As a life-long learner, I feel we are never “too old” … I know many people who have gone back for degrees in higher education after they were 50. 60 and even 70 years old. For myself, I have found that surrounding myself with people who support my dreams and relaxing into my dream is the best way to open doors of possibilities. When I teach and when I do my own art work, I find if I leave the inner critic at the door and focus on my abilities rather than my limitations, things blossom and open. Limitations are, for me, simply expressions showing me to try a different approach…especially if it is with something or someone I love. As Rumi wrote, “…sing a love song to your existence. You can never overdo praising your own soul. You can never over-pamper your heart.”

  5. Virginia Murphy says

    Thank you for sharing,
    and so too will I…
    your work shows your caring,
    as will my reply!

    I was feeling downward,
    Left out of life,
    You focused me upward
    To create with delight.

    Do you think you might make up
    A list of ideas,
    Things that would shake up
    Us old souls, my deahs?

    So folks will not “shelf” us
    Or think we’re “ka-put”,
    Things that would help us
    Get out of our rut?

    Thanks ever so much
    For your sensitive touch! Ginny Murphy
    Ridgway, Penna.

  6. says

    Dear Ginny ~ I did not see this comment until now ~
    Thank you for your kindness, your creativity and awareness of your deep insight into who you are. Ginny, you, too, offer to me an inspiration ~ What a joy to share a communion of spacious joy that comes from receiving and giving….Your creative homework for me of creating a list is a delightful challenge…Thank you ! First on my list is to keep on risking the sharing—yes, the sharing of your creativity! I bow to you this morning,as you are a Beloved teacher for me ~ Thanks! ~ Aneesha

  7. Michelle says

    I would love a career in Art Therapy…. I am working towards a degree in Therapy/counseling and have always wanted to be an art therapist. The only problem is I can’t draw; however I am very creative and love art and crafts etc. I know this may seem like a crazy question, but can you be an art therapist and not be ale to draw?

  8. says

    Great ideas and nice contribution. I am taking care of my mom who is challenged by Alzheimers. I am going to look into working with fiber because she used to love to sew. Thanks!

  9. says

    What a beautiful article. I am a graduate student in a clinical psychology doctoral program. I am also a psychology assistant and artist. I love working with the elderly and my grandparents were my best friends growing up. I am also doing my dissertation research on Expressive Arts Therapy used with the aging and would be interested in speaking to any art therapist who uses the creative arts with the elderly. I will be doing short phone interviews soon and if you would like to participate please email me at stevenpappas415@yahoo.com Thanks so much for you article and inspiration!! Excellent passion and work.

  10. says

    Hi ~
    Lisa, I am sorry I didn’t see this earlier ~ Yes, I am excited you will be working with your mom with fibers, especially if she used to sew. I have found that when some of the folks I work with have done anything fiber related, they have a strong “muscle memory” and even when they insist they don’t know what they are doing, their muscles are “remembering” and the techniques with weaving and felting are successful and enriching. Gentle reassurance and a successful project oftentimes restores calm and confidence during times of frustration.

  11. Lolly says

    Thank you for this web site. I am an Activities Asst. for late stage Alzheimer’s and Dementia.and have been looking for a web site to find more things to do with my residents in art. it is some times hard to find things that they may like I love my residents and want to do anything for them to see them and so see their simle on there faces is priceless . Bless this web site and you for sharing your gifts. Lolly

  12. says

    Hi Lolly ~ Lately I have had a lot of success with one group doing purposeful art discussions. I have a mini art history power point with music and then we discuss one of the slides in depth…simple guided questions…lots of affirming encouragement and acknowledging specific points a person makes. Usually someone will pick up the thread and take it one tiny step further, which leads to a question and then further discussion. One woman who loves to come to the class but doesn’t participate in the art actually carries on lively conversational art dialogue with other members of the class when we use this format for class.

  13. says

    I am a gerontology student looking for ways to use art for dementia/Alzheimer’s patients to help with memory recall. This might include journaling projects, or other creative art projects. Can anyone share some good projects, or report to me on what they have found to be useful practices in dealing with elderly and their overall well-being?
    Thanks for your help.

  14. says

    Hi Virginia ~ When I work with anyone, I keep in mind that we are all on this journey of life together….Would I want someone to see me as broken or would I want someone to celebrate how I am succeeding? Genuinely welcoming people into the class (and myself if I feel resistance to the lesson, to the outcome, to the person)seems to open the space for allowing more beneficial responses to happen. Acceptance seems to be the foundation to any of my classes. For the last 2 years I have been introducing some art history powerpoint presentations and the things that I keep in mind are: Keep it Simple Be Direct Keep it to the senses. When I show a slide I ask what do they see? And we start discussiing from there. I ask what colors did the artist use? and we discuss that. I ask how does this painting make you feel? And we discuss. Sometimes some of them fall asleep…none of them leave …and most of them participate in the art project that ensues. I try not to judge…One woman has come to about 95% of my classes for the last 3 years, ad never participates. She just sits through the class and sometimes comments on what others are doing. Last Oct or Nov she actually participated in the class—only drew one small circle….Then each class since then, she has participated a little more and now is fully participating. Her process for allowing just took a little longer than others. Also, celebrating the responses that are shared by those who are more able, often opens doors to memories of others. Yesterday,as we painted butterflies, one woman who has a very good memory, remembered poems from when she was in 2nd grade and began to recite them. That stimulated the memory of another participant who has memory challenges to remember a tree that attracted butterflies in the summer. That lead to more discussions about butterflies. The more relaxed the atmosphere, the more people share. We had someone new yesterday who had come with her visiting daughter. She drew and painted a butterfly and did well. I just took it for granted that all participate. She kept saying she wasn’t an artist, yet she did very well. When her daughter left, she told me that was a milestone.

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