Prescribing Art: Can Art Be Used to Treat Conditions Affecting Seniors?

Two years ago, I wrote a three-part series that shared the wisdom of Katya De Luisa, a dementia educator and author of “Journey through the Infinite Mind–the Science and Spirituality of Dementia.” Besides being a dementia educator, caregiver coach, and author, Katya De Luisa is an art therapist. She describes art as “a window into the inner workings of the mind — and a way to tap into spirituality.”

Two new books have recently been released about art, mindfulness, and using art to treat various conditions affecting seniors. The research behind these books demonstrates that art can play a role in rewiring our brains and triggering the release of neurochemicals, hormones, and endorphins to positively alter our moods. The books are “Get the Picture: A Mind-Bending Journey among the Inspired Artists and Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Me How to See,” by Bianca Bosker, and “Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us,” by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross.

How Is Art so Powerful in Treating Various Conditions that Affect Seniors?

Bosker and Magsamen shared why more health care practitioners are prescribing arts engagement as part of treating conditions including: obesity, heart disease, chronic pain, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, loneliness, and depression. Here are some of their observations about art:

  • The use of certain arts practices to promote healing, well-being, and even longevity provides benefits that are as important as exercise, nutrition, and sleep.
  • Many scientists consider art to be a basic human need. “Art is one of our oldest creations (humans invented paint long before the wheel), one of the earliest means of communication (we drew long, long, long, long before we could write), and one of our most universal urges,” according to Magsamen.
  • Both Bosker and Magsamen recommend that everyone make art a daily practice, based on evidence and experience.
  • According to Bosker, “(a)t its core, art is a physical experience — and that applies not only to music — with its thrumming bass that you can feel — but also to painting and visual arts as well.”
  • “It’s critical to consider the kinds of sensorial experiences you bring into your life because of their power to make you feel, change your mood and affect your body,” said Magsamen.
  • Magsamen also explains that “(a)rt that pushes us beyond our limits helps form new neural pathways that might not otherwise develop in our day-to-day. Exercising these [neural pathways] through art can help build resilience to get us through the suffering and uncertainties of life. Art, music, and design can alter our moods, taking us outside of ourselves. Building that capacity is an evolutionary imperative.”

Additional research concurs with Bosker and Magsamen’s findings about the power of art in healing and treating seniors. Here are some of those findings:

In Montreal, doctors are able to prescribe free museum visits for patients and a limited number of loved ones or caregivers. They do so because an afternoon of art for seniors typically offers a serotonin mood boost and acts as a welcome distraction from chronic pain. The uptick in hormones associated with enjoying an afternoon of art is similar to that offered by exercise, making museum prescriptions ideal for the elderly and individuals experiencing chronic pain that prevents them from regularly engaging in physical activity.

How to Bring More Art Appreciation into Your Life

Bosker and Magsamen stress that you don’t need to have studied art history or spent years going to art fairs to truly experience and appreciate art. You simply need attention and curiosity. Bosker suggests that when you engage with artwork, be mindful and try to notice five things about the piece, either in the work or in how it makes you feel.

They also suggest that people in museums should slow down, be mindful, and truly enjoy the experience. Many museum visitors spend more time reading the description of the art than looking at the art itself. When examining a work of art, be sure to pay attention to the physical form. Examining the artist’s decisions offers you a pathway into the piece of art and a way to engage with that art on your own terms. Lastly, be sure to look for art everywhere, observing things in your life with an “art mindset” to experience the benefits of art every day.

How to Easily Bring Artistic Creation into Your Life

The research studies above are about bringing the art of other people into your life to help stimulate your brain and improve your health. Actively creating art yourself can be even more powerful in helping you increase neural activity and awaken and strengthen parts of your brain. You don’t need to be a natural-born artist or have ever taken an art class to start actively creating art. Here are some simple ideas to bring artistic activities into your life:

  • Attend a “paint-and-sip” event. You can go alone, with your spouse, or with a group of your friends or family members to a “paint-and-sip” event where you will sip wine while being taught how to paint a beautiful piece of art step by step. There are numerous local stores and national chains that provide these opportunities, such as Wine and Design, Painting with a Twist, Paint the Town, Pinot’s Palette, and Board and Brush (which allows you to create dozens of different woodwork items that are pre-cut and easy to assemble and then paint). All of these venues have daily schedules and special events where you can simply sign up on your own or attend with a group of family or friends. Jeannie and I have gone personally to many of these places, and we have arranged staff team-building outings to such venues. The artistic daughter of one of our team members actually teaches at one of these venues. Jeannie and I can personally attest that you do not need have any art skills to create beautiful artwork or even functional items such as trays and wineglasses and cheese boards that you can bring home to treasure forever, even if you think that you have no artistic talent. Jeannie and I both joke that our highest art skill is drawing stick figures, yet we have both walked away from these experiences with beautiful artwork and useful items that we cherish because we made them ourselves, despite our shared lack of natural artistic talent.
  • Attend a “paint your own pottery” event. If pottery is more your style, there are numerous venues where you can make your own pottery and/or paint your own pottery. Venues such as Paint This, Paint Your Heart Out, Paint by You Studio, Create Like Crazy, and Clay Cafe all give you the experience of designing and painting your own pottery, again with skilled instructors to help you every step of the way.
  • Host your own paint-and-sip party, or help a friend host such an event. There are several businesses that specialize in helping you host your own paint-and-sip events. Outlets such as Painting to Gogh and Paint the Town will send you all the art supplies and provide you with a professional instructor to guide you and your guests in creating your own personal masterpieces. Or search Amazon for “sip and paint at home” and you will find dozens of kits that you can order. Then search for local “art teachers” or “painting lessons,” either on Google or through an app such as Thumbtack to find an art instructor who will come to your party and guide you and your guests through every step of the artistic process. Jeannie and I have attended several of these that were hosted by a friend of ours, Rachel, who runs an optical store in Occoquan, Virginia, and they have been a blast! One time Rachel just purchased “paint by number” canvases on Amazon, and there was no instructor. The next time it was painting wineglasses, and she hired a fantastic instructor to guide all the participants in painting a beautiful winter scene onto a wineglass for us to take home. We still have these on display in our home because they came out so well!
  • Forget the event, and just order yourself some DIY adult “paint-by-number” kits. If you search Amazon or Etsy, you will find dozens of adult paint-by-number kits that you can purchase, along with watercolor or acrylic paint kits, brush sets, blank canvases, and easels to hold up your canvas while you paint. Jeannie and I have done this and have spent many a rainy Sunday afternoon leisurely painting away. You only need to buy the easels and the brushes and the paints once, and then you can buy different paint-by-number kits which come with preprinted paint-by-number canvases. We have found that some of these preprinted paint-by-number canvases have way too many tiny areas to paint and ask you to mix different paint colors in numerous different combinations. Our suggestion, and what we have done ourselves, is just ignore the detailed instructions, and “paint outside the lines,” just trying to get something close to what the original artist created. You do not need to strive for perfection, as that will likely create stress, which is exactly the opposite of what you are trying to do. Just relax and paint what you feel or try to roughly capture what the original artist intended, but don’t stress! There are no rules. It’s your home, and no one is judging you on the finished product. It’s going to turn out beautiful regardless of how closely it matches or doesn’t match the picture on the box.
  • Put together puzzles. Almost everyone has done puzzles at some point in their life. Some people love the challenge and some people find it painstakingly tedious and difficult. But if you take your time and don’t stress over the challenge of finding the right pieces, you will eventually finish. And when finished, you will realize that you will have opened an entirely new pathway to artistic expression because what you have done is create a piece of art that you can glue together with puzzle glue or a special adhesive backing and keep forever. Often much better than the cheap cardboard puzzles with a thin laminated photo that peels off are the beautiful and often intricately designed wooden puzzles that you can easily find on Amazon and Etsy. You can even order custom-designed wooden puzzles on Etsy from any photograph you want. The Farr Law Firm logo in the picture accompanying today’s article is a custom wooden puzzle that I ordered and put together and is hanging in our office! These wooden puzzles come with a specially shaped adhesive backing meant to hold them together permanently!

Plan Ahead for Yourself and Your Loved Ones

Art and art therapy can help you and your loved ones in so many ways. Whether you are already an artistic genius or can barely draw a stick figure (like me and Jeannie), take some time to try one of the suggestions above. You won’t regret it. You also won’t regret giving yourself and your loved ones the peace of mind that comes with planning for the future. If you haven’t yet done your estate planning, or if you don’t have a Power of Attorney with asset protection powers, or if a loved one is nearing the need for nursing home care or is already in a nursing home, please call us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Certified Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Care: 540-479-1435
Rockville Estate Planning: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law Attorney: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.