Unlocking the Creative Mind Art Therapy for Enhanced Cognition in Seniors

By Surabhi and Sumedha Shastry, Rachel Ni, and Abigail Chao

Pristine white canvases, dollops of paint composed of the primary colors, and chairs waiting to be occupied. The scene was set, and all that was left was for the seniors to enter the room.

Arriving one by one, in pairs or groups, the seniors were varied by their demeanor coming into the event. Some walked in with a huge smile on their face, ready to engage in the event and create art. Others were a bit more hesitant, walking in with some caution in their step. Despite this difference, everyone came together and painted.

This is the scene during the art therapy event hosted by The HeartWise Project along with the Lutheran Village at Miller’s Grant (LVMG). The HeartWise Project, a student-led service organization, was founded in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Our mission is to bring joy and support to seniors through various programs. With the aim of expanding our scope in light of the ongoing shift towards in-person activities, we, the HeartWise Project, carried out this art therapy session with the Lutheran Village at Miller’s Grant (LVMG), a retirement community that provides residents with either short or long-term care through its senior living and assisted living options.

Senior citizens often deal with social and physical isolation. As such, some find it hard to connect with younger generations and suffer from loneliness. Many senior citizens have difficulty performing daily tasks, such as buying groceries, going to the doctor, or even taking a walk in the park. A proven method to lessen loneliness is art therapy. Art therapy can help people express themselves more freely, improve their mental health, and improve interpersonal relationships. In art therapy, clients are guided through expressing themselves through art, usually by answering questions and discussing the work of art and how they felt. The members of the HeartWise Project hosted an interview with Dr. Len White, where they discussed the more in-depth components of the way the brain perceives.

In a more biological context, art can “stimulate neural connectivity,” as noted by Dr. Len White, an Associate Professor of Neurology at Duke University. Aging brains experience a decline in neural connections and axonal loss, interrupting the transmission of information between neurons. Many age-related neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, accelerate this loss of neural connections. Art, within this context of neural connection loss, fosters the formation of new connections and facilitates learning in the elderly.

During the event, we allowed the seniors to paint anything they wanted, on either a rock or a canvas– some even used both because they enjoyed the first one! Some jumped in right away with the paintbrush, already mixing colors and adding them to the canvas, and others looked for inspiration around the room as they thought of what to create. “What are you drawing?” said the president of Heartwise during the session. “The tree over there. Let’s see how it turns out,” one of the seniors replied.

One senior painted a tree that was in her direct view, laughing every time someone complimented her on the drawing. Another senior, while drawing an ocean landscape, shared her cherished summer tradition. As she began reminiscing about her favorite orange creamsicle ice cream on the boardwalk and the countless seashells still preserved in a ziplock bag to this day, she exemplified Dr. White’s assertion that art helps “[tap] into deeper resources relating to past life experiences from personal autobiographical memories, preferences, and inner thoughts and [helps] build associations, thus leading to stronger and new connections.”

An essential piece of our art session was to allow the seniors to express their feelings, so we engaged in casual conversation topics, including previous employment experiences and the aspirations of the teenagers.

As the canvases dried, we asked the seniors to explain their art pieces and how they felt while painting. Did they feel calm, stressed, or indifferent? This reflection was very heartfelt as the seniors could bond over shared experiences.

In order to quantify the benefit of the art therapy on their well-being and mental state, we asked the participants nine questions and asked them to rank their responses based on the Likert scale, which ranged from 1-5 (1- Never, 2-Rarely, 3-Sometimes, 4-Often, 5-Very Often). The first survey was conducted in-person, immediately before the event. The second was conducted right after the event concluded.

  1. After/Before the art therapy session, how often did you experience a positive mood?
  2. After/Before the art therapy session, how often did you not feel anxious or stressed?
  3. After/Before the art therapy session, how often did you feel sad or down?
  4. After/Before the art therapy session, how often did you feel motivated in your everyday activities?
  5. After/Before the art therapy session, how often were you able to cope well with daily challenges and stressors?
  6. After/Before the art therapy session, how often were you able to remember details?
  7. After/Before the art therapy session, how often did you experience difficulty in concentrating or focusing?
  8. After/Before the art therapy session, how often were you able to express your thoughts and ideas clearly?
  9. Before the art therapy session, how often did you engage in activities that stimulate your cognitive abilities (e.g., puzzles, reading, learning new skills)?

Another key finding was the decrease in anxiety and stress in the seniors. Prior to therapy, participants had an average score of 3.38 (according to the mean responses of questions 2 and 5), indicating some level of unease. Following the art session, this score increased to 4.63.

The frequency of the score of 4s and 5s increased from 65.28% to 98.61%. We observed a general pattern of an increase of higher scores compared to those before the event. Beyond the numerical values on the chart, a deeper narrative emerges. We see a transformation in the emotional state of the seniors to one of greater happiness– something we all strive for.

As Dr. White aptly notes, “Our brains have evolved for social relationships.” These intricate neural pathways that facilitate our social interactions have evolved over millennia, finely tuned through the ages. As we delve deeper into this facet of human cognition, it becomes increasingly evident that our pursuit of happiness is intricately intertwined with our relationships.

The event provided an opportunity not only for seniors to enhance their mental well-being but also to connect with younger generations. Older generations face the challenges of social and physical isolation that often accompany retirement. Many seniors enthusiastically described the event as “uplifting” and expressed their desire to see more such gatherings in the future. The group plans to continue working to bridge intergenerational gaps and bring joy to seniors in our community through similar events, collaborating with more senior centers and involving more teenagers.

As observed through the stories of these seniors and the discussion with Dr. White, engaging with older generations strengthens intergenerational ties in meaningful ways. Conducting this art therapy session is just one step closer to inspiring others to make a difference in the lives of seniors. It’s time to step forward and be involved, building a more compassionate and connected community for all.

About the Author:

The HeartWise Project is an international student-led service organization that aims to bring joy to seniors. The board is made up of Surabhi Shastry, Sumedha Shastry, Rachel Ni, and Abigail Chao, seniors from Ellicott City, MD. We’ve currently recruited 300+ student volunteers from 10 countries and 21 states, and we provide these videos to 60+ facilities all over the US. In addition to these videos, we also provide friendly calls to seniors through our Call Companion Program. If you are a student interested in joining us or a facility interested in receiving our services, visit our website at heartwiseproject.weebly.com or email us at theheartwiseproject@gmail.com for more information!

Published On: October 30th, 2023 / Categories: STEM Fellowship Journal /