Promoting Self-Expression through Art Therapy

By Stephenson, Raquel Chapin | Generations, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Promoting Self-Expression through Art Therapy


Stephenson, Raquel Chapin, Generations


The goal is to help elders recognize the strengths they have.

When you are young, you have the courage of innocence. In middle age, you tend to become a little pedestrian and cautious. In old age, you have the courage of experience.

-Edith Kramer, Childhood and Art Therapy

Making art can have a significant effect on an older adult's mental health and self-esteem. As an art therapist, I have worked with a variety of older men and women, from healthy elders to those with late-stage dementia and others suffering from physical impairments. In each case, working with the visual arts has often been the most successful way to reach a frail individual or empower the healthy elder to seek further creative growth. Older adults face a staggering number of life changes associated with loss: They may lose family, friends, homes, and cognitive and physical capacities. Art therapy can help the older adult cope with, adjust to, and adapt to age-related changes. It can elicit a cathartic and creative experience, give support during loss or crisis, or provide care related to physical loss, such as loss of memory, mobility, sight, or hearing. Art therapy is a useful modality in working with well elders, those who are physically disabled, and those with dementia, using methods that draw on the strengths and abilities of each person.

The art-making process is creative, with the potential to evoke a multitude of emotions and memories. As such, art therapy can be a caring process with a variety of benefits. It can serve as a visual link by which the individual may explore past and present experiences-a powerful tool that assists an older adult with reviewing his or her life. In addition to fostering exploration and emotional growth through creative expression, art therapy can be a means for older adults facing increasing physical impairments to relate to their environment in new ways.

I believe that in the last stage of life, "fixing problems" as a goal of therapy is of little value. Radier, it might be more beneficial to help elders recognize the strengths they have, those that have successfully carried them to old age. Perceiving aging from a positive perspective shows that we value life experience and wisdom (Cohen, 2000), and so art therapy is most effective when it stems from the belief that aging provides the opportunity to draw from life's riches and find meaning. Art therapy can provide an opportunity for self-expression and introspection, allowing the individual to build on his or her strengths and life experience.

Art therapy can be very useful in facilitating life review, broadening the scope to include far more than just a cursory look back at one's life. As Robert Butler (1963) outlines in his theory of life review, an older person naturally reflects back on his or her life. Unresolved issues, disappointment, or regret, which can cast a negative shadow over a life, are not unusual. To feel comfortable looking toward the end of life, a person must come to terms with both the good and bad in his or her life and allow for a final separation and acceptance of that history. Making art provides a safe, symbolic arena in which to explore, allowing topics to emerge safely once they are removed from the immediacy of verbal language. The resulting artwork simultaneously serves as a representative of this journey and a point of admiration or discussion tor curious others with whom the elder wishes to share.

To best serve the needs of older adults, art therapists should understand the ways in which elders think about and make art, which are different from those of younger people. These differences occur on the physical, creative, and psychological levels. Luckily, one of the greatest strengths of the creative arts is the number of ways they can be adapted so as to be appropriate for anyone, regardless of age or ability. The loss of physical faculties, as a result of disease or disability, may significantly impair the individual's ability to engage in self-expression.

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