How Art Benefits The Aging Mind

No matter what age we are, our brains have an unwaivering need to learn.

By Martina Sestakova

All kinds of things happen as one goes through life. After years of working in clinical trials recruitment and volunteering at an Alzheimer’s facility, I now teach art workshops at several retirement communities in the Rockville area. Having left one way to study the aging brain, I am now in midst of another opportunity: to learn how people in their 80s and 90s benefit from art classes.

Where to start … Art is so good for us. No matter what age. But … it’s is really good for us when our bodies and cognitive skills start changing beyond our control. I teach watercolor classes as the brush is easy to hold for a person post-stroke, with arthritis, or with Parkinson’s. We work within sketched templates, as decision making may be harder and coming up with inspiration for a new piece of art may be frazzling. We chat the class away because getting together is a way to connect, to feel relevant, and
to share stories of amazing life experiences.

And you know what is the best? No matter what age or physical state my students may be in, the human brain has an unwavering need to learn. The aging brain is, ultimately, curious.

Hence, I get a lot of people in my classes who have never done art. They come into the room, greet their fellow residents, and get to work. You should hear the comments. “I didn’t know I could do this!” or “Wow, that’s beautiful,” as a note to the person sitting next to them.

Painting from templates can help ease frustrations.

My oldest student was 99 years old at the time she took a class. Fabulously put together, with a walker decorated with little items of meaning, she sketched and sketched. “This looks awful. I love it,” she would announce.

Another student, also in mid-90s, after months of walking by the art room and refusing, yes, refusing to come in because “she didn’t know how to do it,” came in. She painted a colorful vase with tulips and teared up when she finished. Her first piece is now framed in her room. She has not missed a class and saves all of her pieces. These days she comes with a friend who repeatedly emphasizes, “I wouldn’t miss this.”

As I mentioned, art and making art with others is a way to feel alive
and to feed one’s curiosity. It’s not all pretty things though. The aging brain sometimes calls for a little nap in midst of a class. A student may need stop painting as her hand tires quickly. There are speech impediments that make it hard to ask for help or express an opinion. One may feel self-conscious about having to leave to take a bathroom break.

Art sessions afford opportunities to be social.

All in all, though, art classes at retirement communities are spaces of safety and care and relaxation. My students always want to help me clean up but an offer that always makes me smile is to “join them for the happy hour! We have great drinks!”

So, obviously, our lives change all the time, but if we keep our curious souls busy with art, we are good. And apparently this time of life may even come with a martini!

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