Arts & Crafts to Boost Happiness

By: Bal Agrawal and Christine Law

Do you want the senior in your life to be more engaged? To be mentally healthier and happier? Then it’s time to get crafty—and artsy, too! Arts and crafts are not only fun, they can have a positive affect on cognitive function and quality of life for the elderly. A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that traditional arts and crafts activities are natural mood boosters, sparking enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. An overview of more than 30 studies, published in Gerontologist, concluded that seniors who engage in participatory arts (including things such as group painting classes) enjoyed improved cognitive function and a greater quality of life.

Weaving—or knitting or embroidering—more creativity into your senior’s life is easy! Here are some tips from the pros:

Help them modify a longstanding hobby. If your loved one can no longer pursue certain crafting projects from their youth, look for similar, easier ones to try now. “I had one woman who used to sew quite a bit, but as she grew older it became too difficult,” says Danielle Kozemczak, activity director at Bethesda Dilworth, a skilled nursing and memory care facility in St. Louis. The solution: “She now mostly does cross stitch, which is a much easier stitch for her,” Kozemczak says. The most important benefit is still there: “It’s very relaxing for her to sit and stitch,” Kozemczak observes. And there’s another perk as well - The activity can bring back memories your loved one hasn’t thought about in a long time.

Work with watercolors, recommends Kozemczak. This gentle medium will give seniors a bit of a stimulating challenge as they have to remember to dip their brushes in the water, and then in the paint. (If that’s too difficult for your loved one, use liquid watercolor paint.) But it’s easy to get pretty results, and cleanup is relatively easy, too. “Start with a small and simple subject,” Kozemczak suggests. One recent project her seniors tackled was painting a rowboat. You may be surprised at the associations and stories your loved one’s art project may spark! “As we were painting the boat, one resident painted a lake that she used to visit every year as a child. She told me how she went there, and what the house looked like,” Kozemczak shares. “It can be really beneficial emotionally, allowing an elderly person look back over their life and reflect on how they have done good things.”

Encourage authorship. “Help your loved one create a book of his life story, illustrating it too if he is able,” says Juliet Kerlin, director of research and program partnerships at It’s Never 2 Late, which helps develop engagement technology for senior living community residents. Especially for people undergoing cognitive decline, remembering their life tale can be a calming and focusing activity, since they often recall the past more clearly than recent events. The finished book is something that your loved one can leave for their grandkids, or for other family members. Technology can help preserve it. Kerlin points out.

Create crafts to sell. At Bethesda Dilworth, one of Kozemczak’s assistants has residents stamp scarves with patterns and decorate sunglasses with beads. The proud artists can then peddle their wares through the facility’s boutique. See if there is an artist’s cooperative near you that accepts locals’ craftworks. Or simply hold an art show at home, inviting friends and relatives to view your senior’s masterpieces, recommends Kerlin. “We all want to be appreciated for our talents and recognized for what we can do,” she explains. There are few better ways to make your loved one feel special!

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