Art as a Key Ingredient to Healthy Aging: Why Assisted Living Facilities are Investing in the Arts

Elysian Koglmeier | December 20, 2022

Image courtesy of Penney Retirement Community.

The arts foster independence, dignity, wellbeing and joy. That’s why we’re seeing more art in retirement homes. 

Have you heard of the “gray tsunami?” People are living longer today in part due to better health care. According to the United States Census Bureau, the number of people aged 65 and older in the United States has grown rapidly, from 3.1 million in 1900 to 35 million in 2000. As populations age and our family units get smaller from lower birth rates, millions of seniors will most likely require assisted living services – creating a higher demand for space and services. 

Sounds like a cry for the arts! Whenever there is a societal challenge, the arts are here to help.

When people start aging they may experience anxiety, depression, loneliness and memory loss. Art has been proven to alleviate these feelings of despair. So, many assisted living facilities are investing in artwork and art-making in their facilities. We dive into a few reasons:

  • Art installations liven up what can be a drab, dreary clinical environment. We are affected by our surroundings. Art in retirement homes creates a healthy environment for seniors’ minds and contributes positively to the healing process.

  • Art creates a sense of purpose and creativity – for the residents and the assisted living workers. According to SmartInc Art Consulting, “Art is known to increase creativity by 64% and reduce stress by 78% when placed in the workplace.” 

  • Participation in the arts promotes healthy aging. Assisted living facilities employ art therapists to keep residents engaged and improve their quality of life. Creative projects can alleviate boredom and stress, and create a sense of belonging and connection. Learn more about the work of Arts for the Aging

  • Art therapy also engages the body; it promotes dexterity, better blood flow, and mental stimulation. Art making can alleviate pain from diseases like arthritis.

  • Someone with dementia may not remember their loved ones, but they can still paint a vivid vase of flowers with the same artistic competency of their cognizant days. We’ve seen a number of studies on arts programming with those with dementia. Read about Arts and Disability Inclusion from the Mellon Foundation.

The Artwork Archive team is lucky to work with arts programs around the world that are committing their services to aging adults. You’ll find arts programming for seniors with dementia in museums; art classes at community art centers; and, a growing trend of art installations and art making in retirement homes.

We interviewed Gail Larson, curator at Penney Retirement Community in Florida, to learn more about the ways the arts serve senior residents.


Penney Art in Public Places – a commitment to its retirement community residents

The Penney Retirement Community is named after James Cash (JC) Penney–founder of the retail department chain. He sold all of his stores in the early 1920s after founding them in 1902. His vision was to provide homesteads for people that were poor – to help them live off of the land by offering them small farms as an alternative to their citylife. Unfortunately the soil in Florida that he created farms on was not conducive to agriculture. To make matters worse, at this time the Depression hit.

He had a village sitting empty so he offered it to missionaries and established the location as a nonprofit. 2026 will be Penney’s 100th anniversary as a nonprofit. 

Now Penney Retirement Community is a continuous care community with two assisted living facilities, memory care, nursing facility and independent housing. It has 525 residents. And art is a big part of the residents' experience. 


“If you don’t move the artwork around, it just becomes wallpaper.”

In 2005 the Executive Director of Penney wanted to organize the paintings in the facilities more. The project stagnated when leadership changed, and as residents passed, but when Gail joined the team in 2020 they reactivated the program.

The association of residents asked Gail to start the program again. As an artist, Gail gladly jumped in.


Artists age so it's no surprise that retirement home residents are artists themselves

The majority of art in Penney’s collection was done by residents. Over the years, commercial artists have retired at Penney. Oren Waggener, an illustrator from the mid-70’s, called Penney home. When he retired he taught classes at the retirement facility. 


Retirement facilities offer arts and crafts to their residents

And the art studio that Oren taught in was just one of many art spaces at Penney. They also have a woodworking shop, a weaving studio, a potter studio, and a glass studio. Residents have access to the healing, calming and entertaining powers of the creative process.


Lost legacies remind us of the importance of archiving

Gail explains, “We don't have a computer system where I can search past residents. I can't find someone from the 1950s or even the 1980s. Chances are if I have more than one piece from an artist, they lived here. But these are lost legacies because we don’t have their records - their stories, their experiences.” 

You don’t need a museum collection to record the stories of artists. Every community deserves to remember their creatives and their processes. Learn more about preserving artistic legacies here.

Artwork installed in the Penney Retirement Community hallway.

“I walked around the campus and realized that this was an overwhelming task without software.”

Before Gail joined the team, Penney managed their art with a spreadsheet. With 250+ artworks located in 14 locations, Gail quickly realized that she needed something more. “Even if I take photos on my phone, I need something to manage this art inventory,” explained Gail. 

She quickly found Artwork Archive to track the collection and here are some ways she uses the platform.

With location tracking Gail knows that she has a painting on the 2nd floor of the H wing to the right of Room H22. “I know where every single painting is and when I pull something down and store it in either the frame shop or studio, I know where the artwork is located.” 

By looking at her artwork record, Gail knows where the painting has been on campus, which avoids hanging it in the same place twice–important for a residential space. 

Inventory reports help Gail run inventory lists for an artist or a location. She uses the report to keep her records straight so that she always knows where every artwork is on campus. 


A collection can grow without an acquisition fund

The art program does not have a budget to acquire art. Many of the pieces in the collection were made by residents of their family members and donated. For instance, Penney’s art collection has prints of Japan by Brian Williams who was born to missionaries in Peru.


Artworks age just like the residents

Some of the paintings need to be cleaned. Many pieces in the collection need to be reframed. Luckily Penney has a frame shop run by Gail’s husband.Gail can now track conservation and restoration information in her Artwork Archive account.


Simplify the management of art shows

Many retirement facilities like Penney host rotating exhibitions in their spaces. Gail appreciates how she can easily pull up paintings for a show since she curates special exhibitions every 60-90 days for three spaces open to the public.

Planning ahead with Artwork Archive’s Tags

Gail shares that she is using Artwork Archive’s Tags more and more. Tags are descriptive keywords you can add to your artwork to help categorize and group your artworks when searching or filtering your inventory within Artwork Archive.

Gail can tag relevant artworks with “winter” so that she can easily run through her collection and pull together a show about winter scenes. 

Once you have the foundation of your art collection organized and digitized, you can start thinking ahead. Gail explains:

“I’m being more careful and thinking into the future. I did some obvious Florida exhibitions on subject matter like seashore and birds, but we also have a lot of paintings of churches from around the country given our Missionary background. Maybe I’ll do an exhibit of churches so it will be helpful to tag the painting with a steeple in the middle of a fall scene for example.” 


Residents don’t want to stare at blank walls

One of Gail’s future goals is to start a lending library of art for individual rooms in the nursing facility. It would provide art to the retirees who reside temporarily during rehabilitation and don’t bring personal art with them for a short stay. “I want to hang artwork in their rooms so that they don’t have to stare at blank walls,” shares Gail.


Lessons learned from exhibiting artwork for aging seniors

“I have to hang everything lower than standard heights because our residents shrink as they age and we have people in walkers and wheelchairs,” divulges Gail. 

What else has she learned about art in this environment? Gail avoids bright and energetic colors that can be overstimulating where people with dementia spend time. To help residents with memory issues feel more safe, secure and comforted, she focuses on extremely representational and calming colors and shapes. 

Gail also has the challenge of displaying art in a space that wasn’t built as an art gallery. The primary focus is residential housing so she has to find ways to hang art on different colored walls…like avocado. 


Why art needs to be in assisted living facilities

Gail shares a powerful testimonial around the importance of art in retirement homes:

“I never knew how important art can be to both residents and families until I began installing large paintings and prints in the halls of our 50 bed nursing facility.  I received numerous calls from family members (many of our retirees have a parent in the nursing facility), telling me how grateful they were because the art gave them a destination to take a nursing resident to view and discuss. Art is critically important to those limited to life in a building, so much so that permanent nursing residents also call me and request I change the piece by their door for something that they like better.” 


Retirement facilities will continue to grow, and so will the need for art.

Data shows that we are aging longer–meaning we have more time for art in our lives. Art can simply be used to enliven an empty retirement facility wall. But hopefully this article demonstrated how the arts have so much more power to improve the lives of seniors.

If you’re interested in the healing power of the arts, check out this arts in health e-guide documenting how the creative process contributes to our wellbeing.



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