Visual art – what do older people really want?

Ceri selects her favourite paintings

Ceri selects her favourite paintings

Scanning the internet, it seems to be a question that no one has got round to asking. Most residential care homes have pictures on the wall – do we know if the elderly residents like them? Would they like something different? And does it matter? Maybe each person’s taste in art is so individual that there is no point asking?

It matters because looking at things we consider beautiful stimulates the pleasure and reward part of the brain. Dopamine is released – the ‘feel good’ transmitter. Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroesthetics at University College London has conducted research using brain-imaging techniques. “Essentially the feel good centres are being stimulated,” he says. “When experiencing beauty, the activity in the brain goes up significantly.”

I have just completed research on behalf of Paintings in Hospitals who – sensibly – wanted to know if there are any broad preferences from older people, before they start putting up paintings in 3 residential care homes in South Wales. Basically: if buying visual art for this setting, could there be a brief to guide the purchasing?

So I’ve been showing reproductions of lots of paintings to lots of elderly people and finding out what they liked. Of course, it was always possible that the results would be widely varied. But the interesting thing is that THERE WAS HUGE CONSISTENCY in the paintings they liked most and liked least.

Here are my eight top tips for paintings that will increase wellbeing, based on my research:

1. Go for representational art. Older people want to recognise what they are looking at and don’t like having to ask “what is it?”

2. Look for paintings that are calming and peaceful – this was repeatedly given as a reason for liking a painting.

3. The strongest responses were to pictures of places: mountains, sea, clouds, the setting sun. People also like places they remember from holidays or earlier in their lives.  A picture of a mining village was more popular in the Valleys than in a coastal town.

4. Bright images are important to elderly people. Even a calm picture of a landscape would be rejected if the colours were dull or dark.

5. Think about the subject of the painting. Elderly people enjoy reminiscing. Nature pictures reminded them of walks in the countryside, seascapes of holidays by the beach, flowers brought back memories of placing flowers on the graves of loved ones. Many elderly people are no longer living in their own homes and have limited contact with families and friends – they like pictures of families to remind themselves of good times.

6. I’m sorry folks, but there was a strong dislike for abstract art. Elderly people were puzzled by a range of abstract paintings presented, and they didn’t like ‘not knowing’ what the painting was. They would very quickly become bored looking at the image.

7. Likewise, steer clear of stylised paintings – things in a Naive or Fauvist style. Elderly people generally rejected paintings that they thought had been done by or for children (other than the prized daubings of their own grandchildren, of course!). Think twice before hanging up that Lowry print.

8. Remember, nearly all elderly people will have failing eyesight. They need clear, bold paintings.

Red Square 1915 (evidence of time travel?)

Red Square 1915 (evidence of time travel?)

As a careful researcher, I tried to prevent my own tastes from affecting the process! If I ever get to the ripe old age of my research subjects, I’m hoping for a print of Malevich’s “Red Square” because it will remind me of my honeymoon. But that’s another story.

2 thoughts on “Visual art – what do older people really want?

  1. Jessica Thomas

    My grandmother in law likes the paintings of balls and weddings up in her retirement home. A surprising number of elderly residents living in the Granny Annexes, that the company I work for builds, seem very fond of pictures of ducks. I really enjoyed reading this original research, thank you for sharing.

  2. IY Roberts

    Thanks so much for this post , it helped me a lot .
    Please do you know other tips on this subject I can use peculiar to African elderly people?


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