Jane Oberhaus never painted before she lived at Waterford Commons, a health and rehabilitation center, but she says applying a brush and watercolor to a canvas gives her "a feeling of happiness inside."

Leonard Kujawa won't call himself an artist, but he likes drawing pictures of animals, flowers, and nature, and making them as realistic as possible. "It helps me relax," he says.Elaine Gable made and sold hand-painted greeting cards until World War II interfered with her supply of Japanese watercolors. Now that she's rediscovered painting, she says, "I get lost in color."

All three residents of Waterford Commons are part of a program called Color My World.

Gerontologists say that introducing art to residents of nursing homes and rehabilitation centers stimulates memory and enhances overall well-being.

"People who paint all their life, or start later on in life, tend to have a better attitude and tend to be able to cope a little better with some health problems," says Dr. Victoria Steiner, assistant professor of medicine and coordinator of geriatric education/research at the Medical College of Ohio.

Teachers and staff members in nursing facilities where art classes are offered agree.

Martin Nagy, executive director of Common Space, which provides classes at the Heatherdowns Convalescent Center through the Positively Arts program, says art reinvigorates the spirit. "It helps residents see that they are still capable of doing something besides just watching TV, and that is something productive."

For Oberhaus, Kujawa, Gable, and other Color My World participants at Waterford Commons, painting has brought color into a world where the monochrome of routine can easily become pervasive.

Debbie Sickmiller, Waterford Commons activities director, started the art program two months ago, partly as a way to get residents out of their rooms. She limited the group to tracheostomy, or artificial airway, patients, some of whom also require ventilators.

She says such residents seem to get particularly anxious, nervous, and depressed because of their dependence on the apparatus. "They think, `What am I going to amount to?' or `Will we be stuck here the rest of our lives?' "

Sallie Gibbs, one of the women in the painting class, had become especially depressed after a stroke, but she decided she would like to paint after watching her roommate at the easel. "It got me out of the room and made me be social. My daughter would leave crying before, because I had pretty much given up on life."

Gibbs has made so much progress that she is expected to return home soon. When she does, she hopes to return and help the other residents with their painting. "I want to let them know they have something to live for."

Sickmiller chose painting as an activity for residents because it is something that she has always enjoyed. She started drawing as a child, and she also took art in high school. "I can go home and paint, and it relaxes me, it takes my mind away."

Although Waterford Commons residents have other activity options such as bingo, nature walks, crafts, and sing-alongs, art gives them a chance to express themselves, Sickmiller says.

Until she started the art class, two of the women in her group were "bingo babes," but now they would rather paint than play their favorite game.

The residents paint in a group three afternoons a week, and some have come to enjoy it so much that they ask to paint in their rooms when the class is not in session.