June 15, 2017 by
Illustration by Mady Besch

Remember getting an unopened box of crayons—for school, for a birthday, just for fun? Remember the smell of the wax? The new, sharp points? Choosing your favorite color?

Most people would answer “Yes.” Coloring, whether as a kindergarten assignment or a rainy-day project, brings about happy memories for most people. It is those pleasant memories that have triggered a surge of popularity in adult coloring books.

Coloring was often a way for kids to stay entertained for hours, focused on filling in the lines on a piece of paper. That is one reason why therapists are now turning to coloring books for people with dementia.

“In my experience, the most helpful reason is because it is a focusing tool,” says Maggie Hock, a licensed mental health practitioner and owner of Bellevue Psychological.

Actually, the concept of coloring as an exercise to focus and relax is not new. Psychologist Carl Jung had his patients color mandalas, or geometric patterns, used to express the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. In these traditions, the creation of a mandala helps with meditation.

Intricate circular patterns might be too complicated for dementia patients, depending on the stage of the dementia. Coloring books can be found online or at bookstores, and subjects range from World War II warships to classic movie posters and more. Those with historical subjects may be the best for dementia patients.

“Commonly in Alzheimer’s, older memories are intact,” says Dr. Daniel L. Murman, director of the behavioral and geriatric neurology program at UNMC. Merman says memories of doing things as a child often remain while memories of five to 10 years ago fade away.

“Memories from childhood are stored in a different part of the brain,” Murman says, noting that the act of coloring taps “into an area of strength, where people would potentially have fond memories of coloring and be able to participate in and enjoy the activity.”

Hock says people with dementia have difficulty focusing because the world around them is confusing and distracting. Handing a person with dementia a coloring book and coloring utensils gives them a purpose and takes them out of the confusion for a while.

Murman adds that even if they are not experiencing dementia, keeping active mentally and physically will help older people. And if someone does, in fact, have dementia, staying active can help preserve neural connections, which stimulates the brain and may help slow down the progression of the disorder.

While solving crossword or Sudoku puzzles may produce the same focus in people in less advanced stages, coloring has the added benefit of chromotherapy, or color therapy. Colors have different meanings for us as individuals. Someone who was forced to wear brown clothes as a child and hated them may still feel a strong dislike for the color brown. Someone who received a set of primary-colored blocks as a birthday gift might color only in primary colors.

Hock says letting someone with dementia color certainly won’t do harm, no matter how advanced the stage.

“It’s always worth a try,” Hock says, “to see what would engage them.”

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.