Memories Coloring Books are here because of my own journey with my own mother. Mom had her first stroke at 75. She is now 89. It has been a long road.
From the beginning, she has been unable to find words and communicate her thoughts. We have seen her progress as the years go by into worsening multi infarct dementia. We have struggled with finding her the most helpful memory activities, especially as she has progressed.
For many years, she enjoyed playing solitaire and doing endless word find puzzles. We would play cards with her, and as the years went by, bent the rules more and more.
In the months before Memories Coloring Books was born, our dad passed away. With her memory and aphasia challenges, mom had depended on dad a lot, and now he was gone. He was heroic in his care for her. It was only during the last year that mom had needed to be in a nursing home full time. Her word-find books were going untouched. She couldn’t do them anymore, even with help. And she wasn’t playing solitaire anymore either.
She was just sitting. She wasn’t even watching television much, which was a change. We didn’t know how much was a response to dad’s passing or her getting worse. It was heartbreaking.
I wracked my brain to figure out what I could find for her, despite her dementia, that would keep her active and engaged, and bring some joy back into her life.
I thought, I wonder if she would do coloring books? So, I went out and got some crayons and books but had to make due with the most appropriate children’s coloring books I could find.
When I brought them back to her, what happened is priceless. I said, “I’ve got something for you”, and started to present the coloring books and crayons. I sat next to her. She looked at me as if I was proposing the most silly ridiculous thing. Yet, she had the wonder and excitement of a child. It was as if I had given her permission to play, and she had not played in a long, long time. We picked a coloring book and opened it up and she looked at me and said; “How? Long time. Don’t remember. Don’t remember.”
I said, well, let’s pick a color. What color is hair? What color do you want to make the hair? I helped her pick a color. “How?” I colored in a portion of hair. “See, like this.” She started to draw in a precise line, right alongside the drawing line. “How?” “Don’t remember.” “Your’e doing fine. Keep going. Fill it all in, like this.” I did some more, she followed with more precise lines. She would color one line right next to the previous line. We moved to the clothing. What color would you like this to be? “Shrug.” I picked a couple colors, naming them as I went, and had her choose. She couldn’t. I said, lets do this one. I colored in an area. “Like this.” More precise lines. I though, oh, I don’t know if this is going to work when she is on her own. But, I had some chores that I had to go do, so I said, “you’re doing fine, I’m going to be back in a while, just keep going. Have fun. Don’t worry about which colors to pick.”
When I came back from my errands, she was happy and animated, and I was amazed.
She had colored in about a dozen pages. The timid lines she had started with gradually turned into sort of entirely colored areas. Hair was every color in the rainbow. Faces were blue or green or sometimes pink. Backgrounds had an assortment of coloring and scribbles. She was beaming. She couldn’t figure out how to do a connect the numbers heart in one of the drawings and wanted to know what to do with those dots and numbers and why they were there. She was able to count as I helped her connect the dots and she was quite pleased to see that they made a heart.
She also made it clear that only one of the books I got her was acceptable. She just didn’t like the themes. They were child themed and not grown-up themed.
So I made some drawings from images I thought she would like that were more appropriate for adults. I specifically used images that would bring back the good memories of life. That worked much better, though she was a little frustrated by loose pages rather than having them in a book form. Sometimes she would use more color variations, sometimes she would color everything with the same two or three colors, and sometimes she would spend a lot of time interacting with the images but put very little color on the page. The exact quality of coloring doesn’t seem to matter. It is the love, joy, remembering and activity that matters.
Over a month or so, another amazing and completely unexpected thing happened. Her speech and ability to get her thoughts out improved. Not miraculously by any means, but noticably. Staff members and volunteers noticed her new hobby and started bringing her books and crayons here and there as well. She was happier and more engaged. When she does not have a supply of coloring books, she is noticeably less expressive and more sad. And she makes it very clear that she wants a fresh supply.
There is nothing that will bring back her speech and memory, but it has been the best feeling in the world to see her remember birds at a feeder, a kid jumping into a lake, the humor of a dog chasing a swan, the flowers she used to cut from her garden, the floral pictures she used to paint – and be able to translate that into activity that gives her some purpose and joy.
When I traveled back to visit her after a couple months, I can’t describe how happy it made me feel when she proudly held up a coloring page that she had worked on with a big smile on her face. Amazingly, she looked at the printing on another one of the pictures and said, “Sweet Pea.” I don’t know if she really read it, or if she simply remembered so vividly those sweet peas that she always loved, remembered the name for them, and knew that those words sitting there on the page had to be “sweet peas”. It didn’t matter. It just mattered that she got those words that she wanted to say to come out of her mouth. It was precious.
I don’t know why we did not think of art therapy earlier. Mom always had hobbies of painting, ceramics or pottery. She was never the reader. She did some simple art therapy right after her initial stroke during rehab. While she enjoyed her word-find puzzles and cards for many years, I think she would have enjoyed coloring as well.
We have watched mom blossom, even if just a little, in the waning years of her life. She now has the simple joy of having a pleasurable, stimulating and memory evoking activity that she can do to stay busy. In fact her favorite word to describe day to day happiness and relief from boredom has become “busy”. It’s funny, she didn’t use this word until now. When I ask her if she is good on her supply of coloring books, she says “Busy. Good deal. Busy. Busy.” “Busy” means a good day and not busy is a not as good day. She likes it when her days are busy and these color books help provide that.
And she also knows that she is getting these coloring books because we love her and we care.