Coloring Contests in Dementialand (aka Simple Things in a Complicated Situation)

They are having a coloring contest, I am told.

“They’ll sit there pretty much all afternoon,” Kathy says, as I watch her mother and her daughter sit in the dining room at the nursing home with a tub of crayons and a stack of coloring books.

There is something about it that fascinates me. A grandmother and a granddaughter, separated by about 60 years, but somehow in the same place in this moment.

“It used to break my heart,” Kathy tells me. “But now it makes me smile.”

Kathy explains to me that her mom was a successful career woman. She has a master’s degree and was the superintendent of a small school district. In her spare time, she was an avid reader and loved photography.

“She was a real intellectual-type person, but now she’s…this,” Kathy says, gesturing toward the coloring contest. When Kathy says “this,” she’s not saying it in a condescending or negative way. She’s just in awe of the way her mother has changed over the past several years. “This” is different, but maybe not all bad.

Kathy tells me that she always pictured her mom babysitting her daughter. She thought her mom would teach her daughter to love classic literature and encourage her to go to an Ivy League university. She never pictured them coloring together (and sometimes arguing about who gets to use the blue crayon) like peers.  It’s not what Kathy pictured, but it’s what she’s got, and she’s learned to appreciate it in a way that I find admirable.

“My mom never would’ve taken the time to color with my daughter for hours before she had dementia. She’d be too busy doing other things,” Kathy says.

The scene that Kathy never saw coming and used to break her heart is one she knows she will long for in the future. She knows that soon her mom won’t be able to color. She won’t know what to do with a crayon. She won’t understand what a coloring book is. That day is coming. Kathy knows it. And her daughter will lose interest in coloring. Someday soon she’ll see it as childish and move on to other things. Kathy knows she’ll think about the coloring contests and wish she could go back in time to watch them contently coloring together again.

It’s like they’re crossing, she tells me. Her mom is going backward. Her daughter is going forward. But right now…right now they seem to be in the same place. I can’t help but think it’s beautiful and sad all at once. Kathy has found a way to focus on the beautiful. She knows there’s some sad in the future, but right now there’s a coloring contest.

Every once in a while, Kathy’s daughter walks up with a page torn out of a coloring book to show Kathy. She sometimes asks who is winning the coloring contest. When she asks, Kathy’s mom stops coloring and holds up her project for Kathy to review.

“It’s a tie, ” Kathy says. I asked if it’s always a tie. Kathy tells me that it usually is…because once she pronounced her daughter the winner and her mother started to cry.

Life with dementia can be pretty complicated. As we watch the coloring contest, Kathy tells me about the challenges of getting her mom the care she needs, the financial struggles of their family, and how she’s not getting along with her siblings. She starts to talk about the problems she’s having with her husband because she spends most of her free time at the nursing home, but then waves her hand and shakes her head. Her voice trails off for a moment.

“This dementia thing really sucks, but I brought in a new box of 48 Crayolas this morning, and it made both of them so happy,” she says.

Kathy knows that crayons won’t always make her mother and daughter smile…but today they will. And that’s enough.

And you know what you do when the loser of the coloring contest cries? You always say it’s a tie.

Sometimes dementia makes life really complicated, but sometimes things are pretty simple.