Question: My 85-yearold father-in-law, who has mild dementia, has moved in with us. Now that my son has gone away to college, we put him in his room which is decorated in black and red. My father-in-law never wants to spend any time in that room. Could it be because of these colors? — Hate to Paint
Dr. Mason says:
Did you ever wonder why so many fast food chains are painted red, white and yellow? It’s because that combination has been shown to increase appetite and energy. In other words, customers will eat more and faster making for higher profits in the McBurger business.
Color plays far more of a role in how we feel and behave than people realize. Cool, calm hues are generally relaxing while hot, vibrant ones tend to get you up and moving. This comes as no surprise with music. It can lull you to sleep or set your toe tapping so why shouldn’t the same apply to color? It’s why hospital rooms and waiting areas are decorated in pastels while amusement parks look like an explosion in a paint factory.
Psychologists studying this phenomenon have come to some interesting conclusions. Depressed patients wearing black and gray are showing signs of improvement when they switch to brighter apparel. Some police stations put aggressive inmates in a pink holding cell to calm them down. By the same token, it will help to wear pink if you want to avoid an argument. Shown photos of staff members, subjects tend to see the one wearing dark blue as the boss. Someone wearing bright, mismatched clothing will be seen as having less emotional control than the same person in a more restrained outfit.
A lot has been written on this topic. Some is carefully researched while some is little more than pop psych but the bottom line is, if you feel that color may be having an effect, good or bad, you may be right.
One doesn’t need to be in the grip of dementia to have both a physical and emotional reaction to a certain color. However when struggling for one’s footing, a favorite color can provide a familiar bridge.
Seniors typically decorate their homes in soothing pastels, while adolescents, wanting to express their individuality, prefer a personal space enlivened by strong colors.
If your father-in-law has low vision issues, it’s important to understand that reds and subtle blacks may look even darker to him. Also, please make sure the lighting is adequate (at least 50 footcandles), for when an older person is thrust into unfamiliar surroundings his balance might be impaired. If your son has any vinyl or leather surfaces, reduce the glare with cloths or sheets.
Have a heart-to-heart talk with your son, explaining his grandfather’s current needs. If he was generous enough to share his room, perhaps he would be open to “an old fashioned Grandpa look” — at least temporarily.
Red, by the way, is a common stimulant. Many therapists trying to get the attention of a withdrawn individual use the color red. And I don’t need to tell you that in many cultures, black is the color of death, grief and loss. Your father-in-law has probably experienced enough of all that in his lifetime.
There is another reason, besides the colors, this older man may not like his new bedroom. Nobody’s in it. Perhaps he is more attracted to the rest of the house because it is alive and active, and he is seeking out the people he cares about.