Community Choir: With a Song in Their Hearts

by Carmel Ferrer

 

Can something as simple as singing in a community choir really affect the well-being of older adults? A growing body of research shows it can.

As we grow older, staying connected isn’t as easy as it once was. Many of the normal but difficult transitions that come with aging — hearing loss, the death of a spouse or close friends, impaired mobility — put older adults at increased risk for isolation, which has been shown to have a detrimental effect on health. Coping with these transitions and maintaining a positive outlook on life are a key strategy for preventing isolation.

Across the county, researchers and innovators are exploring the idea that creative expression and engagement in artistic pursuits like singing, writing, painting and dancing can improve physical and mental health. Early evidence is promising; expressing oneself through the arts appears to be linked to a wide variety of positive outcomes, like decreased stress, enhanced mood and more.

While more research is needed to fully understand the science, it’s clear from participants’ experiences that singing together can reduce isolation by creating a sense of connectedness and joy. In a five-year clinical study currently underway at 12 senior centers, researchers are examining whether singing in a community choir for a year is “a cost-effective way to promote health and well-being among culturally diverse older adults.” The choirs are led by professional choir directors and the program is intentionally designed to engage the participants physically, cognitively and socially.

One of the choirs created by the study brings older adults together to sing gospel, jazz and popular songs. Choir members, many of whom have no prior singing experience, practice together and perform in the community. While many choir members enjoy the pleasure of singing together and meeting and spending time with new friends, they are also learning new skills and about types of music in other cultures (which supports cognitive health) and practicing techniques related to posture and breathing (which supports physical health).

For Frances, 71, singing with the choir has helped her stay connected by getting her out of the house.

“I think one of the important things about avoiding isolation is where you have some goal of leaving your home,” she says. “You have a goal that you’re going to go somewhere specific and do something specific.”

Being in the older adult choir helped Frances form new connections. “I had never been in a choir before,” she says. “I was interested in the whole idea, especially this gospel music and meeting new people.”

She adds, “I think being with people and socializing is always beneficial.”

Edith, 87, agrees. She joined the choir because she feared losing the ability to take care of herself and remain independent, but she appreciated the sense of kinship that came from singing with a group. “You can hum all you want by yourself,” she says. “But to come together and then make music, and the music is pleasing to the ear … I think is wonderful.”

Other choir members found something they didn’t realize was missing from their lives.

Ron, 64, had been active in team sports, but physical limitations made it impossible to continue. “I still want to, but I can’t,” he says. Joining the choir helped him find a different way to connect.

“Everybody was friendly and gave me this welcome,” he says, his arms spreading as wide as his smile. “That probably was something I never had before. And I just got addicted to it — all that love that was in that room.”

Asked how participating in the choir made her feel, Edith beamed. “It makes you feel wonderful. Joyful.”

To find a creative arts program in your community that is similar to this pilot choir program, check out the National Center for Creative Aging’s program directory at creativeaging.org/programs-people/cad

Discover other innovative “artful aging” programs that you can develop in your community at the National Center for Creative Aging and Aroha Philanthropies.

Learn more about the health effects of isolation and find practical ways to reconnect to the community at connect2affect.org.

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