The He(art) of Elder (Eng)agement
In November we featured “Oldchella,” the humorously nicknamed, star-studded ensemble that rocked southern California for two consecutive weekends, featuring musical legends who defined an era: the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, The Who. Besides their iconic status, the participants in Desert Trip had one other trait in common: each was at least 70 years old.
Yet the joke is on those who minimize the importance and impact that mature voices can have on those who sing — and on those who hear them sing.
Young@Heart Chorus requires members be in their 70s — 73, to be exact. One hopeful’s interest was piqued when he was a mere 72, so he was politely asked to reapply in a year. Now 80 and a six-year Young@Heart Chorus veteran, John Reinhart has soloed Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” and says he’s never been happier. “When I retired, I told my wife we’d better get a casket; I’ll be gone in six months. The Young@Heart Chorus came along at the right time for me.”
Getting Their Groove On
Making music, whether with one’s voice or another instrument, has repeatedly been demonstrated to be beneficial for mental health. In a recent controlled trial of 200 British adults over 60, those who participated in weekly singing groups for three months had improved mental health (decreased anxiety and depression) compared with those who didn’t sing. These health effects were sustained over a period of at least three months after the weekly singing ended.
By contrast, the benefits of playing a musical instrument did not tend to endure once the playing ceased — unless the participants had played over an extended period of their lives, which may explain why lifelong musicians such as the septuagenarian stars in Oldchella are still jamming with the same gusto as performers a third their age.
Singing the Dying Across the Threshold
Singing can also be highly beneficial for those who are preparing to transition out of this life. At the turn of the millennium, Kate Munger, who had sung to a dear friend as he lay dying a decade earlier, was inspired to create Threshold Choir to bring comfort to the dying. Hearing is the last sense to go, so even someone in a comatose state may receive benefit. Today, there are more than 150 Threshold Choirs throughout the US, Canada, Europe and Australia.
Each choir is composed of a small group of singers (primarily women, though the choirs are open to all) from the local community, who gather at a person’s bedside and sing in calm, a cappella voices for about twenty minutes. These committed volunteers rehearse weekly for the privilege of singing to the dying; most have been Threshold Choir members for many years, and are often well past midlife themselves.
Art for the Heart
Have you ever noticed that the word “heart” contains “art”? That may not be a coincidence, as a research-focused arts blog surveyed the literature and found “the most compelling evidence of the value of the arts revolves around improving the lives of older adults.” Confirming the data already discussed, the evidence for (eng)aging with the arts benefits elders in the following ways:
- Singing improves mental health and subjective wellbeing (i.e., perceived quality of life)
- Playing a musical instrument has myriad positive effects, including dementia risk reduction
- Dance classes bolster cognition and motor skills, and lessen the likelihood of developing dementia
- Visual arts practice generates increases in social engagement, psychological health and self-esteem.
To Be of Use
Finally, art serves the deeper purpose of keeping seniors (eng)aged. And what that looks like may be very different from the more conventional arts just described. Retired social worker Lynn Rayburn, 91, is “convinced her mind would have long ago floated ‘into outer space’ if not for the mental stimulation and social interaction” of Senior Center Without Walls, a Bay Area-based non-profit that aims to ameliorate elder loneliness and social isolation. For Rayburn, who lives alone and is confined to a wheelchair, the telephone classes, such as Sing-Along Broadway, are a lifeline. Rayburn “participates in classes daily, and facilitates five classes as a volunteer, including a session that encourages callers to talk about things they’re grateful for and another that allows them to participate in philosophical debates.” She refers to Senior Center Without Walls as her “art form” and avows, “I couldn’t handle life without being needed.”
As noted last week, January 31st is National Inspire Your Heart with Art Day, a superb moment to encourage the elders in your HECM sphere to (eng)age with whatever form of the arts calls to them for expression, even (especially) if it’s something beyond what we typically think of or refer to as “art”. Creativity in all its forms is ageless, and like wine, can improve over time..