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Health & Wellness

Want to Age Vibrantly? Consider Joining a Choir.

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Americans like to sing, and not just in the shower.

According to a survey by Chorus America, a nationwide service organization for choirs, more than 42 million American adults regularly sing in a chorus. Beyond making beautiful music, these men and women may also be boosting their well-being. This might be especially true for older adults.

In an innovative program called Community of Voices, a collaboration between the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services, and the San Francisco Community Music Center, nearly 400 adults 60 and older, enrolled in a community choir program held at a dozen senior centers across the city. Over a period of a year, the members of the choir met weekly for 90-minute rehearsals. Some choirs sang show tunes, others gospel music, jazz, or songs in Spanish.

Every three or four months, each choir gave a performance that was open to the public.

Julene Johnson, Ph.D., the associate director of the UCSF Institute for Health and Aging, who directed the study, had thought that engaging older adults in the arts might be a powerful remedy for the social isolation many seniors experience. The Community of Voices experiment suggests that might, indeed, be the case.

The seniors who joined choirs reported significant improvements in loneliness and interest in life. What’s more, the members enjoyed their participation so much that more than 90 percent remained with the chorus at the six-month mark. Even today, the 12 choruses created for the program continue to meet as part of the non-profit Community Music Center's Older Adult Choir Program.

Recently, GetOld chatted with Dr. Johnson about her ongoing research.

GetOld: Overall, what do we know about the connection between the arts and vibrant aging?

Dr. Johnson: An increasing number of studies, including ours, suggest that engagement in the arts promotes health and well-being for older adults. An earlier study, for example, found that people who sang in a chorus for a year experienced a wide range of benefits. They may be more likely to volunteer and, interestingly, they also reported a decrease in falls.

That decrease might be because participating in choir rehearsals helps build strength. It involves, a lot of standing up and sitting down, deep breathing, and moving to the rhythm of the songs, all of which are good for improving core strength and balance.

GetOld: Is participating in arts through a group program likely to offer more benefits than, say, going to a museum on your own?

Dr. Johnson: Visiting museums is wonderful, of course. But a participatory activity, whether it’s a choir or theater, a writing workshops, or a class in the visual arts, has added psychosocial benefits, like broadening your social network, making new friends, and increasing a sense of belonging. 

The performance element also deepens the experience and sense of purpose. Not only are you learning a new skill, you’re coming together as a group to give back to the community and in a way that defies ageism and stereotypes about aging.

GetOld: Many of us who feel we have no singing talent might shy away from joining a choir. What advice would you give us?

Dr. Johnson: It’s notable that more than half of the participants in Community of Voices had never sung before as adults. What’s exciting is that many people were taking up what was for them a completely new experience in the arts.  Some might have been traumatized or at least embarrassed by earlier experiences in performing. Now, when they try it as adults, they find that it’s actually quite a lot of fun, and they feel successful. It’s accessible – your voice is your instrument – and you’re not being asked to audition.

GetOld: What are some other ways older people can participate in the arts?

Dr. Johnson: We’re currently studying other types of arts programs, including salsa dancing, visual arts programs, and forms of storytelling, and we’ll share those findings when we have them.

I would strongly encourage seniors to give arts participation a chance. Grab a buddy and check out a local choir. See what participatory art programs are offered at your community center or at a lifelong learning program at a local college. If you want to be part of a theater group and aren’t eager to perform, you can always play a valuable role behind the scenes in production, box office, or helping with set design.

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