Music can be a powerful force. Just the other day a song came on the radio that swept me instantly back to my high school days. Memories – good, bad, and indifferent – rattled through my head in quick succession and I was humming the song the rest of the day. It’s not even a song I particularly like, but it’s tied in my mind to a particular place and time. Music can invoke emotions, calm us down, rev us up, and make us laugh.
The therapeutic benefit of music has been the subject of research for decades. A recent documentary called Alive Inside has drawn attention to the use of music with those suffering from dementia. One clip that made the rounds of YouTube struck a chord with many, myself included. An older man sits in a wheelchair, slumped over and unresponsive. He comes alive when the staff put headphones on him and play his favorite music. He is singing and moving in his chair. Most amazingly, for a time after the music is turned off, he is lucid and able to carry on a conversation. The movie comes out of the work of Dan Cohen, Executive Director and founder of Memory and Music, a non-profit that gives nursing home residents iPods and helps them create a personalized playlist.
Research has found that after listening to preferred music, chosen by relatives, people with dementia are less agitated, more cooperative, and interact more with others. According to neurologist Oliver Sacks, these familiar songs touch areas of memory and emotion that are otherwise no longer accessible. Personal memories are embedded in the music and listening to songs they knew can help them regain a sense of identity at least for a while. This is because the parts of the brain that respond to music are very close to the parts of the brain associated with memory and emotion and mood.
While listening to music has positive effects, active participation in music-making can have added benefits. Creating music involves the higher order cognitive functions and results in behavioral, structural, and functional changes.
Singing, particularly community singing, can be especially beneficial. I am a singer myself and may be a little biased, but I am not alone. The most recent data available from Chorus America indicates that in 2003 there were about 250,000 choruses nationwide and 2.5 million adults in the U.S. sang weekly in choral organizations. That number has probably increased.
Not only that, but a 2012 study that randomly assigned participants to either sing in a chorus or to stick with their usual activities found positive results. After 12 weeks, compared to the control group, the singers had significant decreases in depression and anxiety and increases in quality of life. These results continued six months later. A 2013 study found similar results. And the research continues.
A current study called Community of Voices is underway in San Francisco. Funded by the National Institute on Aging, the study is a partnership between the University of California San Francisco, the San Francisco Community Music Center, and twelve San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services senior centers. The study began in May 2013. Over a five-year period, new choirs for older adults are being started at the twelve senior centers. Study participants sing in the choir for a year and complete several health assessments.
Over the first year, 185 older adults ranging in age from 60 to 88 were enrolled. About half of them had never sung in a choir as an adult. The project has sparked enough interest in the community that the Community Music Center received funding from Google’s Bay Area Impact Challenge to help sustain the choirs once the study ends. If you are interested in participating, visit the website for contact information and to see where they are currently recruiting.
The San Francisco Community Music Center has several choirs for older adults. You can also find information about choirs in your area here and here. Some choirs perform, others just get together and sing for fun. Even if you’ve never sung before and don’t know a whole note from a hole in the ground, there’s a group out there for you.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, you may want to consider memory care options that provide sensory stimulation activities for community residents. Visit Seniorly to start your search today, or call our team at (415) 570-4370 to learn more!