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Seniors Sing for Study - 2001-11-12

A federal agency in Washington, D.C., is funding a three-year, $600,000 study to determine if singing and other forms of artistic expression are therapeutic for older people. A community center in Arlington County, Virginia is taking part in the study.

More than 50 men and women, most of them over the age of 70, are seated on folding chairs and holding sheet music. The seniors are practicing for a Christmas concert they'll perform over the holidays at several local retirement homes.

Seventy-eight-year-old Clare Fields comes to every rehearsal, which lasts an hour each Tuesday afternoon. "I love singing," she said. I've always loved singing. I've sung solos in the choir since I was seven. Of course, it doesn't sound like it now."

Sixty-three-year-old George Hermance, one of ten men in the group, says the singing and socializing help him feel young. "When you think of getting old," he said, "you're in trouble. It's inevitable you get older. But you don't have to get old [as a state of mind]. I'll be skiing in Aspen in March. No point in laying down and letting them throw dirt on you."

And 81-year-old Helen Ludlow and 75 year old Pat Catwallader wouldn't think of missing a rehearsal. "It brightens my life," Ms. Ludlow said, "and the lives of all of us who do it, I think. Don't you agree, Pat?"

Ms. Catwallader said, "It certainly does for me. I'm a widow and it's wonderful to come and meet other people."

"And we look forward to seeing these people we know so well because we have fun with them," Ms. Ludlow continued. "It's a challenge sometimes to learn new music to sing with other people and to get it right. It's a challenge and every week, I look forward to it."

"Let's get going. We have three pieces we want to get through today. Sssh. Sssh. So we've got a lot of work to do," said Jeanne Kelly, the director of the prestigious Levine School of Music in Arlington County, Virginia. She is the seniors' instructor. She is seated at the piano.

"Everybody sit up," she said. "I want you to feel like you're floating off your waist. And your shoulders are nice and level and nice and relaxed. Let's start vocalizing."

Jeanne Kelly and the seniors already know in their hearts what a federal government agency wants to study scientifically - that singing is good therapy for old people. The agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, has recruited these senior volunteers and many others to take part in the study in three cities: San Francisco, New York City, and the Washington metropolitan area, which includes Arlington County.

Gene Cohen is director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is in charge of the NEA study.

Mr. Cohen: "We want to look at the impact of community-based cultural programs for older people. That can include painting, poetry, oral history, singing, drama, and look at the impact of these different forms of artistic expression and examining the effects of these programs on their health and well-being. So we'll be conducting questionnaires assessing health, mood, loneliness, morale -- and also looking at how these programs affect their level of independence and involvement and other types of activities."

Mr. Baroch: "But can't you assume that people who get together for singing will be happier?"

Mr. Cohen: "Many people will say, 'well, yeah, somebody who's involved in this program will feel better.' But it's a whole, different story if it has actually has an impact on their health and level of independence. This has profound ramifications in terms of societal concerns, long-term care considerations. It could be a whole new basis for funding not only cultural programs but all kinds of interesting programs providing productive activities for older persons."

Gene Cohen says currently, a large number of elderly people in the United States choose not to take part in community-based arts and cultural programs designed for them. He cites various reasons - they don't have transportation, they suffer from depression, or simply they are not interested in or feel stimulated by the programs.

Mr. Cohen says the NEA study may show that quality programs run by talented artists and musicians can attract many older people to community centers across the United States. As part of the study, the elderly volunteers are asked to keep a diary, recording how they feel before and after each gathering - like this Christmas concert rehearsal.

"It gives them energy," he said. "It gives them mental energy. Physically speaking, it gets them breathing more. You have to breathe a whole lot more than when you say hello. Every rehearsal is started with breathing, with where I'd like them to feel their voice. Some of them say, it helps my speaking voice. When we get old, and I'm 52, everything starts going south. Things start sagging. Voices get lower. So we talk a lot about, 'Let's hear your voice higher in focus. Direct it higher in your head.' They think about it and come back next week and say, 'yeah, my voice wasn't as rough and as it used to be.' Music is a healing power - and will continue to be a healing power in anybody's life."