Study Shows Cultural Programs Improve Physical and Mental Health of Seniors

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Can music, dancing, theater, and literature really improve your health? According to the results of a recent study sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Center for Mental Health Studies, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Stella and Charles Guttmann Foundation, and the AARP, participating in artistic programs can improve both your physical and mental well being.

The study, entitled “The Impact on Older Participants of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs,” was initiated in the fall of 2001. Its primary aim was to evaluate the effects of experiential cultural programs provided by professionals on the mental health, general health, overall functioning, and sense of well being of older persons. The participating programs included the Elders Share the Arts program in Brooklyn, the Center for Elders and Youth in the Arts in San Francisco, and Levine School of Music.

At Levine School of Music, the study led to the foundation of the Senior Singers’ Chorale, comprised of members from local, independent living communities, including Goodwin House in Alexandria, VA; Goodwin House West in Falls Church, VA; and the Lee Center in Arlington, VA. The Senior Singers are directed by Jeanne Kelly, the Music Director for the Georgetown University Concert Choir, who also has experience with The Washington Opera, Baltimore Opera, and the New York City Opera, among others.

During the course of the study, both an intervention group (a group who participated in programs with professional artists) and a control group were used at each location. All participants completed periodic questionnaires designed to test their general health, mental health, and social functioning. Study Researchers anticipated that the older persons participating in the creative arts programs conducted by professional artists would show better results among a variety of social, behavioral, mental health, general health, and quality of life measures, as compared to the control group.

In keeping with the study goals, the Senior Singers mission was to engage the participants in a performing art activity under the leadership of a proven professional in the field. According to directory Jeanne Kelly, “These musicians have become very demanding, not only of themselves, but from what they expect out of rehearsals and performances; they really know what makes a good ensemble.”

The group has performed on various stages at the Kennedy Center, for the “Arlington Remembers” 9-11 Memorial Ceremony in 2002, at the Levine School’s annual Messiah sing-a-long each December, and at the Society of the Arts and Healthcare Conference in April.

Not surprisingly, preliminary results from the study revealed a significant difference between the intervention and control groups in terms of self-reported overall health ratings. The group participating in the cultural programs reported better health one year after the baseline measures were taken, and the control group reported that their health had declined. While the control group reported visiting the doctor 13.19 times per year, the intervention group only reported 9.27 doctor visits per year.

For the participants, the social interaction and the opportunity to perform with other talented seniors has been the biggest reward of the program. Chorale member, Claire Fields, an 80 year old soprano, relates, “I love working with Jeanne; she has taken our rehearsals to a different level. She works on tone production and proper breathing; it’s not just singing by any means.” She adds, “I have made some great friends in the Chorale, and I love performing!”

Jeff Barber, a 94 year old tenor, has had much the same experience. “I could never sing harmony before, but now Jeanne has me focusing on breathing techniques and voice placement. She is amazing. She never criticizes an individual, but she always gets her point across.” Mr. Barber’s wife says he has been livelier since joining the Senior Singers, and he admits, “Being in the Senior Singers’ Chorale has been rejuvenating for me.”

Adapted from the Presentation “Preliminary Results from an NEA Sponsored Study on The Health and Social Functioning Impact on Older Participants of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs.”

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