A recent study that featured in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences looked at a novel way to fight loneliness in older adults — joining a choir.
The aim of the program, called Community of Voices, was to measure the impact of art-based interventions on well-being and quality of life.
People are now living longer thanks to medical and technological advances. However, as our average lifespan steadily increases, the issue of loneliness grows in parallel.
Loneliness on the rise
In one paper, researchers propose several reasons why loneliness might be increasing. They note that it is less common for multiple generations to live together in modern society, families often move apart, and one-person households are more common than ever. All of these factors raise the risk of loneliness among those in older populations.
Studies have also shown that older people tend to be more lonely than younger adults.
There is an association between loneliness and health problems too. For instance, studies have found that people who are lonely may be more likely to become ill. Research also indicates that loneliness and social isolation are risk factors for early mortality.
This means that there is a pressing need to find ways to reduce loneliness in older adults.
Improving quality of life
To create the Community of Voices program, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) collaborated with the San Francisco Community Music Center (CMC) and the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services.
The intention of the project was to discover if this type of social intervention could improve quality of life for older people.
The study took place over the course of 3 years and involved 12 senior centers in the San Francisco area. These centers all aim to engage adults aged 60 years and above in activities that help them with their thinking skills and boost their physical health.
The researchers worked with 390 older adults, whom they enrolled in one of two groups. The first group began rehearsing immediately, while the second group had a 6-month wait.
Professional choir directors and accompanists led each group. They chose material that was suitable for older adults, regardless of their level of ability, and that would help them improve their skills over time.
Participation improved emotional well-being
The team tested a number of parameters during the course of the study, including memory, coordination, and balance. The participants also answered questions about their emotional well-being.
The results showed that the participants enjoyed being part of a group and working together toward a common goal. The enjoyment of this activity resulted in a happier outlook on life and reduced loneliness.
“Our current health and social systems are not prepared to help support our rapidly increasing population of older adults,” said lead author Julene Johnson, PhD, associate dean for research and professor at the UCSF School of Nursing.
“There’s a high percentage who experience loneliness and social isolation, and depression also is relatively high. There’s a need to develop novel approaches to help older adults stay engaged in the community and also stay connected.”
The study authors express their surprise that they did not find any improvements in thinking skills or physical function. They call for more research on how a choir can improve the well-being of its participants and on whether or not there are any long-term impacts on health.
Despite the lack of findings in this particular area, the study did show that the program had measurable benefits for adults aged 60 years or older.
“Thanks to the vision and leadership of UCSF and [lead author] Julene Johnson, we now have evidence-based research to support the value of choirs for older adults,” said Sylvia Sherman, program director at the San Francisco CMC.
As it turns out, singing together and working toward a common goal have benefits that go far beyond the sound of music.