Everyone who works in community arts and has watched a group or an individual change as a result of an arts project knows this frustration. You try to explain: “He was so depressed. He wouldn’t look at anyone. Now, he’s made friends, he sings, he’s happy.” Your friends say “Oh that’s nice.” Ah but you can hear them think. That is one individual. It’s a cute story but it doesn’t mean anything.
So welcome to Julene Johnson, Associate Professor from the University of California. She received a Fulbright Scholarship and went to study a tiny community in Uvelskela, Finland where there are 6 senior choirs – count em – SIX! and virtually no depression. And let’s be honest. A winter in Finland? Almost no light? And yet! No light but no depression? = lots of singing!
So now Julene Johnson has returned and has put together an amazingly complex project with the support of the National Institute of Aging and other partners, 12 senior centers from diverse communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, musicians and choir directors from each community and is asking:
CAN COMMUNITY CHOIRS HELP PROMOTE HEALTH IN CULTURALLY DIVERSE OLDER ADULTS?
12 choirs will start for one year in a staggered process in various communities. The first two will be in the Mission District, and the choruses will be run by Martha Rodriguez and Jennifer Peringer. The third and fourth will be African American choruses run by a local choir director. Each choir is from a different diverse part of the area, with a director and musician from that area. Each participant will be monitored at various stages of the process in terms of their health and mental health. Within the budget is a “Health Economist.”
Health Economist! You wot? I, the artist wonder what this is about. Julene explains. “The health economist can tell us, ‘what does one older person falling cost? What does a visit to the doctor cost? We know and will prove that older adults who sing in choirs for 12 months have higher ratings of health, fewer doctor visits and falls, less medication and loneliness – and therefore, running a choir is saving them money.'”
The choirs will be started staggered every six months. At the end of five years an enormous amount of data will be available for interpretation. This is exciting news for all of us who work in community arts. I’m looking forward to standing confidently at parties and throwing out positive statistics that will have friends gasping in amazement. Better, I’m looking forward to starting more senior choruses.