Can choral singing really help people age well? Maintain their health and their crucial social connections? Perhaps find their way through grief and loss?
That’s a tall order, but the new film “Unfinished Song” quietly makes those claims. Opening in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, and then around the country, it struck me as predictably plotted but with several elements to recommend it:
a) Terence Stamp
b) Vanessa Redgrave
c) Ms. Redgrave, now 75, movingly singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”
d) An energetic choir of other older singers, mostly recruited from actual community choruses in England.
You may recall “Young@Heart,” the 2008 documentary about a Northampton, Mass., senior chorus of the same name. Going strong since 1982, the group rehearses twice a week, has released three CDs and has given concerts around the world, most recently in Belgium and Holland.
You might expect performers over age 73 — the minimum age — to stick with memory-fanning songs of their youth. But Young@Heart is currently working on tunes by Yo La Tengo and the Flaming Lips.
“It exercises the brain. You have to learn stuff,” the choir director Bob Cilman said. “People work hard to stay in and continue. It’s probably good for their health.”
There’s some evidence that he’s right. Choral singing has been shown to strengthen neural connections, fortify the immune system and reduce stress and depression. “It seems to tinker with the chemicals in the brain in just the right way to make people feel better,” said Stacy Horn, author of the new book “Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others.”
As for the impact on older choristers, a 2006 study comparing singers in Washington, D.C., choruses for those over age 65 with nonsinging groups found that the singers reported better health, fewer falls, more activity and less loneliness.
Julene Johnson, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, has done similar research in Finland, where choruses for all ages, genders and interests are ubiquitous. When she asked senior singers about their experiences, “they said they got emotional benefits, relaxation and social support” from participating, Dr. Johnson said. “It seemed to have a relationship with how highly they rated their quality of life.”
Wouldn’t you think there would be scores of similar organizations around the United States for older singers? Possibly there are, but without a national umbrella group, they are hard to track. (Of course, many thousands of older adults probably continue singing with all-age community and church choirs, but I can also see good reasons to form choruses specifically for older adults.)
The Encore Creativity for Older Adults program, which grew out of that 2006 study, now offers 13 choruses for the 55-plus crowd at senior centers and residences and community colleges in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. These seem to favor more traditional vocal music; here’s a YouTube video of several Maryland Encore choruses performing Aaron Copland in a concert last month.
In San Francisco, Dr. Johnson is starting the Community of Voices project, recruiting about 400 singers over age 60 — no previous choral experience required — at a dozen senior centers, to study its impact on their mobility, cognition and psychosocial well-being over the course of a year.
A bit north, in Mill Valley, a chorus called Rock the Ages follows the Young@Heart template and recently covered the Who’s “My Generation.” Of course.
But where else? Let’s see if we can come up with a broader list. If you or a family member sings in a chorus for older adults, please tell us about it. Where is your group, and what does it sing? What do you value about the experience?
And a bonus question, suggested by the fact that the chorus in “Unfinished Song” performs not only Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder tunes, but also Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.” My moviegoing buddy took offense, seeing ageism afoot. Wasn’t singing hip-hop and heavy metal a too-cute attempt at pretending to be young? A sacrifice of hard-won dignity? Was the film audience laughing with them, or at them?
I’m ambivalent on the issue. But I can agree with Mr. Cilman of Young@Heart, who says that his chorus members live interesting lives. “They perform for big audiences, they get great responses,” he said. “It’s unexpected for them. God, I hope something like this happens for me when I’m older.”