Musical seniors in tune with mental health

Lessons, jam session keep minds and bodies active – plus, it’s fun!
By: Anne Stokes, Gold Country Media correspondent
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Throughout human history, music has held a preternatural ability to affect its listeners. From Duke Ellington telling you to “Take the A Train” to Lady Day singing the blues, music has the power to invigorate the senses and soothe the soul. And according to scientists and medical professionals, playing music may be able to do much more for one's physical, psychological and social well-being. Music has been shown to stave off the onset of mental decline, ease stress and provide opportunities for social activities.

Studies published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, have shown that cognitive activity, such as playing music, reading, puzzles and other hobbies, can help reduce the risk or slow down the onset of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. The skills required to play music can also improve cardiovascular strength, muscle tone and respiratory function, and minimize arthritis, depending on the instrument. Even for those who have little musical experience, taking up a new melodious hobby comes with the benefits of increased mental stimulation.

Bud Gardner, “Head Coot” with the Sun City Harmonicoots, founded the harmonica orchestra in 2004 after placing an ad in the Sun City Bulletin. The band, which comprises 60 members from the Sun City active living community, has since played in more than 300 performances. Gardner, a formerly avid athlete and coach, can testify to the physical benefits playing the harmonica brings.

"It's a complicated instrument – you blow to make music and you draw (in) to make music," he explained. "You breathe from your diaphragm, so in doing that you're strengthening your lungs. It's a whole health movement playing this little thing."

"It's taught me that seniors can learn," added Gardner, who couldn't read music before starting the group. "I now know 200 songs by heart, and I'd say the group knows more."

For seniors who may be experiencing significant changes in their lives, the psychological effects of music can contribute greatly to one's quality of life. Adjustments in living situations and family life, the lessening of physical abilities and changes in employment and financial situations can add up to a frustrating loss of control, which leads to depression in many seniors. Music can offer an outlet for creative expression, improve self-esteem and confidence, and ease stress and anxiety. In short, it's fun.

"I think as life changes for everybody, it's easy to remove yourself and maybe dwell on things that you're no longer able to do," said Courtney Siegel, executive director for Oakmont of Roseville. "But there is a level of participation in all of the activities that we love that we can still do and enjoy on different levels. It might not look exactly like how it used to, we might not be able to participate how we used to, but being able to still enjoy what we love is important."

"Trying new things adds excitement," Siegel added. "The unknown can sometimes be daunting, so my advice would be to call up a neighbor, a friend, and maybe get a partner in crime to try what is unfamiliar to you."

Siegel's advice aligns with studies conducted by the Yale Medical Group that highlight the importance of social interaction, which can have effects on both physical and mental health. Maintaining social connections and seeking out social opportunities can potentially reduce the risk or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease, lower blood pressure and help alleviate depression.

"Molly and I, we could sit at home and play together, but that's not nearly as much fun as playing with a group and learning to jam," explained Ron Peck, who founded the Sun City Lincoln Hills Ukulele Ohana with his wife, Molly Mulligan, a little over a year ago. What started as a small group playing in their dining room has grown to 60 people, many of whom attend weekly rehearsals now held at the community's Orchard Creek Lodge. Peck, who gives beginners lessons to those who come to the group with little or no experience, learned to play himself after retiring and moving to the Big Island of Hawaii.

"I was walking around aimlessly," he said. "We went to Kmart one day and my wife went in and she came out with a $14 ukulele and said, 'Go learn to play.' And so I went down to a senior center in Hilo and took lessons and learned and that was the beginning of it. That was about seven years ago."

For Sun City Lincoln resident Judy Skillings, being a member of the band has been a fantastic experience.

"That's the key to this whole group, it's just for fun,” she said. “It's non-judgmental, nobody's critical of anybody. We just come to have a good time and it's just wonderful."