Rhinegold Photo credit: © Cacha Photography
Not alone: Hear and Now project in Bedford

Jane Macpherson

Aging gracefully

9:00, 6th October 2017

Music has been shown to make a significant contribution to living happily and healthily in old age. Orchestras Live has been at the forefront of creating projects that address the concerns of an aging population in the UK, as well as spearheading research into the impact of music on the lives of the elderly. Jane Macpherson highlights the latest work in this field

This autumn sees a further groundswell in the recognition that the arts and culture play a key role maintaining health and wellbeing – especially in the latter stages of life. August’s introduction of Age Friendly Standards, Age of Creativity’s first arts festival for older people this October, and the recent addition of a sector support organisation, the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance (CHWA), to Arts Council England’s national portfolio fund demonstrate the increasing intersection between performing arts and the health sectors.

Significantly, July 2017 saw the report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, call for recognition of the powerful contribution the arts can make to our health and wellbeing. According to its findings, the arts can keep us well, aid recovery and support longer lives better lived, as well as helping to meet major challenges facing health and social care: aging, long term conditions, loneliness and mental health.

Music has long been heralded as holding physiological benefits, and Orchestras Live believes that live orchestral music has the power to inspire people for a lifetime. As well as developing bespoke projects in response to that demand at a local and regional level, Orchestras Live is contributing to further evaluation and research that will improve overall understanding both of the impact of this work and principles for success. The success of its projects around the country in the last ten years has demonstrated the demand for life-enriching well-being projects, especially for those in the later stages of life.

Building on a highly successful pilot project (Essex Folk, 2015), Orchestras Live and Sinfonia Viva will be collaborating this month with older people, care staff and local communities in Brentford to compose songs celebrating aspects of their lives past and present. The project will culminate in a public performance of their new songs alongside the orchestra.

A strand of academic evaluation by Anglia Ruskin University is embedded in the project, supported by a research grant from Arts Council England, and will focus on the benefits of the arts in developing relationships between older people, care workers and their surrounding communities.

The daughter of an Essex Folk participant writes to the project team, ‘A thank you seems simple, but thank you for including mum in your musical extravaganza. It was all she’s talked about she enjoyed it so much. She was so stimulated, something I’ve not seen for years.’ In the words of another correspondent: ‘Elderly people have little or no chance of live orchestral music, and to be part of the team producing such an experience is truly uplifting, as well as stimulating and unforgettable … The atmosphere today was one of warmth, camaraderie and passion, and I sincerely hope you will be able to do many more of these events to help elderly people make the most of their latter years.’

Essex Folk: Celebrating a creative music project in four residential nursing care homes in north Essex © Paul Starr
Essex Folk: Celebrating a creative music project in four residential nursing care homes in north Essex
© Paul Starr

Ten years ago, Orchestras Live forged an alliance with the Philharmonia and through the Hear and Now project introduced an orchestral dimension to activities with music groups working with people with dementia and their carers. Many participants have previously played instruments, as described by a member of the Music for Memory group who attends with her husband: ‘We have always enjoyed music, both of us performing and participating in music, all our lives and then when dementia strikes you think, How can we still do that? We now have that opportunity again … and we can do that together – that’s quite the best bit about it.’

Linking ideas of memory and music, music leader Tim Steiner has likened the role of music to a ‘superpower’, with the ability to reach into the deepest recesses of the mind and rediscover memories that were thought to have been lost forever. Music brings the past to the surface, where, says Steiner, ‘it flourishes, dances, lives and breathes. It might be the intense emotion of a first kiss, the memory of a special event, or a seemingly unimportant moment which suddenly becomes very real and present’. The social care benefits of this project have been strong. As one Hear and Now participant affirmed: ‘It has made me happy coming here, I’ve felt much more “not-alone”.’

More information on these projects and other work at orchestraslive.org.uk

Home comforts
We’ve all known moments when enjoying music with others creates a sense of shared experience that prompts conversation and interaction. This simple social engagement is something that many older people miss. In Withernsea, a remote rural coastal town in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Orchestras Live is producing the At Home project to address this issue for East Riding of Yorkshire Council. In partnership with Manchester Camerata, Orchestras Live is providing culturally and socially enriching music experiences with residents in care homes.

Using the power of music to unlock memories and kick-start the grey
matter is becoming a key feature of care programmes, particularly for those living with dementia. A growing base of academic research shows that the personal and social benefits of engagement in music may reduce the need for medication. A central element of the At Home project has been to ensure that participants are involved in the music-making, adding their individual creative voices. This returns a sense of control that is often lost when living in a care home. As part of this engagement, participants make musical choices, decide on lyrics, or write the melody themselves. Residents with limited mobility or verbal skills can choose from a range of percussion instruments to play and add to the musical soundscape of the newly composed songs.

Manchester Camerata has a strong track record of delivering music-making sessions with older people and people living with dementia. The orchestra is working in partnership with the University of Manchester to develop an ‘in the moment’ evaluation toolkit to measure the positive impacts that music can have on quality of life: enhanced mood, communication, new relationships, as well as decreased agitation.

New work inspired by At Home participants and workshops activity will feature in two ‘Tea with the Camerata’ concerts taking place in October 2017 and March 2018. At Home is part of the Classically Yours programme, developed in partnership with Orchestras Live, Manchester Camerata and Sinfonia Viva, in East Riding until March 2018. Visit www.orchestraslive.org.uk for more details

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