Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, UBC Learning Commons.

It might look like a typical choir practice, but the three dozen or so community members who gather at the Okanagan Mission Activity Centre in Sarsons Beach, Kelowna, B.C. every Monday morning aren’t there just for a singalong. While singing is high on the agenda, Silver Song Group provides participants with much more than an earful of enjoyable music.

Run by the charitable foundation Sing For Your Life, these weekly gatherings can have real, measurable effects on the emotional and physical wellbeing of mature adults. Each session starts out with the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from the musical Oklahoma! and ends with Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.”

Research shows that singing can lessen anxiety and depression, while increasing oxygen levels in the blood. Photo: Sing For Your Life.

“We like to bookend it with those two songs so people know what’s coming,” says Jill Hilderman, a Sing For Your Life board member, who, together with her late husband, Nigel Brown, brought the model to Canada from Britain in 2008.

But while the tunes that fill the 90-minute gatherings might include selections from movie and Broadway musicals, hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s and other nostalgic tracks, they’re a prescribed set list that includes breathing exercises, rounds and layered singing, and rhythm exercises that increase in difficulty throughout the session.

“There’s a lot of stimulation of reminiscence, because we know that many of our participants are starting to have the first early dementia symptoms,” explains Hilderman. “We like to stimulate memory and some of these songs are ideal for that. ‘What film was this from?’ ‘Who starred in that?’ There’s lots of conversation that goes on.”

More than an art, there’s science backing Sing For Your Life’s approach. In 2011, researchers in the U.K. randomly split 265 adults (average age 67) into singing and non-singing groups. The singing participants joined a 12-week Silver Song Club program while the non-singers went about their lives as normal. Researchers surveyed members of both groups at the baseline, three- and six-month marks using a clinical questionnaire that asks about health-related quality of life, anxiety and depression and other markers of wellbeing. When the researchers analyzed the results, they found that measures of health were higher for the singing group than for non-singers, and that the positive effects continued for three months after the sessions had stopped.

“Singing has physical benefits because it is an aerobic activity that increases oxygenation in the blood stream and exercises major muscle groups in the upper body, even when sitting. Singing has psychological benefits because of its normally positive effect in reducing stress levels through the action of the endocrine system which is linked to our sense of emotional well-being. Psychological benefits are also evident when people sing together as well as alone because of the increased sense of community, belonging and shared endeavour,” Professor Graham Welch, chair of music education at the Institute of Education, University of London, who for three decades studied the developmental and medical benefits of singing, has said.

“The main goal is to help seniors age at home as long as possible. Particularly in the U.K. where healthcare costs and the number of seniors is significant, there was a real push to look at what kind of non-pharmaceutical interventions could occur to ensure that they remain independent, socially-connected and doing things that improve their longevity and reduce their reliance on the healthcare system,” says Hilderman. “That’s a tall order, but they saw measurable outcomes. People were self-reporting that they did feel that their overall health was better, their mental health was better, they were less socially isolated and were going to the doctor less and having less unplanned visits to the hospital. In some cases, (pharmaceutical) use was less. That’s pretty amazing.”

Sing For Your Life was inspired by a British program that brings together those who love to sing and socialize. Photo: Sing For Your Life.

For Hilderman and Brown, the evidence was compelling enough to launch a Canadian version of Sing For Your Life, which currently has three clubs that run weekly in the Okanagan region from September to May. Unlike the U.K., where the model is publicly funded, Sing For Your Life Canada is a charitable foundation that relies on donors to cover the cost of securing space for the sessions and training and paying facilitators (while other helpers are volunteers). There is no charge for participation in Silver Song Groups.

The group also launched a Silver Song Box, which is a paid, tablet-based device that plugs into a TV and provides a portable version of the program; proceeds support the foundation and Silver Song Clubs. The group recently sent its first device to a facility in Edmonton and are looking at how to practically adapt the group model throughout Canada so that more people may benefit.

“We always stress that you don’t need to be able to sing, because often people tell us they’d love to come but they can’t sing,” Hilderman says. “It doesn’t matter, it’s not about that.”