A Conceptual Framework for Considering Studies of Singing in the Lives of Older Adults: toward Life-experience Learning

Our review of literature revealed seven interrelated aspects of singing in the lives of elders: musical preferences, identity, autobiographical memory, social factors, life experiences, relationships, and health (see Figure 30.1). From the extant research, it was clear that through singing, older adults express their musical preferences, build their autobiographical memories, and construct personal and group identities. Group singing experiences in choirs and community music programs help many older adults feel less isolated and find an opportunity to socialize. The singing experiences of elders are also associated with social factors such as socioeconomic status, which might impact access to choirs or community-based singing programs. Likewise, experiences across the lifespan, in and out of music, might also impact how singing features in the lives of elders, as described in the studies of immigrants reviewed earlier. Although we did not focus primarily on this issue, we are aware that physical and mental health also impact singing in older adults, as described in chapters in Part I of this volume. These factors, we argue, need to be taken into account when designing studies and singing programs for elders.

Interrelationships of singing and wellbeing with a life experience approach

Figure 30.1 Interrelationships of singing and wellbeing with a life experience approach

Unsurprisingly, these interrelated factors can also be linked to the components of wellbeing proposed by Seligman (2010) in the PERMA model. Group singing programs can foster a sense of accomplishment in elders, helping them develop positive emotions, and build relationships. By being engaged in a collective effort (i.e., singing with others), elders can also derive meanings from the experience, enriching their lives and those of the people around them. A combination of the abovementioned interrelated factors influences singing in elders, oftentimes resulting in wellbeing. The wellbeing that derives from singing experiences, in turn, impacts the different factors, which will, once again, influence singing in a cyclical process (as depicted in Figure 30.1).

As our proposed framework suggests, understanding the intricacies of music in the lives of elders is central to conducting research with this population. We believe the same to be true when designing and leading music programs for them, in and through singing. To support groups of elders, the first task is to learn as much as possible about each group member. Listening to elders’ histories and interests is primary to successful programming because it offers insights into their preferences, memories, life experiences, and relationships, among others. All of these factors will reflect and be reflected in their singing. When working with elders, singing music that reflects their lives is not only central, but is also an important pathway into their senses, perceptions, cognitions, and emotions.

From a pedagogical standpoint, there is a need for practitioners to embrace a sense of working “in the moment” when engaging in singing with elders. Arguably, we are not preparing elders for a “musical future” in the sense of careers; we are working on their musical present as a result of a variety of life experiences. But instead of thinking of “elder-centered learning”, we suggest a change to “life-experience learning”. Rather than focusing on the limitations elders might face, we suggest a focus on their life experiences, across cultures, with singing and songs as both markers of specific memories and motivators for the development of skills, and, most importantly, wellbeing.

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