Posted on 18 November 2009
By Mark Miller
The profession of geriatrics suffered a huge loss earlier this month when Dr. Gene Cohen died. Cohen, who died from metastatic prostate cancer at age 65, was a pioneer in geriatric psychiatry, and he played an enormous role in revolutionizing our thinking about aging.
Cohen was especially well known for his research on the effects that creativity can have on older adults and the aging process. He directed the Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University, where he was a professor of health-care sciences, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences.
But Cohen also put his research into practice. He helped to create a national movement around
positive aging, and advocated to destroy the stereotype that aging leads inevitably to a decline in physical and mental capacity. His pioneering research demonstrated that life after 65 can be an important period of creativity and intellectual growth.
Dr. Cohen’s death brought to mind an interview I conducted recently with Jeanne Kelly, the leader of an organization in Washington, D.C. called Encore Creativity for Older Adults. Encore Creativity’s story is just one example of the way Cohen’s work touched so many professionals in geriatrics–and older Americans in general.
Kelly is a professional singer, conductor, and pianist who worked for many years with major opera companies and symphonies in the Washington-Baltimore area. In 2001, she was directing the Levine School of Music’s Arlington, Va., program when Cohen approached her with an idea.
Cohen wanted to talk with Kelly about a new research project that would attempt to measure the impact on older adults of participation in a professionally run arts organization. He asked Kelly to help get the project started by forming several chorales for older adult singers that he could study. She’d need to start two new singing groups to join with a seniors’ chorale she already was directing at a local senior living facility.
Kelly formed the groups, which embarked on an ambitious and professionally oriented program of rehearsal and performance. Cohen’s research–conducted over a three-year period–focused on comparing the singing seniors with control groups that didn’t have access to any similar activities. The key finding was that sustained involvement in a high-quality program such as Kelly’s resulted in a measurable, positive impact on overall health and longevity, doctor visits, medication use, falls, loneliness, and morale.
Meanwhile, Kelly–who was 51 herself when she first got involved in Cohen’s work–had become hooked on arts programs for older adults. In 2007, she founded Encore Creativity for Older Adults as a non-profit group that would manage and grow the senior chorales. “I decided that I wanted to simply do art for older adults. We’ve expanded enormously since then, which tells me that people are retiring and they want sophistication, and that they want to carry on what they were doing in life while working or find something wonderful they have never done before.”
When Kelly first formed the chorales, the average singer was 80 years old, and many of them are still singing with Kelly 10 years later. Chorales have been formed in 10 locations around the Washington-Baltimore area, with singers ranging in age from 55 to 97.
Encore Chorales are “no-cut”–anyone can join–but they’re dead serious about performance and professionalism. “Some have a background in singing, and some have never sung in their lives–someone at some point told them, ‘You shouldn’t sing.’ But if you teach someone to sing, they will get it. We just seat them next to someone who is strong.”
The chorales rehearse for two 15-week sessions each year and stage around 16 performances at venues such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Encore Creativity for Older Adults also runs camps for singers at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York and at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and a dance and movement program in Arlington, Va.
Most recently, Kelly launched a singing program designed for residents of assisted living facilities. “I hated the idea of assisted living being a real dead end, especially artistically,” she says. “Many people are there because of mobility problems, and the program has had excellent results.”
The Encore Chorales will be performing their annual series of holiday concerts around Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., during December. Check them out if you’re in the neighborhood; the schedule is at Encore’s website.
Listen: Hear a December, 2008 Encore Creativity concert at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.