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Enriching the lives of Nashville seniors, one song at a time

In Nashville, the nonprofit Music for Seniors connects the city’s musicians with its older residents in an effort to build community and improve seniors’ quality of life. Now, the organization is teaming up with researchers at Vanderbilt University to see if the effects of its work can be measured -- and potentially leveraged to help patients with dementia and Alzheimer's. John Yang reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nashville, Tennessee, is called Music City for good reason.

    Now John Yang reports on a program that connects the city's musicians with its older residents, bringing benefits to both.

    It's part of our ongoing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.

  • John Yang:

    It's morning at Nashville's East Park Community Center, and these seniors are getting into the groove.

    Kyshona Armstrong leads a rousing chorus of old favorites. She's a professional musician with a background in music therapy. When not on the road touring, she sometimes plays gigs like this for a nonprofit group called Music for Seniors, which connects Nashville's talent with its older residents.

  • Kyshona Armstrong:

    Out on the road, I'm meeting people all the time and it's about me, right? And it's just like, I'm sharing my story, I'm sharing my story.

    But when I come to the community groups, I feel like it's my opportunity to feed into others. It just feels good to really kind of root into the community and to see a difference in the people.

  • John Yang:

    It was Sonny Collier's first time at a Music for Seniors session.

  • Sonny Collier:

    It was — kind of surprised me a little bit how I can rattle them off at the top of my head at age I am now.

  • John Yang:

    Former singer-songwriter Sarah Martin McConnell started the program in 2007, combining her love for music and her degree in social work.

  • Sarah Martin McConnell:

    Music for Seniors really is a hybrid of music and the social services, because every program that we do is about taking music out to the community.

  • John Yang:

    There are free daytime concerts every month, and local musicians lead sessions at nursing homes and community centers across Middle Tennessee.

    Now Music for Seniors is teaming with researchers here at Vanderbilt University to see if the effects of their programs can be measured. Studies already show that exposure to live music can improve seniors' brain function, emotional wellness and even mobility.

    Carrie Plummer, a geriatric specialist at Vanderbilt's nursing school, is designing the research. Plummer says the Music for Seniors program could be particularly useful for dementia patients.

  • Carrie Plummer:

    One of the things that we're really having to think about, are there are other ways for us to improve their quality of life? The more you have patients with better social networks and are able to socialize, that there seems to be a reduction in their risk for dementia.

  • Sarah Martin McConnell:

    My mother loved music.

  • John Yang:

    McConnell's experience with her late mother, who had Alzheimer's, was at the root of Music for Seniors.

  • Sarah Martin McConnell:

    I, being a musician, decided that I would start going to her adult day services program. So, I would go and bring my guitar, my dulcimer, and we would sing together.

  • John Yang:

    She said the sessions struck a chord.

  • Sarah Martin McConnell:

    They just would light up. And they were a different group as I was leaving than they were as I was coming.

  • John Yang:

    And if it helped them, McConnell thought, why wouldn't it help others, whether they have an impairment or not?

  • Sarah Martin McConnell:

    A lightbulb went off that this should be an organized effort to connect all of the musicians in Nashville with the isolated older adults.

  • John Yang:

    Musician Matt Bridges helped designed the program.

  • Matt Bridges:

    And what we're going to aim for is to make a joyful noise. That's it.

  • John Yang:

    He led this drum circle at Second Presbyterian Church, the same adult day care program where McConnell and her mother once sang and danced together.

  • Matt Bridges:

    What we saw today is a little bit of reservation on the front end.

    Once we give it a shot, once all of us typically try something, our guard kind of starts to come down and we're able to really express ourselves. And that's really the beauty in these programs and these sessions, is that we're trying something new.

  • John Yang:

    Something new that brought back memories for Shirley Green.

  • Shirley Green:

    Someone in my house was always singing. Someone in my house was always playing something. So, just as I get a little older, you get more and more into background, and you listen to others. But I enjoy music as part of my life.

  • John Yang:

    Music for Seniors also offers the chance to learn a new instrument, like the ukelele. Students in this class offered by Nashville's adult education program strummed classics they'd spent months learning.

    Their teacher, Todd Elgin, is a songwriter and plays in a ukelele band called the Ukedelics.

  • Todd Elgin:

    They're not being forced by their parents to come in and take lessons. They're there because they have either wanted to make music their whole life or used to make music and maybe there was a hiatus.

  • John Yang:

    And they're hoping many more older people will soon be sing their tune. Last year, McConnell won a $50,000 grant from the company WeWork. That helped the program expand to Knoxville, Tennessee, where the first free concert launched in August.

  • Sarah Martin McConnell:

    I would like to see there be a Music for Seniors in every city. Every place has talented musicians and every place has isolated, underserved older adults.

  • Woman (singing):

    Change going to come.

  • John Yang:

    That change, as simple as an old favorite song, can make all the difference.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Nashville, Tennessee.

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