A parade of wheelchairs and walkers files into the event space at the Cascades senior living facility in Grass Valley. Staffers pour drinks and serve hors d’oeuvres as a pianist plunks out arpeggios and a violinist and flutist tune-up.
The trio of professional musicians is from InConcert Sierra, a Nevada County nonprofit that’s bringing sonatas and symphonies to homebound seniors all over Northern California through a new program called Music on Wheels.
Just as Meals on Wheels provides food to the elderly to stave off hunger, the music may be helping older people keep their spirits up and their minds sharp.
“They don’t ever get out to hear a concert of professional musicians performing for them,” said artistic director Ken Hardin. “When we can share [music] with people that really are deprived of it in a lot of ways, it’s a really neat experience.”
The program was motivated in part by the mounting scientific evidence showing music’s positive effects on the mind and body. It can cause changes to heart rate and blood pressure, and has been shown to reduce anxiety in people with heart disease. Researchers in Finland found it helped with stroke recovery. And playing familiar songs for seniors can jog memory and improve mood.
Joshua Leeds, an Oregon-based author who studies what music does to the human and animal nervous systems, says classical music is especially effective.
“The patterns are easy to identify,” he said. “We don’t have to be in active listening, we can be in passive hearing. … And then not only are we taking in the beauty of it, we are also then taking in the resonance, the tone, and we’re taking in the tempo and how that’s affecting our primary pulses.”
Rafael Diaz, a board member for InConcert Sierra and a psychologist by training, has been keeping a close eye on this research and designing Music On Wheels setlists accordingly.
“Classical music is really soothing and uplifting, particularly the music that we choose,” he said. “That high quality of live performance gets to your heart and a way that no recording does. Hearing an acoustic instrument — a violin and a piano and a flute — it reaches the person in a very important way.”
Helen Hart, 91, has been reading and playing games to keep busy since she moved into Cascades last fall. But she can’t go out, and she says she doesn’t get much opportunity to listen to classical.
“It’s just nice to hear some decent music besides rock’n’ roll and all that stuff,” she said.
Hart’s daughter Lori Woodhall noticed the music really lifted the mood for her mother and other residents.
“It was just neat to see what [the music] was doing, how it was resonating with them,” she said.
The program at Cascades included a French minuet, a tango and a gospel tune. Some pieces were from classical greats such as Bach and Beethoven, others from lesser-known composers.
As the trio jumped from song to song, pausing occasionally to share musical factoids, audience members looked on with interest and delight. They tapped their toes to Telemann and swayed to Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz. One attendee took an iPhone video.
Diaz, of the nonprofit’s board, says a crucial component of the program is creating social spaces where attendees can both listen to music and spend time together. Homebound seniors can become isolated, which puts them at addition risk for depression and cognitive decline. Some experts call chronic loneliness a threat on par with obesity.
The Music on Wheels program launched in January and is still in its early stages. The musicians hope to reach more elderly people in Nevada County throughout the year.