Striking a chord with aging: Afi-Odelia Scruggs leads Music Settlement’s Creative Aging program

The baby boomers have always done things differently. As the youngest of boomers rapidly reach retirement age, they continue to prove that they march to a different beat.

By 2030, more than 20% of the U.S. population will be over age 65 and The Music Settlement, which inspires people to learn, create, celebrate, and heal through music and the arts, is tapping into this unique generation with its new Creative Aging department.

In January, The Settlement named teacher, coach, musician, and award-winning journalist Afi-Odelia Scruggs to head the department. Scruggs was first hired by The Settlement in 2017 as an outreach teacher.

Afi-Odelia ScruggsAfi-Odelia ScruggsScruggs is a self-proclaimed “polymath” as a writer and journalist, as well as a teaching artist in music. She was named Best Freelancer in Ohio by both the Society of Professional Journalists and Press Club of Cleveland. She plays electric bass, keyboards, mandolin, and balaphone, the West African ancestor of the xylophone, and has taught with organizations like Roots of American Music.

Scruggs says her new position blends almost all of her talents and interests.

“I took the position because, as a member of the target demographic, I was excited to see programming geared toward lifelong learners,” she explains. “I'm definitely a member of that community. I hope to make a difference by helping develop outreach that recognizes and builds on the talents and skills adults already have.”

Scruggs says this newest crop of retirees wants to be more active, more involved, and more creative in how they participate in life as they age.

“People still want to be active,” she says. “People still want to be independent. Rather than looking at older people as receptacles to be poured into, they want to be more involved.”

Catering to the aging

Even before the isolation that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, Matthew Charboneau, the Settlement’s Center for Music chair, was looking for new ways to serve older adults in Northeast Ohio and discovered the Lifetime Arts grant program, which helps organizations and artists create their arts own programming.

In November 2017, Charboneau attended “Catalyzing Creative Aging” at the National Guild for Community Arts Conference in San Francisco. The Music Settlement was one of 20 organizations nationwide to be accepted for training, technical support, and a seed grant that gave The Music Settlement the essential tools needed to cater to the aging population.

The Settlement Singers a co-ed ensemble for adultsThe Settlement Singers a co-ed ensemble for adultsMusical healing

The Creative Aging movement started about 20 years ago, when baby boomers began to retire, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) sponsored a 2006 study on creativity and aging. The study showed there is a powerful positive effect on aging populations when community-based arts organizations involved their older populations with professional artists.

The arts study revealed that the health effects are profound—often allowing older folks to avoid the doctor and maintain their independence.

Research has shown that music offers therapeutic benefits to all ages— especially to older adults. According to a 2020 meta-analysis of studies published in “Health Psychology Review,” music has the power to regulate heart rate, reduce stress hormones, and improve depression.

Singing and musical instruments that use breath improve symptoms of lung disease and Parkinson’s Disease. Beachwood-based InMotion, for instance, uses music therapy for Parkinson’s patients—using singing, breath instruments, and drumming circles to help strengthen vocal cords and breathing and foster community.

Building community

The 2006 NEA Study also showed that participation in group music provides more benefit to social wellbeing than solo pursuits. The Music Settlement responded by designing the Creative Aging programs to offer relief from the loneliness that often plagues retirees.

“It has a wellness component,” says Scruggs of the program. “It keeps your brain active and then builds community. [The] whole isolation issue is major. All of this is about education and community.”

The seed for the Creative Aging department was planted after Charboneau attended the 2017 Community Arts conference. He created a beta program comprising four groups: a senior singing group, an adult orchestra, and two pop-up sessions for more experienced musicians.

Musical Mix and Mingle at The Music SettlementMusical Mix and Mingle at The Music SettlementThe success of the pilot programs, coupled with a grant from the Cleveland Foundation enabled The Music Settlement to create the new department and bring in Scruggs to lead it.

“The programming in the Creative Aging department stresses education and skill building,” says Scruggs. “The ensemble leaders are excellent teachers as well as performers. That's a powerful combination.” 

One of the programs to come out of the new department is the Settlement Singers— a co-ed choir ensemble for adults of all singing abilities who express themselves through music that is led by Kimberly Lauritsen—a mezzo-soprano opera singer who often sings with the Cleveland Orchestra and heads the voice department at The Music Settlement.

The Settlement Singers “are open to anyone, but it skews older, and it's geared to people 55 up,” Scruggs explains. “You don't have to know how to read music, you really don't. [Lauritsen] is very good about incorporating the basics into the rehearsals and so you end up being a better singer.”

The choir fosters both a creative and social experience as the participants practice breathing and vocal techniques, gain performance skills, learn to read rhythms and pitch patterns, and memorize text and music. At the end of each course, the singers perform for friends and family.

Scruggs says the Settlement Singers are already a tight knit group.

“They go out to lunch, they contact each other,” she says. “I've asked about transportation, because I know for folks in these cohorts, transportation can be an issue. People carpool. People help each other.”

Currently, the most successful program is the Old-Time Jam—a monthly jam session at the Ohio City campus where participants learn and play folk music by ear. The group is almost at capacity, so the Settlement is working to find the best way expand to a second group.

For more advanced beginners, there is the Adult Orchestra, open to both experienced and inexperienced orchestra musicians, or the Musical Mix and Mingle, a social chamber music group for strings, woodwinds, and piano.

“They're more in line with what people think about The Music Settlement,” says Scruggs of the programs. “They're classical, so you have to know how to sight read, and you have to play an instrument. The musical mix and mingle is a once a quarter event.”

Adult Orchestra at The Music SettlementAdult Orchestra at The Music SettlementAnyone can be a musician, at any age

As an accomplished musician and teacher, Scruggs is uniquely qualified to grow this new area of arts instruction and community building. A baby-boomer herself, Scruggs’ own career is emblematic of the kind of students The Music Settlement wants to attract to the Creative Aging department.

Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Scruggs says she always wanted to be a musician. A bad bout of flu while studying elemental harmony during her freshmen year at the University of Chicago waylaid Scruggs’ musical dreams.

Instead, she gravitated towards teaching and earning a PhD in Slavic languages from Brown University. A series of serendipitous events and connections made between teaching jobs pointed Scruggs to the “Richmond News Leader” and soon after the "Washington Post" and her career as a journalist began.

Eventually, writing brought Scruggs to Ohio—first at the “Cincinnati Enquirer,” then the “Dayton Daily News,” before the “Plain Dealer” recruited her in the 1990s.

Once settled in Cleveland, Scruggs returned to school at Cuyahoga Community College to finally finish that harmony class she had started years ago in Chicago.

She left the "Plain Dealer" in 2001 to teach and study online design and technology. Little by little, freelance writing gave way to music gigs playing and teaching music.

Scruggs points to her own music career to encourage older folks to pick up that instrument they haven’t played in years.

“We have this idea that you have to start in your teens or you have to be a prodigy,” she says. “But it’s not about that, you can start at any time.”

Scruggs says she knows from her own life experiences that one never knows what may come out of learning a new skill, adding, “If you had told me I'd be doing something like this at my age—I'm in my 60s—I would have been like, what?”

Keep the fires burning

Creative Aging is more than just taking a class to keep your brain active, it’s about connecting to your creative fire, taking a chance on doing something just because you love it, says Scruggs. She enthusiastically talks about The Music Settlement’s four programs.

The Creative Aging department plans to grow these ensembles and create more music-making opportunities tailored to life-long learning. “Folks on staff have ideas and try to make those ideas come to fruition and let folks know, hey, we want to add a movement component,” says Scruggs. “We might want to add jazz and do the same with jazz that we do with the Adult Orchestra and keep it as an accessible barrier to entry.”

In keeping with the tenants of The Music Settlement, these offerings meant to be affordable and there are senior discounts and financial aid available.

Scruggs says she is excited to be part of this new endeavor.

“A lot of folks are delivering programming, but I think we are the first cultural institution that has set up a specific department that is geared to [creative aging],” she says.

While she’s not a native Clevelander, after living in Northeast Ohio for 30 years, Scruggs has come to value the city’s heritage.

“We do have a cultural community that I think we take for granted because it is so rich,” she observes. “But when you go other places, even when I go back home to Nashville, I really appreciate what we have here and how accessible it is.”

About the Author: Katie McMenamin

Katie McMenamin has written across a range of platforms, from broadcast news and published novels to promotional brochures and back cover blurbs.