Researchers interviewed 65 African Americans living in the southeastern United States. They ranged in age from 50 to 75 years, and all were part of a church congregation or other religious group. The study was led by Dr. Jill Hamilton, assistant professor in nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The findings appeared online in The Gerontologist on May 15, 2012.
Songs of thanksgiving and praise
Hamilton and her colleagues discovered participants derived meaning and comfort from several types of religious songs, especially songs evoking thanksgiving and praise. Amazing Grace topped their list of favourites.
An 85-year-old woman described how this song helped her find peace after her husband’s death. "I used to sing Amazing Grace a lot all the time."
Similarly, a 66-year-old man, who suffered a brain aneurysm, found strength through humming the lyrics of a gospel song God is My Everything.
God is my everything, He’s my joy in sorrow, He’s my hope for tomorrow, He’s my rock in a weary land, A shelter in time of storm, God is, God is my everything.
Songs of instruction
Researchers found some participants were drawn to songs that affirmed God’s presence in their lives and encouraged them to rely on His power.
For example, the song Harvest Time was a source of hope for a 50-year-old woman, coping with treatments for cancer. "It [the song] brought me through," she said.
Songs of communion
Other participants compared songs like Precious Lord Take My Hand and Touch Me Lord Jesus to conversing with God directly and requesting healing and strength.
A 69-year-old woman explained how Jesus Be a Fence All Around Me helped to comfort her after a serious car accident: " I was thanking Him all the time that I was just still alive."
Several participants reported they had learned religious songs as children. And older relatives had told them a song would get them through a stressful situation.
This point was reiterated by a 69-year-old cancer patient. He said the songs he learned from his grandmother reminded him of a previous time, when they helped to soothe and comfort him.
Songs of life after death
Finally, a small number of participants reported finding reassurance in songs that promised a future life in heaven and where loved ones would be seen again.
This group emphasized Negro spirituals including, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Old Ship of Zion, and By and By.
Songs linked to mental health
For generations, religious songs have been a part of the oral tradition of African Americans. The new research reveals how older African Americans use religious songs in a personal way to boost their mental health.
Researchers say the findings could help improve the cultural relevance of mental health programs for older African Americans. For example, a healthcare professional could ask about a favourite song to help a patient feel more at ease talking about mental health issues.