ICAA’s Guidelines for effective communication with older adults


Key points


Effective messages appeal to a life stage. For example, appeal to an anniversary, or relocation or change from prior profession to new profession, or the birth of a grandchild.


Effective messages appeal to a need or interest. Functional ability, attitude and behavior are far more critical than chronological age when describing an incident or constructing messages.


“Old” words have new meanings that must be defined. Terms that are so familiar they are part of the national vocabulary carry new meanings. For example, the word “retirement” formerly meant leaving a job one held for one’s working life and, with a guaranteed pension for income, sitting in a rocking chair. Today, “retirement” often means either finding (or creating) a new job, working full or part time as a volunteer and engaging in personal interests. The concept of “retirement” has changed, and so the meaning of the word has changed.


Age alone is not a reason or need, but it may be a point of entry. For example, the ability to vote requires an age of 18, but 18 does not describe the reasons why a person votes. Age 55 may be required to rent an apartment in an age-qualified community, but age 55 does not describe a person’s interests, economic status or motivators for renting in that particular place. When age is relevant, use specific ages. For example, the ability to draw Social Security at ages 62 or 67 or the ability to reside in an age-qualified community at age 55.


The problem is the problem; age is not the problem. Simply knowing that a given problem is associated with older populations is not a reason to assume that your target market will be attracted by an age-related message. For example, diabetes is more common in people 50 years and older. People do not have diabetes because of their age, however. Most people with diabetes acquire it because of poor quality diets, obesity and sedentary lifestyles. Lifestyle is the primary issue, not age.


Demographics are not a target market. Age, socioeconomic status, geography, gender, marital status—all of these demographics are the ground for surveys and market research. Demographics are a tool for sorting information, not for making decisions. Other methods, such as psychographics, product/service solutions, focus groups and similar are needed to understand and hone in on the needs, interests and attitudes of the target market.


Avoid cliches. It is no longer accurate or helpful to act as if it were cute or unusual for an older person to mend fences on a ranch, tutor kindergarteners, run a marathon, lead a Fortune 500 company, bake chicken instead of frying it, or fight City Hall. These actions are common and normal.


Perception of age is key. The boomers and their parents tend to perceive themselves as being 10 years younger than they really are. And the aging population is indeed more healthy and active than prior generations. A challenge for seniors centers, for example, is overcoming the barrier that older adults don’t perceive themselves as being old enough to benefit from the center. If older adults don’t think of themselves as old, age-based marketing won’t be effective.


There is no such thing as “anti-aging.” It would be useless to try; we start aging from the moment of birth. The issue is not opposition to aging, the issue is living as well as possible through all the ages in a life span.


One group does not represent an entire population. Government agencies, research organizations, foundations and similar places collect information on their areas of interest, then report their findings and advocate their points of view. Typically, agencies and organizations focus on socioeconomic conditions, health conditions, safety and similar topic areas. It is extremely appropriate for organizations to report on the number of older adults at the poverty level; it is not appropriate to extrapolate that all older adults are poor and needy.


The jargon of a profession is not a communication tool outside of that profession. Medicine has a unique language to describe disease and patients; governments use terms to describe population groups; researchers use language that is specific to research. The languages of these groups enhance communication among their professional peers, but these languages may be highly ineffective for communicating to people of any age or to other professions. A doctor may see a geriatric patient, but the grocery store clerk sees a friendly regular customer who often buys flour and fruit, and the customer sees herself as an environmental activist who bakes award-winning cakes while moving around the kitchen using a walker.


Objective and subjective are two different things. Facts are accurate and perception is reality. The objective fact is that chronic health conditions are prevalent among people who are 65 years and older (percentage varies depending on the disease). Yet, 75% of people ages 65 and over rate their health as good, very good or excellent. People have chronic conditions, but that is one part of life, not their whole life. Many people with physical limitations (at any age) adapt and live happy and productive lives. Some people do not.


Be careful with humor. Portraying older adults with the purpose of ridicule and derogatory humor is never appropriate. What is humorous to one person is offensive to another.


Reaction to language is individual. A word that one person finds neutral may be considered negative or harmful by another person. The best practice is to appeal to needs, interests and issues rather than age. Ask your target audience what they prefer to be called, and use that as your guide.


Next: Words and phrases


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