Just don't call me late for dinner

James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

There's a wisecrack about getting someone's name right that ends with, “Call me whatever you want, but just don't call me late for dinner.” Were it only such a light matter for some earnest seniors housing and care providers and their marketing people.

They want to be viewed in a kinder, gentler light and have made labeling rights serious business.

So serious it's come down to forging a national campaign. The mission: Replace the unwieldy “continuing care retirement community” with the less clinical “life plan community.”

When the “news” of the alternate name proposal was first released to the press in October, it arrived a few days before the crowds at the LeadingAge annual meeting would hear it. And it came to the press “embargoed” — in other words, restricted from public dissemination. There's nothing like labeling something forbidden to make it seem all the more desirable.

The name was officially announced and promoted by LeadingAge, provider partner Mather Lifeways and four marketing firms.

Panels, surveys, focus groups with seniors and their families were all said to point to something other than “CCRC.” And why not? String it out — which you invariably have to do for the uninitiated — and that's 12 syllables that describe, well, a place for needy people.

An actuary is credited with birthing “continuing care retirement community” in the 1980s. It sounded descriptive and fair enough at the time. But, as its detractors now claim, it never caught on, at least not with the target demographic.

Naming preferences have changed in the ensuing three decades. Show me a caregiver that puts “nursing home” in its new name and I'll buy you a smoothie with real fruit. Look around, and you'll notice that medical-oriented and even “caring” concepts are on the outs — especially if you're stuck trying to sell human beings on a concept that is invariably pretty expensive. You still have to come to grips with the fact that a big price tag is going to impede would-be buyers a lot more than a facility name.

But why not take away the needy stigma and trade down to six syllables? (Though we were warned that it's woe to the person who tries to truncate “life plan communities” to “LPC.”)

Hey, if it worked for the association that pared its own name from 19 syllables down to three — 3! — why not? Well, since you asked …

When the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging slipped into “LeadingAge” mode a few short years ago, there were some initial bumps in the road and re-explaining needed for a while. But the key is the group owned its own name and could basically compel people to use it, or otherwise ignore them if they so chose.

Then there's always that 3 syllables vs. 19 syllables thing. Nobody cheered louder than journalists when the headline-impossible American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (pant-pant) was jettisoned.

The trick with “life plan community” (and, no, it shouldn't be capitalized for generic use) is that it is a category of housing. That means others — specifically regulators — have to be willing to adopt it.

These early days, months and possibly years of trying out LPC, er, life plan community will be anxious ones. It's comparable to watching a toddler take his first steps: He might start running at any moment, or fall on his face.

Providers have to embrace the label and then, most importantly, the investment community and government have to agree to use them.

Without the latter, for example, you would still have nursing home “industry” being used by officials instead of “profession” or another provider-preferred euphemism. What? That is what's still happening? Ooops, right.

But it's nothing personal. There is a sense that if the hospital lobby wanted to change its image of churning sick people in and out and rename itself “wellness houses” or “well-being communities,” there might be a few arched eyebrows as well.

Word on the street is some providers greeted the news with “meh.” Beyond concerns about having to create new stationery or facility signage, I also heard unsparing vitriol in some corners, and mere disdain in others. Clearly there are hearts and heads within the long-term care family still to be won over.

Time will be needed to tell where this campaign ends up. But if you're going to mount a popularity contest, you could do worse than to have top marketing firms leading the way. The revolutionaries have that in their favor.

And that is a key question. Will this wind up like the American Revolution? A little known fact is that in colonial America, just one-third of the population was in favor of the Adams, Washington and Hancock gang, while another third remained stout loyalists to King George III, and the remaining third were ambivalent, not taking either side.

The energy and righteousness of those change-agents carried the day in the late 1700s. Their insurrection ultimately overrode the central government.

Whether it will happen again might come down to simply whether anyone cares enough to defend the status quo. My bet is if battle wages long enough, the answer will be no, and change will come.

James M. Berklan is McKnight's Editor. Follow him @JimBerklan.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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