New study finds the terms we use inadvertently offends seniors

Kevin Williams
Kevin Williams

The terms we use to describe and communicate with seniors have either positive or negative associations.

We recently conducted a new survey asking 1,114 participants their feelings and associations with the language used to describe seniors and senior living. 

The survey revealed certain terms and labels acceptable a generation ago, have rapidly become taboo or downright offensive.

Almost all of the participants said 'nursing home' had the worst association in their mind out of all choices presented. Most surprisingly, 44.2% agreed that the terms 'senior living' and 'retirement community' are outdated. 

With that being said, ‘retirement community' only had a 13% negative association versus ‘retirement home,' which had a 48% negative association." The term ‘home' in this industry seems to be too closely associated with nursing home.

An essential aspect of marketing is language — specifically, the choice of words and phrases used to describe a demographic. 

Forty percent of participants ranged from 60-69 years old and 35% ranged from 50-59 years of age. Seventy-one percent of respondents are comfortable with the term "Baby Boomer." Boomers are responsible for dealing with aging parents and typically don't see themselves as seniors yet. This makes sense, considering only 49% approve of the term "senior.”

Here's an interesting exercise to do with you, your staff and residents. Get in a relaxed position, close your eyes and have someone say aloud-particular words and phrases within the industry. Take notice of the pictures, feelings and perceptions that come to mind. I bet you will discover that you'll have a wildly different response when someone says a word such as "community" versus "facility" which is somewhat dehumanizing.

Since certain words bring up such powerfully negative emotions, there must be words that produce a more favorable response. People respond well to words surrounding "community" and "living.” Everyone wants to belong to a community, no matter the age. Seniors come from an era where people were heavily involved in their local community and neighborhoods. Now, their former ‘communities' are distant memories; capturing the essence of their former communities can be enticing to a lot of people.  

"Living" has two positive associations behind it. The obvious, when you speak of living, people in this age group are less likely to focus on end of life issues. The other implication is, they're living a life of fulfillment versus just passing the moments. Considering seniors are now living longer and enjoying a higher quality of life, language that communicates health and activity will likely get a better response.

Knowing the preferred terms when talking about seniors is important from a marketing perspective. Use the wrong term and you can alienate your target audience overnight. Even if you're only alienating a percentage of people, you're still casting a smaller net than you could be. When you factor in the value of a new resident, and how much it costs to acquire them, then that percentage can be crippling.

We need to remember that every passing year brings us closer to being seniors ourselves. They were once young and vibrant with dreams, careers, family duties and community! Connect with them on this level of understanding and you'll be sure to get a better response.

I will leave you with this remark from a person in a LinkedIn group. When asked at a conference what seniors like to be called, he said, “Their names!”

Kevin M. Williams is the president of SeniorMarketing.com™.

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