John O'Connor, editorial director, McKnight's Long-Term Care News

By any standard, assisted living and skilled care operators are taking care of customers who need more help.

In fact, the profile of the typical assisted living resident is almost identical to that of a nursing home resident circa 1992. At the same time, many current nursing facility occupants are dealing with conditions that would have previously kept them in hospital beds.

As these senior living players — and others — step up services to accommodate increasingly ill users, an interesting question comes to mind: Is there a more appropriate way to describe these customers?

It used to be simpler. The universal moniker in both settings was “resident.” But is that description even close to accurate at many higher-end skilled care and rehab facilities? Truth be told, those care recipients look a lot more like what used to be called “patients.” In fact, the term “patient” is being used with more regularity at many skilled care settings.

But assisted living (or senior living, as it is increasingly being called) has a bit of a marketing challenge here. After all, if you tell your potential customers that you are in the business of taking care of “patients,” you can pretty much kiss off quite a few of your prospects. Small surprise then, that many of the same operators who want to compete with SNFs for hospital discharges still prefer to call their charges “residents.” To do otherwise might invite fiscal disaster.

“Resident” is not the worst descriptor out there, even if the label is becoming more of a stretch with each passing year. But if the term deserves to be replaced, what’s a better one?

I don’t know. But I do think operators could take a lesson from the hospitality field. Hotels, motels and the like generally refer to their customers as “guests.” Is that a better word? Or should each setting find its own term?

I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are on this matter — and how your organization has begun to address what could become a very touchy subject.