Senior Living Faces Uphill Battle in Use of ‘Senior’ Terminology

Marketers have long grappled with the right terms to use in senior living, from the term senior itself, to a wealth of alternatives such as retiree, older adult, older American, aging population, and more. 

Largely, they’re facing an uphill battle, a recent NPR survey found when it asked older listeners about the words they preferred to hear in describing their age group. 

Through an informal poll of listeners drawing 2,700 responses, NPR reporter Ina Jaffe said she found a lot more attention to the disliked terms often used to describe the aging population. 

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“The category of dislikes had the most enthusiasm,” Jaffe said of the results in a recent segment. “There were about three and a half more votes cast for terms they didn’t like than for terms that they liked. And I can sum up the overall response by saying that they disliked pretty much everything.” 

Among the terms, elder and senior garnered acceptance by about a third each of NPR’s respondents, though the favorable rating for senior dropped to 12% when used with “citizen.” Older adult was the poll’s champion, at 43% acceptance.

But even those positioned positively gained distaste from the audience, with terms like “positive aging” and “successful aging,” losing favor. Other terms, such as golden years and geriatric gained a majority disapproval. 

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Senior living providers have faced the challenge head on, but it’s a problem they say is constantly evolving and, as a result, is a different problem even from how it presented itself in years past. 

“What to call this demographic segment has been an ongoing conversation, especially in senior living, for years,” says Jamison Gosselin, Vice President of Marketing, Communications & Resident Enrichment for Holiday Retirement. “And, it’s an important and natural extension of conversations we’ve been having about other demographic groups for decades in battles to end sexism, racism, homophobia and now ageism. Sadly, older adults are still the targets of late night talk show hosts and popular media. It’s insulting and demeaning.”

Holiday favors terms such as “seniors” and “older adults,” Gosselin says. 

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“From a marketing perspective, it’s important to provide qualifiers for who our product best serves. Some companies have dropped “senior” or “retirement” from their names and language. But, these are highly used and highly searched terms by the general public. I agree we can help influence the words the public uses, but we also have a responsibility to speak the public’s language so they know what we offer and can educate them about its value,” he says. 

At Sunrise Senior Living, the company focuses less on the language around senior marketing and more on the language that relates to residents and living in Sunrise communities, says Meghan Lublin, SVP, Corporate Marketing & Communications. 

“It has been our practice to speak to and about residents in a dignified way,” Lublin says. “When we market, we talk about the resident. They are living in a Sunrise community that is their home. We also use very intentional language to clearly and consistently communicate that residents live in a community, rather than a facility.” 

The company also focuses on training all of its employees in communication with and about its residents with those same principles underlying. 

“Before any team member begins working in any communities, they are trained on how to communicate including words that we use and do not use,” Lublin says. “In the discussion of what to call ‘older americans,’ for us they are people first, and they are our residents. It wouldn’t be appropriate to label anyone.”

It may be advisable to skip the terms all together.

Communications can instead rely on imagery when speaking to the senior living audience, says Jim Gilmartin, principal for Coming of Age, an online baby boomer and senior marketing agency based in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. It also helps in addressing the segmented market that the “senior” set encompasses. 

“We typically advise our clients to avoid the word “senior” when thinking about older markets,” Gilmartin says. “When using labels or euphemisms to describe various demographics we tend to lump the demos into buckets and treat them alike. The 50+ Crowd (New Customer Majority) are not all alike. They are more diverse than any other market segment, spanning those at the peak of their careers, to active, independent people, to those in need of care.” 

That dichotomy presents yet another challenge in senior living terminology, but an opportunity to market through images rather than words. 

“It really doesn’t matter what product or service is being marketed or what channels/venues are used to connect with the New Customer Majority. Effectively approaching these demos demands converting acquired knowledge into images and copy that connects with them using traditional and online marketing.”

Written by Elizabeth Ecker

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