Is It Time to Ditch the Term ‘Senior’?

The past year in the senior living industry was marked by a flurry of name changes. Health Care REIT became Welltower Inc. (NYSE: HCN). The Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) took on the title of Argentum. And the phrase continuing care retirement community (CCRC) shifted to life plan community following a lengthy process spearheaded by LeadingAge and Mather LifeWays.

Considering that the baby boomers are coming to senior living, along with their fears and misconceptions about the industry, the name-change whirlwind also begs the question about even more fundamental changes in terminology. For instance, is it time to ditch the term ‘senior’?

“A substantive change might help society and our culture minimize some of the preconceived notions for aging in general,” Wayne Langley, president of Varsity Branding, tells Senior Housing News. “More positive connotations could change the perceptions of aging.”

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But whether it’s the opportune time to move away from calling older adults “seniors”—and what an alternate would even be—remains up in the air. For Bob Kramer, founder and CEO of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), the time isn’’t necessarily now, but soon.

“By the time we get to the boomers, I think the word senior will be retired,” he tells SHN.

Regardless of timing, the endeavor would no doubt be lengthy and require more than simply slapping a new label on this subset of the population, Langley says. More likely than not, abandoning the term “senior” will be consumer driven as opposed to institutionally driven, the way the life plan community name change was.

“We’ve put a pretty strong label on them, and it’s going to take a while and a lot of effort to shift that,” he says. “When we’re consulting organizations about making those sorts of monumental changes, it really starts with changes in attitude.”

While adding yet another name for the older population may spark some confusion, the goal would be finding a term that maintains respect and dignity for this group.

“I’m not sure the ‘senior’ label does that for us,” Langley says. “I’m not sure if it’ll do it for me when I’m 90.”

Some senior living providers might attempt to get ahead of the curve to shape the industry, Langley and Kramer say. In fact, one organization contacted Langley about changing three or four words in its marketing materials that have become associated with older people. But moving too quickly runs the risk of missing the mark entirely.

“Some of this is like surfing—you have to time the wave,” Kramer says. “You paddle too soon, and you wipe out spectacularly.”

Written by Kourtney Liepelt

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