Words Matter - Paradigms Matter More

The difference between the right word;
and the nearly right word;
is the difference between lightening
and the lightening bug.
Mark Twain

Viewing the sudden interest in the terms used to refer to older adults, be they Baby Boomers or older, reminds me of the Rip Van Winkle children’s story.


I see Rip played by the media, advertisers and business and their fascination and preoccupation with the youth market. In spite of the coming reality of a maturing marketplace, they were too lazy, apathetic or ageist to attempt an understanding older consumers and the values that guide their decision making. They ignored the warnings by a few visionary consultants, such as the late David B. Wolfe, attempting to help them understand how older and younger consumers differ.

Just as Rip awoke from a 20 year nap and was shocked by the changes, American businesses and the mainstream media are waking up to the fact that the median age of adults in the US increased by over a decade while they were asleep at the wheel.

GoogleToday, articles and conference topics on boomers, a new word for ‘senior’, or retiring the term retirement are proliferating. However, many of these articles and presentations are accompanied by warnings from paradigm keepers, now often disguised as SEO specialists, arguing that ‘senior’ is the term used most often to search for programs for older adults and therefore should not be abandoned. Clearly, understanding older consumers has a long way to go.

To exacerbate the problem, the fascination with Baby Boomers continues, mostly because advertisers and businesses think they understand them. As the market potential becomes more and more obvious, consultants, authors and trainers are pontificating on how to capture this elusive, boomer beast using adaptations of traditional tools and approaches…simply applying the new technologies using old paradigms is not producing results.

During a 1991 magazine interview, I warned that “large numbers of qualified consumers will not respond to terms like senior, senior or other terms used to describe the older consumer.” I further encouraged organizations serving older adults to “ignore age in promotions and communications and just talk to the person.”

During numerous presentations in the early 90’s, senior living industry professionals were advised that “terms like retirement community, continuing care retirement community and nursing home limited their market potential.” This advice was generally ignored as the numbers of older adults continued to swell and participation in “aging programs” declined. For retirement communities, the average age of people entering “continuing care retirement communities” rose from 72 to age 82.

Over the last three decades, I have moderated many focus groups with older consumers and concluded that, although many people over the age of 65 find the term senior citizen to be acceptable, they do not associate themselves with that segment of the market. In one memorable group of adults in their 70’s and 80’s, participants were discussing the positive and negative aspects of words used in advertising copy such as senior, elder, senior citizens, mature adults, older adults, etc.

No Logo

When asked to come up with a new term, one participant responded simply, “Bill has served me pretty well thus far so I will stick with that.” Based on the simplicity of this response and my responses, the author titles the article, The Best Label for the Elderly is No Label at All!

Why Words Matter – It’s Not Just a Preference

To keep our conscious minds from being overloaded with unimportant information, our brains screen what messages reach our consciousness. The brain sorts through billions of bits of information each moment to select information for the conscious mind to think about based on their life experiences, world view, habits and personal preferences. Clearly, the process is more involved in the 70 year old consumer that a thirty something.

The brain does not process words; it processes pictures and sensory data in context with the circumstances. If there is a perception that "senior" means old, frail, dependent, bingo player, or other traditional stereotypes, the mind of a the targeted customer may "exclude" whatever is associated with that word from conscious consideration if the targeted consumer does not view themselves as fitting the stereotype. For example, the current stereotype that frustrates marketers in the senior living industry is the perception that “retirement community” means a place to go when your health is failing…a place for the frail – the elderly.

A targeted older consumer’s eyes and ears may detect what you are trying to tell them, but unless the context allows their brains to sense personal relevance, little if any of the message content will reach their conscious mind. The challenge therefore is creating messages that resonate with the values shared by older adults to make it past the mental screening process – values like autonomy, altruism, connectedness and spirituality.

Those organizations seriously interested in adopting a new paradigm must begin by sensitizing all team members to the power, both positive and negative, of the words Yin Yangthey use. They must also emphasize the value to be gained by using more inclusionary terms to describe older consumers, communities and services while avoiding the use of exclusionary terms (words shrouded in stereotypes that could be perceived negatively). Inclusionary/ conditional terms allow people to screen marketing messages based on their expectations, aspirations, needs, values and life experience rather than preexisting stereotypes. Inclusionary terms are more likely to be positively perceived than the terms traditionally used in communications targeting older consumers.

Even if you believe that 70% of your prospective customers have no problem with a stereotypical term like senior, but 30% hate it; why would you choose to ignore 1/3 of the market on purpose? Like Rip Van Winkle, some organizations are waking up to the new reality and modifying brand strategy by creating a new identity: Elderhostel is now Road Scholars, The American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging is now LeadingAge, etc. However, embracing a new paradigm involves more than name changes and the use of more inclusive terms.

To Change Consumer Perceptions – Change Your Paradigms


Dr. Stephen Covey, author of the highly praised best seller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, framed the problem saying, “No one sees the world as it really is; we only see the world as we are.” In other words, no two people have exactly the same view of the world, but our worldviews can be easily distorted by the categories we create with the words we use and the meanings we have come to attach to those words. It is the use of those categorical terms (senior, retirement, nursing home, facility, etc.) and the stereotypes perpetuated by the media that has resulted in the exclusionary vocabulary of aging.

“Our paradigms are our most deeply held unconscious set of assumptions and values; things we take for granted; that which determines our expectations, frames the questions we ask and structures our approach to what we do,” stated Danah Zohar in Re-wiring the Corporate Brain. “We need our paradigms to make sense of the world around us; but if we do not continually question our views we can become trapped or constrained by them.” Or as Seth Godin observed in a recent blog, “real change is cultural change, and you must go about it with the intent to change the culture, not to merely make the easy change, the easy sale.”

When it comes to designing communities and services for older adults, many developers and managers continue to use operating and management models created to serve a relatively need-driven, under-educated, and frail population of adults who had few choices. While the homes in today’s retirement communities are bigger, common spaces nicer and activity and wellness areas more plentiful, too many operating models and programs are grounded in command and control management and medical model continues to dominate health services.

Since so few have successfully targeted the mature consumer, evidence on what works best is limited. Some have explored the mature market using traditional methods only to conclude there was little potential because consumers failed to respond. They blamed neither the messenger nor the message, but the intended recipient. Likewise, millions of dollars have been spent teaching aging sensitivity without first developing an empathetic understanding of the consumer and their decision-making processes. Unfortunately, this sensitivity training often reinforces rather than correcting aging stereotypes.


As businesses continue to track the elusive elder beast, there will no doubt have varying degrees of success as they begin to embrace the principles of ageless marketing. To increase the probability of success, one must first abandon the paradigms that worked so well in yesterday’s youth market; and adopt an ageless approach more likely to appeal to a maturing consumer base while not alienating younger segments.