Dick Ambrosius is one smart guy. I’ve known him for a long time and he always has a sharp take on what is happening in the field of aging.
His comment on the “elderly” issue is very insightful and deserves more attention. He writes…
I wrote my first article about the need rethink the words we use to describe older people and programs that serve them in 1993. It is not the words but the images that have been attached to the words over the years and the context in which they are used.
To keep our conscious minds from being overloaded with unimportant information, our brains conduct what might be called information triage. Like a MASH unit sorting casualties according to severity and likelihood of surgical success, the brain sorts through billions of bits of information each moment to select information for the conscious mind to think about.
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 they do not view themselves as fitting the stereotype.
A targeted consumer’s eyes and ears may detect what you are trying to tell them, but unless their brains sense personal relevance, little of the message content will reach their conscious mind. Our challenge therefore is creating messages that resonate with the needs and interests of the aging marketplace in order to make it past the mental screening process.
You can begin the slow change process by sensitizing all team members to the power, both positive and negative, of the words we use, and subsequently begin using more inclusionary terms to describe our members, communities and services while avoiding the use of exclusionary term (words shrouded in stereotypes that could be perceived negatively). Inclusionary/conditional terms allow a people to then screen a message based on their expectations, aspirations, needs and life experience rather than preexisting stereotypes. Inclusionary terms are simply more likely to be positively perceived than the terms traditionally used in our industry.
For me the key to his insight is here…
…begin using more inclusionary terms to describe our members, communities and services while avoiding the use of exclusionary term (words shrouded in stereotypes that could be perceived negatively)
It is a slow process. There is no magic bullet but it is up to us to push the public’s center of gravity away from exclusionary terms toward inclusionary terms.