Introduction: Age-Friendly Communication: Facts, Tips and Ideas

What makes communication work? Why do some messages have an impact while others never reach their target? This publication seeks to make communicators in business, government and service agencies aware of the need to factor in the aging of the population when planning and implementing communication activities and initiatives-and provide useful information that will help them achieve that goal.

Communication and information are vitally important to seniors. Growing older is a process of adjustment, and information helps in the transition. Seniors want information about housing, transportation, employment, legal matters and retirement planning. They want to know about health, illness prevention and the effects of medication and nutrition. They're eager for information about programs, services, policies and products, as well as leisure, volunteer and cultural activities.

A two-way street

The way that governments, service agencies and businesses choose to communicate with seniors can have profound implications for all aspects of seniors' lives and well-being. Unless communication about programs, products and opportunities is effective and reflects the needs of seniors, uptake on communication messages will be low. On the other hand, services and programs that are effectively communicated to seniors will be used readily.

Moreover, the number of seniors, their purchasing power and amount of discretionary time can have a significant impact on the success of businesses and programs.

About this Guide

This publication draws together a range of research findings, practical tips and advice from experts on communicating with seniors. It is divided into four main sections:

  • The Senior Audience: Large, Growing and Diverse looks at what we know about Canadian seniors and how the facts might influence your communication choices.
  • Choosing the Communication Medium outlines communication media-both new and traditional-to explore their suitability for communicating with seniors.
  • Formulating Your Message offers tips on the content and design of messages, applying what we know about senior audiences and communication media.
  • Advice from the Experts is a resource list and bibliography of sources for further information about communicating effectively, especially with older persons.

Effective Communication-More Than a Good Message

In short, this guide is about making your communication "age-friendly." While this includes presenting messages in ways that senior audiences will understand and appreciate, it goes well beyond careful shaping of intentional messages.

Think about it: if your public address announcements are long and complex (think of a crowded airport), if your directional signs are visible only to basketball players, if your services are not accessible to people with reduced agility or mobility-what unintentional messages are you communicating to those you serve? Failure to adapt communication to the needs of older audiences or to consider whether your business or service is age- friendly has negative effects for you as well as for seniors.

Serving Seniors Well

  • Do you have a policy or guidelines for serving older clients?
  • Do your frontline and customer service staff have specific training in how to serve older customers?
  • Do staff allow extra time and care in dealing with senior clients, without rushing to complete the sale, transaction, interview or medical visit?
  • Does your business or office offer comfortable seating?
  • Do your Web site, stationery and forms (including online forms) use easily understood terms and large type?
  • Are your automated services (bank machines, information kiosks), adjustable for people of varying heights? Are buttons and lettering large and easy to read for people with less than perfect vision?

It Only Makes Sense

As the Alberta Council on Aging points out in its Senior FriendlyToolkit, communicating effectively with seniors is based on common sense and courtesy-on considering seniors' needs and respecting seniors' contributions to the community. It's a wise move for business, governments and others communicating with the public-within the next 25 to 30 years, one Canadian in four will be a senior. So, now is the time to start designing communication media (newspapers, road signs, telephone directories) and environments (housing, public buildings, shopping areas) that take this fact into account.

For government, communicating and serving seniors well means recognizing their contributions and adapting, where necessary, the services and communication about those services to meet the needs of an aging society.

For business, communicating well with seniors means being sensitive to a major consumer market-a large and growing segment with more disposable income, fewer of the financial demands facing younger families, and plenty of leisure time. Services and products that are age-friendly should be publicized and marketed strongly as they are likely to be more user-friendly for a great many other Canadians as well.

For communities that want to be age-friendly, the challenge is to support involvement of citizens throughout the lifespan. Participation and engagement contributes to the quality of life and health of all members of the community, including seniors. Not only will seniors' well-being be served, but the entire community will benefit from their life experience, skills and free time. Seniors are already major contributors to volunteer social action and need community support to continue that role.

In the end, communication that is age-friendly is likely to be universally friendly by being more inclusive.

When information is easy to see, easy to hear and easy to understand, everyone benefits. When services and facilities are accessible, safe and well designed, everyone can use them in comfort and security. And when staff are trained to deal sensitively and respectfully with clients and customers, service improves for everyone.

Check Your Attitude!

  • Avoid stereotyping or reinforcing incorrect perceptions about seniors-show older people as you know them to be-active participants, using a full range of abilities in a full range of roles and activities.
  • Shun ageism, racism and sexism in conversation, text, illustrations and photographs. They are prohibited by law.
  • Avoid ageist language (that categorizes seniors negatively), such as "the aged," "the elderly," "oldsters," "senile," "feeble," etc.
  • Use "seniors," "older persons" or "older adults" if you need to indicate the age group.
  • Beware of patronizing, condescending or childish expressions and tone when talking with or about seniors. Their lifelong experience comes in handy in detecting flattery and insincere deference.
  • Remember that the way you use language reflects your attitudes and your respect for the audience.
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