Age-Friendly Communication: Facts, Tips and Ideas – The senior audience

Canada's population of people aged 65 and older (generally the age group we call "seniors" in this publication) has grown more than twice as fast as the overall population since the early 1980s, a trend that will continue for decades to come. Knowing demographic information about seniors and understanding the effects of the aging process is critical to communicating effectively with that sector of Canadians.

Canada's Seniors at a Glance

Who are Canada's seniors? Are your perceptions about older Canadians valid and up to date, or have you fallen for some of the myths about seniors and aging? Knowing the facts about seniors is an essential starting point for planning to communicate with this large and growing audience. Here are some facts worth knowing:

A growing proportion of the population …

  • Seniors currently (2005) make up 13% of Canada's population—projections show that by 2036, they will account for close to 25% of the population.Footnote 1
  • Women account for 52% of seniors aged 65 to 69 and for 75% of those 90 years or older. Differences in life expectancy between men and women have begun to narrow, a trend that is projected to continue.Footnote 2

Urban dwellers …

  • As is the case with all Canadians, fewer seniors are living in rural areas than in the past. In 2001, close to 61% of seniors lived in one of Canada's 27 Census metropolitan areas, while another 9% resided in smaller urban areas (with a population of 50,000 or more). A much smaller proportion (23%) lives in rural areas, with only 8% of rural dwellers living in more remote rural areas.Footnote 3

More immigrants, visible minorities …

  • A relatively large proportion of seniors in Canada are immigrants. For example, in 2001, 29% of people in Canada aged 65 to 74 and 28% of those aged 75 to 84 were immigrants—compared to 21% of younger adults (between the ages of 25 and 54).Footnote 4
  • While almost all seniors speak either English or French (or both), the proportion of seniors unable to speak one of the country's official languages is on the rise—in 2001, 5% of men aged 85 and older could not speak English or French, compared to 3% in 1981. Women across all age groups are more likely than men to speak neither official language.Footnote 5
  • Members of visible minority groups account for a growing share of Canada's population—visible minorities (non-white, but excluding Aboriginal peoples) accounted for 2% of Canada's seniors population in 1981 and for 7% in 2001.Footnote 6

Aboriginal seniors, a smaller proportion …

  • Canada's Aboriginal populations are generally younger than other Canadians. In 2001, 4% of those who reported being Aboriginal persons were aged 65 or older, compared to 13% of the non-Aboriginal population.Footnote 7

Most live in a private household, many with a partner …

  • As of 2001, almost all seniors (93%) were living in private households—45% with a spouse or partner, 27% alone, and 18% with a child or grandchild. Only 7% were living in an institutional setting (for example, a long-term care facility).Footnote 8
  • Among seniors, more than three quarters (77%) of men and just over half of women (52%) were married or in common-law living arrangements, as of 2001.Footnote 9

Better educated, but lower levels of literacy …

  • Older Canadians are a better educated sector of the population than was the case 15 years ago. In 1990, 63% of senior men had less than a high school education; in 2004, that had dropped to 47%. The trend is similar for women. Over the same period, the proportion of senior men and women with a postsecondary certificate or diploma or a university degree increased.Footnote 10
  • At the same time, many seniors have some difficulty with reading. Over 80% of seniors have low literacy skills that do not enable them to cope well in today's complex knowledge society, or to make effective use of such documents as transportation schedules, maps and charts. This is also the case with numeracy skills—with 88% of seniors lacking skills needed to manage effectively the mathematical requirements of a range of situations.Footnote 11
  • Looking to the future, it is projected that by 2031, seniors with low literacy skills will number over 6 million people—double the number in 2008.Footnote 12>

Spending on personal consumption …

  • Senior households spent a total of $69 billion in 1996.Footnote 13 Most of their expenditures are on personal consumption. In 2003, for example, among couples aged 65 to 74 years, 74 cents of every dollar was spent on personal consumption, with the remainder going to taxes (16 cents), savings (4 cents), security (3 cents) and gifts/contributions (3 cents).Footnote 14 Two thirds of personal consumption expenditures were on accommodation, transportation and food.Footnote 15

More disposable income and time to volunteer …

  • Seniors have more leisure time and disposable income than members of other age groups.Footnote 16 Between 1980 and 2003, the average total before-tax income of senior couples increased by 24%, from $39,800 to $49,300. Unattached seniors also experienced increases in income—43% for unattached men ($14,100 to $20,200) and 42% for unattached women ($12,800 to $18,200).Footnote 17
  • Seniors give generously of their time—39% of those aged 65 to 74 volunteered in 2004.Footnote 18

Healthy, active and independent …

  • In 2006, more than four in ten Canadians aged 65 and older (43%) reported having a disability (condition or health problem) that limits their everyday activities, compared to about 17% of the population aged 15 and older. The disability rate rises with age—more than half (56%) of seniors aged 75 and older reported having an activity limitation.Footnote 19
  • At the same time, many seniors consider themselves to be in good health—40% of those between 65 and 74 years described their health as very good or excellent in 2003 (down slightly from 42% in 1994–1995), while among their older counterparts (75 and older), 32% reported excellent or very good health (down from 36% in 1994–1995). Footnote 20
  • While older Canadians are less likely to be physically active than younger adults, the differences are not as great as might be expected. In 2003, 27% of men aged 65 to 74 were considered to be physically active in their leisure time, almost the same proportion (26%) as younger men (aged 25 to 54). A slightly smaller proportion of women aged 65 to 74 were active (17%) compared to their younger counterparts aged 25 to 54 years (22%).Footnote 21
  • Less than one quarter (23%) of seniors aged 75 and older reported receiving help with domestic work, home maintenance or outdoor work over a one-month period in 2003—about the same proportion as younger adults aged 25 to 54. At the same time, 11% in the 75 and older age group provided such help to others—while 40% of younger adults (25 to 54 years) did so.Footnote 22

More seniors are online …

  • In 2003, 23% of families headed by a person aged 65 or older had access to the Internet from home—up from less than 5% in 1997.Footnote 23 More recent findings (2004) show that almost one third (31%) of Canadian seniors are online.Footnote 24
  • Seniors spent more time online from home than all but the youngest adults in 2004, clocking in at over eight hours a week.Footnote 25

While these facts suggest exciting opportunities for many businesses and services, they also point to the need for careful consideration of the needs of seniors in order to reach them in a responsible and effective manner. Not only do communicators need to keep their attitudes, communication approaches and materials current, they must also keep abreast of changes in technology, trends and preferences of a diverse and ever-changing segment of the population.

Seniors—A Diverse Group

People's choices about where they obtain services or prefer to shop are influenced by their level of education, their age, their living arrangements and their cultural background, as well as their capacities and interests. Older Canadians are no different. A diverse group, seniors want to be able to choose from a range of information sources about businesses, services and government programs. As is the case with any audience, paying attention to the preferences, spending patterns and activities of seniors will help you know your audience, and serve them well.

The varying life experiences and personal characteristics of seniors means that they also hold a range of values, beliefs and opinions. The world view of someone who grew up or started raising a family during the Depression is bound to be different from that of a "baby boomer." Education, place of residence (urban or rural), socioeconomic status, national origin or ethnicity, and gender all contribute to the diversity of the senior population.

Tailoring messages for a senior audience therefore means recognizing that seniors may hold different views—different from each other's and from yours—about these and other issues:

  • what constitutes "the good life," "quality" and "service"
  • value of voting in federal, provincial/ territorial and local elections
  • attitudes toward authority or bureaucracy
  • degree of comfort in asking someone else for help
  • perceptions of health and illness
  • attitudes toward disability
  • ideas about food and nutrition
  • concepts of age and aging
  • male/female roles
  • family and intergenerational relationships
  • what government is and what it does or should do
  • what health and social services are and how they work

Changes Come With Aging

Although diversity is a hallmark of the senior population, some changes do accompany aging, and even healthy seniors experience losses that can affect their access, level of interest and/or capacity to receive and understand information. Do your communications with and for seniors take these changes into account?

  • Sensory changes are a normal part of aging. Changes in visual and hearing acuity can affect an older person's capacity to absorb information. Changes are seldom abrupt and may be barely noticeable at first. A person may begin to have difficulty hearing clearly if a sound is above or below a certain pitch or if there is background noise. The capacity to see clearly in low light or shadows may decline, or susceptibility to glare may increase.
  • Physical changes include declines in flexibility, strength, speed of execution, fine motor control and hand-eye coordination, which can translate into difficulty manipulating controls and small objects (automated banking machines and debit machine keypads, coin-operated devices, household appliances). Diseases such as arthritis, rheumatism and osteoporosis can also affect agility and mobility.
  • Changes in cognitive function, including memory, reasoning and abstract thinking, affect a very small percentage of younger seniors, although the percentage does rise with age. In general, sharp brains tend to stay sharp; cognitive processing may take a little longer, but this is normal aging, not a sign of "senility." Skillful communication (repeating key points in various ways, checking for understanding) can help address this aspect of aging.
  • The social changes surrounding aging include changes in income and earning capacity, loss of social networks through retirement and the death of a spouse and/ or friends, society's "isolating" attitude toward seniors, the potential for reduced access to transportation and hence to recreational and social activities, and changes in living arrangements.
  • Finally, aging can bring emotional changes, many of them arising from sensory, physical and social changes. They include loneliness, isolation, tension or worry, anxiety about becoming dependent on others, and fears about safety, security, and loss of access to activities or services enjoyed when younger.
Aging and Communication
Sensory change Types of communication affected
Visual acuity
  • product labelling
  • online services and Web sites
  • signage on public buildings, street signs
  • banking machines (glare on screens)
  • information available only in print
  • televised information
  • glossy paper and colour brochures
Hearing acuity
  • interpersonal communication
  • public address systems
  • telephone
  • television and radio
Agility and mobility
  • banking machines and online banking
  • kits requiring assembly
  • product packages
  • access to billboards, public transit ads, etc.
Social/emotional changes
  • more emphasis on personal contact and other information dissemination methods to overcome isolation (e.g., through clubs, churches, seniors' centres)

Literacy and Language

Literacy, the ability to absorb and understand written information and to act on this knowledge, is an inescapable consideration when you're planning to communicate with seniors. As noted earlier, while seniors have achieved higher levels of education than previous generations, as a group their literacy skills are low compared to those of younger Canadians.

Low literacy skills have obvious implications for seniors' health, safety, consumer choices, social connections, and awareness of programs and services. It also limits the effectiveness of all communication media relying on the written word.

As noted earlier, the majority of seniors have reading problems significant enough to interfere with tasks such as filling out forms or reading instructions on medicine containers, understanding information provided by government and other institutions, or doing basic arithmetic—balancing a chequebook, calculating a tip or completing an order form.Footnote 26

Research suggests that baby boomers, with their higher levels of education, have higher literacy levels than did previous generations.Footnote 27

Nevertheless, aging may eventually undermine their ability to rely on these strategies, making it more and more important for those providing vital information about health, safety and financial security—as well as a wide range of other information—to take into account the physical, cognitive and other changes that are a normal part of aging.

Communicators should never equate limited literacy with a limited capacity to understand. Plain language and culturally sensitive choices of medium and message can help to overcome these barriers to effective communication and help you reach a much larger audience. Keeping this in mind will help in reaching audiences who have a mother tongue other than English or French. While they may be educated and have high literacy skills, their past experiences with environments, outlooks, traditions and religious beliefs may mean that they are less able to navigate complex information about Canadian institutions, services and programs.

The challenges of communicating with people who have lower literacy skills are not going to disappear soon. A 2008 study conducted by the Canadian Council on Learning found that close to half (48%) of Canadian adults are estimated to be below the internationally accepted literacy standard for coping in a modern society—a proportion that will remain virtually unchanged over the next two decades. This translates into an alarming forecast—that the number of senior citizens with low literacy skills will double to 6.2 million between 2008 and 2031. The Council has developed a tool to help a variety of users forecast literacy levels for specific populations (see Advice from the Experts).

Communication Barriers and Solutions
Potential barriers to communication Possible solutions
Outdated assumptions about seniors' lifestyles, interests, capacities
  • stay in touch through research, focus groups, talking to your clients and customers
  • establish partnerships with seniors' groups
Physical changes of aging
  • explore alternative formats and communication methods (large print, audio and video versions [CD or DVD], personal contact, assistive listening devices)
Communication materials and media not suited to audience
  • use advisory committees to guide development of materials
  • test materials before use
  • link with specialized agencies such as Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, and ABC Canada and Fédération canadienne pour l'alphabétisation en français (national literacy organizations)

How to Find Out About Your Audience

Keeping a current profile of your senior audience calls for tapping into many sources of information. Here are some places to start.

The federal government and each provincial/territorial government has at least one agency devoted to seniors' issues and concerns. Many of them publish reports, newsletters and other material to help you keep your knowledge current. Online research will reveal these information sources and many more. Statistics Canada is an excellent source of information about the number and proportion of seniors in your community and their personal characteristics, including cultural background and mother tongue, education and income levels.

Seniors' organizations and groups serving seniors (at the local, provincial/territorial and national levels) are another valuable source of information by and about seniors. Who better to tell you about the audience you want to reach than seniors themselves? Check with your local government and browse the Web.

Many professional organizations (doctors, nurses, social workers, long-term care workers, pharmacists, opticians, dietitians, lawyers) and specialized agencies (CNIB, Canadian Council on Learning, Canadian Public Health Association, etc.) publish information to help their members serve an older clientele.

You can also conduct research yourself. Consider these ideas—adapt them to suit the needs and capacity of your organization:

  • Appoint an advisory committee of clients, customers or members of your target audience before beginning to develop a new communication approach or information product. This technique can work equally well for health and social service providers and for associations of merchants, restaurants or shopping mall tenants.
  • Test a communication approach or information product with a focus group of seniors. A local seniors' centre or advocacy group could help.
  • The same seniors' centre or advocacy group might agree to conduct a "senior friendliness" assessment of your facilities, business or service. Or conduct your own, using the Senior FriendlyToolkit from the Alberta Council on Aging (see Advice from the Experts).
  • Survey current customers or clients to see how successful you've been in communicating. Ask them for suggestions about their preferred method of receiving information, how you could improve your materials, and what changes would help make your facilities or services more responsive to seniors' needs.

The bottom line

The cost of these audience research and testing techniques could save you from costly mistakes in the design of your message or the choice of medium—with implications for your bottom line, whether you're striving for commercial success or running a public sector agency trying to do more with less.

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