What’s In A Word?
Facility. Nursing home. Wing. Unit. The elderly. Admit. Discharge. Patient. Victim of. Suffering from. Wanderers.
Language is a topic that continues to plague the aging services profession, and these are just a few of the words that are being replaced with words that are both accurate and respectful. Who wants to be admitted or put in a unit or wing in a facility as a victim suffering from dementia, for example? The description alone is demeaning.
Words matter, and language plays into everything from respect for the individual to recruitment. “If you’re trying to attract CNAs, which is always a big problem today, if you say you have this beautiful ‘facility,’ someone might be envisioning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as opposed to an awesome contemporary retirement community,” said Jackie Stone, vp, sales consulting, at Varsity, a senior living marketing and sales consulting agency focused on occupancy for retirement and assisted living communities, continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) and others.
“I think some communities are hurting themselves with the language and images they’re using in their brochures and on their websites,” said Stone, who worked at a number of communities. “They’re using words that aren’t inclusive or that people automatically self-select out of, for example, saying ‘I don’t need a facility,’ or ‘I don’t want to live in a facility.'”
Many older adults don’t like being categorized as a “senior.” The term “senior living” is now often replaced by “aging services.” Some are adamant that we aren’t working in an “industry” but a “profession” or “field,” the latter now used in all of Varsity’s communications. Even the term “care” has come under fire.
“If you’re a clinical person, it’s a little more difficult to accept because they think care is a good thing, and it is, but they don’t see the importance of change from a marketing perspective,” Stone explained.
“I think using inclusive language in general attracts more people,” Stone said. “Technical terms like unit and facility are scary, and you don’t want to scare people when you’re trying to get them to your community.”
Varsity’s Derek Dunham, vp, client services, believes a lot of the problem with language is a result of government terminology, especially when talking about units and beds.
“It’s very much the words you find on a form. When we’re talking about people’s lives, they don’t want to be a number on a form,” said Dunham. “It isn’t simply being descriptive. We’re dealing with people’s lives.
“I think it’s a disconnect between what people want and some of the terminology that’s been used. “There are a lot of stereotypes that go along with certain language—facility, nursing home, care, retirement, senior—a lot of these words are emotionally charged. So many organizations have moved well beyond with a lot of forward thinking design-like household concepts with neighborhoods.”
Varsity was one of the partners participating last year in Project NameStorm, a joint initiative of LeadingAge and Mather LifeWays, along with other partners, including Brooks Adams Research, GlynnDevins, Love & Company, and SB&A Integrated Marketing. The group was charged with identifying a new name for the overall CCRC brand category.
“What we were trying to do was come up with something that is perhaps better descriptive than CCRC was for the marketplace,” explained Dunham. “Life Plan Community really performed well with all the stakeholder groups to describe what it is we’re talking about.”
“One of the reasons we were really glad to participate in Project NameStorm, as someone trying to sell to people … continuing care retirement community insinuates that you need care now and here’s where you go to get more care or continuing care,” said Stone. “It really wasn’t a very good descriptor for the fact that you start out in independent living, where you should start, and there’s care available if you should need it, but you don’t need it now.”
Focus group participants who didn’t like the “needing care” aspect of the CCRC name liked Life Plan Community because they thought the name was more open to younger people.
Dunham was quick to point out that organizations sensitive to the language in their communication, brochures and websites, should use words like assisted living facility and nursing home as keywords when working on a website for search engine optimization (SEO), Google Ad Words or paid search.
“This is how consumers search, and we do want our words and our communities to be found,” Dunham explained.
Janis Ehlers, president of The Ehlers Group, a market and communications company that also helps senior living communities bring traffic to their door, believes language comes down to the ability to communicate with the customer.
“I’m sure it starts at the top and trickles down, but language also affects the lenders to the industry and the states,” Ehlers said. “It starts with the early definition of ALF, assisted living facility, so then how do you change ALF so now you’re calling it an assisted living community?
“We’re working now with CCRCs that are trying to use the term Life Plan Community, and that’s a very hard transition. For years they were a continuing care retirement community, and now there’s this new term, Life Plan, and we’re trying to embrace that, as well.”
Ehlers, who authored the book “Marketing Senior Housing,” heard a lecture about language recently that resonated with her.
“All of a sudden, the industry said, ‘We have this marketing department, but we don’t like the idea that we’re selling, so we want to call our people ‘counselors’—they’re counseling someone, patting the little old lady and saying, ‘oh, you’re going to be happy living here.’
“So whether they’re a sales counselor or a life style counselor, they are ultimately selling, and the people who come through the door are customers,” Ehlers said. “Why can’t we be proud to be a sales person who’s selling someone a wonderful opportunity to change their life when they move to a senior living community?”
There are many good resources including “Living Fully With Dementia: Words Matter,” a July 2015 report by the Dementia Action Alliance outlining language use related to dementia. The Pioneer Network in a piece called “The Language of Culture Change” offers a chart of “old words” and suggestions for new words.
As editor of Senior Living News, Cheryl curates the news and writes a weekly feature story. She also plans the education portion of the HealthTAC events produced by Senior Living News and moderates the executive panel discussions. Cheryl has consulted with senior living clients for more than 20 years and served as senior public relations strategist for Varsity, a marketing and sales consulting agency focused on occupancy for retirement, assisted living and continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs)/Life Plan communities, and more. She previously managed national media relations as Rite Aid’s director of public relations.