By Susan Donley, Senior Vice President, Communications and Marketing, LeadingAge
Have you ever seen an ad featuring a 90-year-old leaping from an airplane and deploying his parachute with a smile? How about a serene silver-haired modern yogi standing in her perfect tree pose atop a mountain? Images like these are all too often used to tell about (and sell) products and services for older adults. But they rarely work. And here’s why: they are not real.
Authenticity is paramount when it comes to telling the story of aging and aging services. Professionals like you know better than many that our sector is filled with stories of small wins, everyday meaning, and laughter through tears. That’s real life. And when it comes to communicating with the public about the work you do, it’s the key to success.
In 2021 during the height of the pandemic, my team led an initiative designed to uncover public understanding about aging services so that we could develop smart messaging and communications strategies for members to shift perceptions positively. The tragedies of COVID-19 brought with them terrible stories of aging services in the mainstream media. Now we’ve got research-based, best practices on how to reframe the narrative.
Many factors shape how people view the sector, so we began by exploring everything from the media and political environment to the opinions of leaders and influencers to the views of the general public. Our work included a range of research tactics including two national public opinion surveys of U.S. adults ages 18+ and a set of focus groups composed of potential consumers and family members of aging services clients.
The findings paint a complex picture of a sector that is not well-understood, but has the potential for meaningful public support. Here’s why: 1) those who have experience with the sector feel positive about it; 2) there is widespread admiration and support for those who work in the sector; 3) a large segment of the population is unfamiliar or unsure of what they think about the sector, creating an opportunity for learning; 4) the public has strong expectations that policymakers must invest in aging services; and 5) the spotlight on the sector is brighter than ever, presenting opportunities to tell our story.
So how do we do it? Our research led us to the following best practices for telling the story of aging services — and I hope you will use them to tell your story, too.
● Offer a look inside aging services. We know the public is not aware of the range of care and services available from our sector , so invite people to experience the value you bring to older adults in your community — virtually, in-person, or through storytelling. Show transparency, accountability, and a commitment to quality of life.
● Emphasize independence and strength. Demonstrate how getting extra help from the aging services sector can mean greater independence and the ability to continue to do things that are important to us. Avoid framing communications around the needs and frailty of older adults, but around their value, dignity, and ongoing contribution.
● Highlight dedicated, compassionate care professionals. The public overwhelmingly supports front-line care professionals who support us and our families even under difficult circumstances. Spotlight the people who work in aging services and highlight the bonds between care professionals and the older adults they serve.
● Demonstrate a commitment to delivering quality care and services. Do not talk about the sector or individual providers as in crisis (older adults and their families are experiencing crisis). Emphasize quality and underscore how you are mission-driven—and if you are a nonprofit, say so.
● Focus on older adults and their families, not on providers. It’s not about providers; it’s about the people we serve. Tell stories and frame communications from the perspective of the older adults and families — and enlist them as messengers.
● Talk about us, not them. A majority of us will need some kind of long-term care as we age — so do not talk about older adults as “them,” but “we” and “us.”
● Frame aging services as a basic right for everyone. The public believes that every American has a right to receive a basic level of housing, healthcare, and essential support regardless of age. Stress that a range of care and services is available for people from all walks of life.
Want the cheat sheet version to keep handy at your desk? We created a vocabulary “Do’s and Don’ts” list (below) and you can find a complete language guide, messaging platform, and more online at openinddoors.org. Numerous online courses are available as well.
Services for Older Adults
Caregiving professionals, experts
Care worker, unskilled worker
We used our own advice to develop a public service campaign to introduce the full aging services sector to the general public: Keep Leading Life. The campaign emphasizes the themes of agency, empowerment, and independence. It reflects the reality of our sector: aging isn’t a slippery slope that leads to isolation and death. The truth is that with extra help from aging services professionals, older adults continue to live fulfilling lives. The campaign is ready for you to download and use at OpeningDoors.org/resources.
I hope you get great value from using these materials. But whether you use them or simply follow the research-backed guidance above to tell your story in your own way, let’s reset the narrative. Together, we can raise awareness of and build confidence in aging services.
My advice on where to start? Leave the ‘skydiving grannies’ behind.