Ecumen CEO Kathryn Roberts has a peculiar habit when she calls a staff meeting. She sets a jar in the middle of the table, and anyone who says the "F-word" has to pony up a quarter.
"Oh, we've had lots of quarters," she said. "Lots and lots of quarters."
The naughty word here is "facility."
Roberts, whose organization runs senior housing and long-term care centers across the Midwest, is on a mission to excise the term from the corporate lexicon.
As baby boomers steamroll into old age, a new war on words is unfolding. There's more afoot than political correctness. The over-50 crowd generates some $4.6 trillion in economic activity in products and services. Any company that wants to woo this senior set can't risk alienating them with words that carry negative connotations, especially when most will eventually need some help with housing, transportation and health care.
"Nobody knows what the right language is, to be honest," said Roberts. "But I'd like to think that this language piece is a placeholder for a much bigger cultural revolution that says we're not going to think about aging in the way we have."
At Ecumen, "facilities" are now called "communities." Condo buildings in the Twin Cities are promoting their "55-and-better" living. The Bradshaw funeral business promotes "meaningful events that celebrate life." Nursing homes have become "care centers," and social workers have become "concierges."
"Our generation is trying to hang onto our youth and we're fighting it all the way," said Sue Kruskopf, a 57-year-old boomer and CEO of the Minneapolis ad agency, KC. "The language is changing, but products are changing, too. Smart people are getting on board and seeing how they need to adapt to an audience like us."
Use the phrase "gray tsunami" in a sentence, and gird yourself for the backlash. Terms as "seniors" and "older adults" are clunky and inexact. Do you become a senior at 50 when you qualify for AARP discounts? Or in your 60s when you begin collecting Social Security?
Meantime, "senior citizen" is out, as is "mature adult," according to market research. "Elderly" has been deemed utterly cringe-worthy by boomers, though referring to someone as an "elder" carries a measure of respect and wisdom gained from a long life.
'Old' gets older
Not surprisingly, what constitutes old, depends on your point of view.
In one Pew Research report on social and demographic trends, few people identified gray hair and retirement as markers of old age. Most defined old-age as not being able to live independently or drive.
A poll by the Marist College Institute found that 45 year olds consider those who are 61 as "old or middle-aged." Yet people in their 70s or 80s tend to think of 61 as "young."
That dichotomy has led some researchers to speak of the "young-old" and the "old-old" — not exactly the kinds of phrases that would turn a marketer's head.
Still, much of the current terminology remains centered around disability and disease, in large part because of the way the federal government pays for health care services in this country. Repurposing familiar terms often misses the mark, such as "adult day care."
"We try to avoid that," said Gail Skoglund. "It sounds demeaning."
Skoglund runs an Augustana Care program at Heritage Park in Minneapolis better described as "adult day service." She said the industry is grappling to find more updated and respectful language to convey the value of such programs, which provide a structured social outlet for people with memory loss while giving caregivers a break. "Language has become a barrier to services we offer," said Larry Minnix, CEO of LeadingAge, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group of 6,000 aging service providers.
"No one wants to go to a nursing home because it has a bad image."
Minnix is on a nationwide campaign to shift the language and provoke broader conversations around the business of aging. In his stump speech, Minnix singles out greeting cards and advertisements that turn old people into buffoons. The "I've fallen and I can't get up" ad draws laughs from the audience, but Minnix points out that for more than a generation it has crudely defined the image of an older woman.
The need for services
A more recent ad for Taco Bell show seniors flashing nipple rings and behaving badly as they escape the retirement home for a night on the town. A Centrum ad, deemed too racy for television, shows a game of strip poker at a nursing home, where vitamin-infused players have reverted to their younger selves.
While the ads speak to boomers' need for vitality, not everyone is striding briskly toward the mountaintops. Most will eventually need services, either in their homes or in some other assisted-living housing option.
Changing words can only go so far, Minnix argues. The health care and social service system is overwhelmingly complicated for caregivers and Medicare doesn't pay for most services seniors need if they want to stay in their homes.
"The vogue term in health care and long-term care is 'patient-centered,' " Minnix said. "But the truth is, most of care is regulation-centered or routine-centered. This is how we've always done it at 'Our Lady of Perpetual Deficits.' "
Ecumen's Roberts, a boomer herself, acknowledges that tweaking terminology is just a start.
"It's the last group or class of citizens in this country that we say it's OK to institutionalize and it's OK to marginalize — in advertisements, movies and popular culture," she said.
"It's easier to say let's put a quarter in the jar than it is to change the culture."
Jackie Crosby writes regularly about the generations for the Star Tribune.