Getting the Message Out to Seniors: The Issue

Canada’s senior population (over 65) has grown more than twice as fast as the overall population since the early 1980s, and the trend will continue for decades to come. Understanding the effects of the aging process, as well as the diversity of seniors, is key to communicating effectively with this growing segment of the Canadian population.

The Reality Check

Who makes up the senior audience? Are your perceptions about older Canadians valid and up-to-date? Or have you fallen for some of the many myths about seniors and aging? Grasping the facts about Canadian seniors is a starting point for examining communication strategies to reach this large and growing audience.

Are you aware of its major characteristics?

  • About one third of Canadian seniors live in rural areas and small towns, the rest in urban areas.1
  • 93% of seniors live in private households – 58% with a spouse or partner, 7% with a family member, 29% alone, 2% with non-relatives.2
  • 57% of Canadians over 65 and 70% of Canadians over 85 are women.2
  • 75% of men and 43% of women age 65+ are married.2
  • About 20% of current Canadians age 65+ have a post-secondary diploma or degree, while 60% did not complete high school. Of the latter, 37% have less than a Grade 9 education.2
  • A considerable number of current seniors have some level of difficulty with reading.3
  • Senior households spent a total of $69 billion in 1996.4
  • Seniors have more leisure time and disposable income than members of other age groups.1
  • Over one fifth of households headed by a senior report gifts and donations of more than 10% of after-tax income. Seniors also give generously of their time.4
  • An estimated 46% of seniors have a disability and for the most part they continue to enjoy an active lifestyle in their communities.5
  • 75% of seniors aged 65 to 74 rate their health as good, very good or excellent, as do 66% of those aged 75+.4
  • Half of seniors report physical activity of 15 minutes or more at least 12 times per month. The most popular activities: walking, gardening, home exercise, swimming, dancing.4
  • Almost two thirds of those aged 80+ report needing no help with daily tasks such as grocery shopping and meal preparation, housework and personal care.4
  • About 20% are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and some 6% belong to a so-called "visible minority." 4
  • In 1997, about 13% of families headed by someone aged 65 or older had a home computer.6

While these facts suggest exciting opportunities for restaurants, bookstores, gardening suppliers, performing arts organizations, adult education providers, the travel industry, financial planners and investment brokers, personalized home assistance and repair services, and many other businesses and services, they also imply certain responsibilities and approaches. Reaching the vibrant and expanding segment of the Canadian population requires effective communication at all levels.

Not only do communicators need to develop new attitudes and more sensitive materials and services, they must also keep abreast of the evolution of that market as new and different generations will reach the "golden years" over the next few decades.

Your Attitude is Showing!

  • 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.
  • Especially avoid agist 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.
  • Keep in mind that seniors are generally wise shoppers whose 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.

Seniors Are Diverse

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. With such diversity, it follows that older Canadians want to be able to choose from a range of information sources about businesses, services and government programs. Studies of seniors’ information preferences and habits will help you pinpoint the medium best suited to the audience segment you want to reach.7

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 someone raised in the 1950s or of the "babyboomers." Access to education has also varied greatly in this century. Place of residence (urban or rural), socio-economic 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 and from you – about these and other issues:

  • what constitutes "the good life," "quality," and "service"
  • 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 Do 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.

Aging and Communication

Sensory Change

Types of Communication Affected

Visual acuity

· product labelling

· signage: public buildings, street signs

· banking machines (glare on screens)

· information available only in print

· televised information

· glossy paper and colour brochure

Hearing acuity

· interpersonal communication

· public address systems

· telephone

· television and radio

Agility and mobility

· pushbutton telephone

· banking machines

· kits (to be assembled)

· product packages

· opportunities to see 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, church, seniors’ centres)

  • 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 (touchtone telephone buttons, automated banking machines and direct payment 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." Skilful communication (repeating key points in various ways, checking for understanding) can help overcome this.
  • The social changes surrounding aging include changes in income and earning capacity, loss of social networks through retirement and the death of 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.

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.

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

While it is estimated that around 48% of Canadians have some degree of difficulty with reading, surveys indicate that as many as 80% of Canadian seniors currently over 65 may have reading problems significant enough to interfere with tasks such as filling out forms or reading instructions on medicine containers (document literacy), understanding information provided by government and other institutions (prose literacy) or doing basic arithmetic (quantitative literacy) such as balancing a chequebook, calculating a tip or completing an order form.8

With less access to education earlier this century, many older adults did not gain the skills and knowledge needed to use printed material effectively. They may have coped over the years by emphasizing oral communication, developing strong memory skills, and turning to a relative or friend to interpret written material. But aging may eventually undermine their ability to rely on these strategies, making it more and more difficult to acquire vital information about health, safety and financial security if it is available only from printed sources.3

In addition, seniors may be literate in their mother tongue but not in English or French, or may come from cultures with environments, outlooks, traditions and religious beliefs that remove them from many aspects of Canadian society – including technological changes, health, social and transportation services, educational structure, occupational options, perceptions of health and illness, and options in living arrangements. 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.


Summary of research findings related to effective health promotion messaging for older adults that have more general applicability.