Messaging To Seniors: The Issue

The Centre of Addictions Research in British Columbia (2007) reviewed general factors that influence the ability of older adults to heed and respond to health promotion messages. Their findings, summarized below have general applicability for communicating with seniors:

In order to engage older adults in health promotion they require information about benefits, risks, and what to do. It is important that health promotion messaging reaches seniors but there is little evidence to indicate how this is best achieved. Thomas, Dyck and Reist (2007) reviewed general factors that influence the ability of older adults to heed and respond to health promotion messages, summarized as follows:

  • Studies have shown that health literacy tends to decline with age (Baker et al., 2000). Causes for declines in health literacy include: loss or weakening of eyesight leading to reduced reading ability, declines in cognitive abilities leading to reduced ability to remember and retain information; reduction in judgment leading to loss of ability to evaluate information and plan for incorporation into daily routines, and reduced functioning leading to the inability to act on information and plans once identified (ASA, 2001)
  • Effective learning with the goal of behaviour change involves at least four complex and interrelated tasks: (1) the learner must find personal meaning in the information, (2) they must have some level of trust that the information presented is credible and valid, (3) they must be able to determine how the information fits practically into their daily life, and (4) they must act to integrate the new information into their choices and behaviours (McCarthy, 2000). The physical and sociological effects of aging can have important impacts on each of these tasks and must be taken into account if health promotion messaging for seniors is to be effective. Unfortunately the dominant format used in health promotion education is providing reading materials and this approach does not do justice to the complex process involved in learning.
  • Understanding barriers to learning created by belief systems is one of the most important steps in developing successful health promotion programs for older adults. Beliefs that could get in the way of learning for behaviour change, need to be dealt with in health promotion messaging for older adults.
  • Socio-cultural factors need to be taken into account if effective health promotion messaging strategies are to be developed for older adults. In one survey of older adults in the United States, half of the respondents requested culturally appropriate translations of materials (ASA, 2001). Culture affects the ability to perceive and understand health promotion messaging through the influence of beliefs, values, language, history, institutions and traditions. All of these need to be taken into account in the design of effective messaging for health promotion.

Promoting Healthy Aging Through Health Promotion Strategies

A review of research on health promotion strategies for seniors conducted by Chernoff (2001) is informative and summarized below:

  • Longitudinal studies have shown that health promotion activities extend the number of years of health in older people, although the relationship weakens in older age.
  • The use of a variety of adult education theories and models will enhance behavior changes that lead to more healthful habits.
  • For older adults, setting goals through a collaborative arrangement that becomes a partnership between the individual and the health care professional may contribute to greater adherence to a health promotion plan because the older individual has participated in setting the goals and the program is individualized.
  • Successful programs build on existing social support systems and cultural or ethnic beliefs or traditions.
  • Peer educators, particularly if they have a background similar to that of their clients, often are positive role models but may require training and information from expert coaches.
  • Older adults will participate in health promotion programs and make changes that improve their health behaviours given the opportunity to obtain information and accessible health services that focus on changing health behaviours to improve health status, lower the risk of disability, and improve quality of life, older adults.
  • Studies indicate that there is a benefit to health promotion and a reduction in health care costs for those who are willing to make changes.

Centre of Addictions Research of B.C. (2007) Leading and Promising Practices for Addressing Harm from Tobacco and Alcohol Use Among Seniors (65 +) in British Columbia : prepared by G. Thomas, T. Dyck and D Reist, University of Victoria

Chernoff, R. (2001). Nutrition and health promotion in older adults. Journal of Gernontology: Series A., 56A (II), 47-53