Getting older isn't easy. Reading the 12-point font of a newspaper article is a challenge and cataracts just make vision worse. Standing up requires a little more balance as we lose muscle mass. Our hearing declines. Forgetting where we left our keys happens more frequently than we'd like to admit.
Sue Maxwell, M.S.W., has been studying the effects of aging for decades. As Director of Gerontology at Lee Memorial Health System in Ft. Myers, Florida, Maxwell helped create hands-on training kits used to simulate the effects of aging. These aging sensitivity training kits have been on the market for 20 years, and are sold to businesses give workers a better understanding of the effects of aging. The kits contain five separate glasses to try on, each one demonstrates how vision deteriorates when cataracts or other vision diseases take hold. Cotton is included so participants can put it in their ears to mimic the loss of hearing. Special gloves are also provided, which when worn, inhibit mobility, making it tough to open a jar or bottle.
"People say, ‘Now I understand why grandma does that,'" Maxwell explains of the "aha" moments most participants have after taking part in training sessions where the kits are used.
"As we age, our communication process changes," continues Maxwell. "We don't see as we used to or touch or feel the way we used to. We operate slowly, but we get the job done." Maxwell likes to compare aging to computer modems – older adults are on dial up, not high speed wi-fi.
Aging sensitivity training sessions also include discussions on how different cultures treat their older citizens, the impact of ageism on our population and even myths about aging. The end goal of the training is to get workers, regardless of their industry, to incorporate what they've learned about aging when they're assisting older customers.
There's good reason for businesses to take note of the burgeoning older population. The Greatest Generation is aging at an unprecedented rate. In the most recent Census, the number of Americans between the ages of 85 to 94 increased by nearly 30% from 2000. Those five million people make up the fastest growing age group. Baby Boomers are right behind them. The first boomers turned 65 in 2011. By 2050, a projected 88.5 million Americans will be 65 or older - 20% of the total population.
When workers understand how people age, they can create new products and services to assist older adults. Maxwell notes that personal service is important to WWII-era Americans, who will be loyal customers if they're treated right. "If you can create a wonderful experience, the older adults are going to tell other people, tell their friends," says Maxwell. "That one-on-one service can't be replaced, whether you're young or old. The more you know your customer, the better service you can provide."
That's the theory one Florida-based insurance agent and recruiter is counting on. Michael, a salesperson for a national health insurance company that offers Medicare policies, took an aging sensitivity training course through his hometown elder care agency after his mother was diagnosed with dementia. Michael realized so many applications for the training in the insurance and financial industries that he began offering private webinars on the topic to fellow colleagues who sell Medicare plans.
"As their agent, you don't always know what a client is going through," explains Michael, who asked not to be fully identified since the training is not offered company-wide.
Michael believes agents educated in aging sensitivity are better able to meet their older clients' needs and improve their sales techniques. He says small improvement can make a big difference for seniors. For instance printed materials should be on a white background with large-font, black letters to be more readable for an older person. Wider pens make it easier for seniors to hold and write. And leaving materials with a complete summary of the services discussed means potential clients who are older don't have to rely on their memory. And there are other, more subtle changes that Michael says insurance agents can make: look directly at the client, instead of turning their head or looking down – since older folks often resort to lip-reading when their hearing has failed.
Although difficult to quantify with a dollar amount, Michael thinks his aging sensitivity training is paying off. Agents gain an appreciation for the special needs of older adults, and those seniors are glad to have someone who understands them. "It seems the visits are more meaningful and people stay longer and that translates to more business," Michael states.
As older adults age and are in greater need of healthcare services, aging sensitivity training is nearly a necessity. Brookdale Living, which provides housing, assisted living and skilled nursing at 650 communities across the United States, has been using Maxwell's aging sensitivity training kits for more than a decade. The training is mandatory for every manager and staff member who deals with older adults.
"Workers can experience having the maladies some residents have, sorting pills or trying to sew," says Ann Bonneau, a divisional learning and development manager for Brookdale Living. "I think people hear about what happens when you age, but are surprised at how limiting it becomes. We're hoping it makes a significant impact for employees to understand the aging process."
Not only do healthcare workers use the aging sensitivity training at Brookdale Living, but in some locations customer service representatives and interior designers use the training so they can better serve and understand clients.
Regardless of the industry, providing aging sensitivity training to employees sets them up for success. And with older Americans becoming a larger and more influential part of our population, knowing how to treat them will become essential.