Businesses and Seniors Benefit from Aging Sensitivity Training


Sue Maxwell, M.S.W., has been studying the effects of aging for decades. As the Director of Gerontology at Lee 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 businesses use them to give employees a better understanding of what it is like to get older.

Aging Simulation Kits

Each kit contains devices and supplies that simulate changes in senses and abilities that come with advancing age. Five sets of eyeglasses demonstrate how vision deteriorates when cataracts or other age-related eye diseases take hold. Participants experience what hearing loss is like firsthand by placing cotton in their ears, and special gloves recreate inhibited dexterity and grip strength that can make it tough to engage in everyday activities like opening a jar or handling medications.

Maxwell explains that most people experience “aha” moments after participating in training sessions where the kits are used. “People say, ‘Now I understand why grandma does that!’ ” This enhanced understanding helps them interact with elders in their personal lives as well as those they encounter while at work.

These training sessions also include discussions on how different cultures treat their older citizens, the impact of ageism on our population and dispelling myths about aging. The end goal of the training is to get employees to use what they’ve learned about aging when they’re assisting older customers.

Maxwell likes to compare aging to computer modems: older adults are on dial-up, not high-speed WiFi. “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 more slowly, but we still get the job done.”

Training is Beneficial for Businesses and Seniors

There’s a good reason for businesses to take note of the burgeoning older population. The Greatest Generation is aging at an unprecedented rate. The most recent Census showed that the number of Americans between the ages of 85 and 94 increased by nearly 30 percent. 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. That’s 20 percent of the total population.

When workers understand how people age, they can create new products and services to better assist older adults. Maxwell notes that personal service is especially important to WWII-era Americans, who will be loyal customers if they’re treated right. “If you can create a wonderful experience, they are going to tell their friends about it,” 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.”

Aging Sensitivity in Action

One Florida-based insurance agent and recruiter is putting this theory to the test. 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 that the training could be applied to the insurance and financial industries, so he began offering his colleagues private webinars on the topic.

Michael believes agents educated in aging sensitivity are better able to meet their older clients’ needs and improve their sales techniques. He says small improvements can make a big difference for seniors. For instance, printed materials should consist of large, black font on a white background to improve readability, and thicker pens are easier for seniors to hold and write with. Providing a written summary of the services discussed during a consultation means that potential clients don’t have to rely on memory alone to make decisions. Another subtle change that Michael says people can make is looking directly at the client when speaking, instead of turning their head or looking down. Older individuals who are hard of hearing often resort to lip-reading to fill in any bits of information they may have missed.

Although it is difficult to quantify with a dollar amount, Michael thinks his aging sensitivity training is paying off. Agents gain an appreciation for the unique needs of older adults, and clients are glad to work with someone who understands them. “It seems the visits are more meaningful and people stay longer, which translates to more business,” Michael states.

Encouraging Training Where It Matters Most

As older adults age and their need for long-term care and healthcare services increases, this training is a necessity. Brookdale Senior Living, which provides housing, assisted living and skilled nursing care at 1,052 communities across the United States, has been using Maxwell’s training kits for more than a decade. The training is mandatory for every manager and staff member who interacts with residents.

“Workers can experience the same maladies some residents have and better understand how these conditions affect daily activities like sorting pills or trying to sew,” says Ann Bonneau, a divisional learning and development manager for Brookdale. “I think people hear about what happens when you age but are very surprised at how limiting it truly becomes. We’re hoping the training makes a significant impact on employees and their understanding of our residents.”

Not only do healthcare workers use the aging sensitivity training at Brookdale Living, but in some locations customer service representatives and interior designers also receive training so they can better serve and understand clients. Regardless of the industry, providing this educational tool to employees sets them up for success. With older Americans becoming a larger and more influential part of our population, knowing how to best work with them is essential.

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This is all very well for the businesses who want the aging trade. For other places like the grocery store or Walmart, I think the aged should stay home and let others do the shopping.

My mother is 93 and insists I take her to the grocery store every week. It's a nightmare. She can't see, she can't hear, she uses a walker at home and uses the cart at the store to keep her balance. After a while she gets really tired and wants to sit down.

I think she is a tremendous liability for the store and for that matter for me. Every step that woman takes is a potential hazard. What am I going to do if she falls or if she gets too tired to walk to the next aisle? Plus other customers are shopping and not paying that much attention to where the are going. What if she runs into them and injures them with her cart?

These trips really frighten me. I've told her what a danger she is and tried to prepare her that soon I will not be able to take her. She doesn't listen of course. She pretends she can't hear. If I was a business I would dread to see her coming.
You haven't ask for any advice, and I usually don't give it, but here goes: Do yourself AND your mother a favor and stop taking her to the grocery store. She isn't holding you at gunpoint, is she? Your resentment and frustration is oozing all over the place, and I'm sure is toxic both for you AND for her. Be kind but firm when you tell her "no, I'm no longer willing to take you grocery shopping." Then she can either find someone else to take her or allow you to shop for her. Offer to take her on some other type of "outing," maybe to the local senior center, for example, or to the mall where you should be able to rent a wheelchair to get her around the mall. ...just stop allowing her to manipulate you into situations that are high anxiety/stress for you. If you cannot imagine saying "no" to her, get some professional help and/or peer support. You have set yourself up for some major stress-related physical/emotional/mental health complications. If those are allowed to progress, then where will your mother be? Best wishes to you.
My mother stayed in the car this week and let me go in and get her groceries. My situation is such that she has to make her own life style changes or she does stupid stuff if I push her. Our trip to the store a week ago was so awful, I think she figured out that she was going to have to adjust. So she came up with the new solution -- stay in the car while I go in. It works for me.

You are darned right I am oozing resentment. I hate taking care of her because she has a personality disorder and cannot see beyond her own narcissistic world. Everything she does protects her fragile ego. She's always been that way and early on I learned to go along with what she says because if I don't there is all hell to pay.

You seem to think I'm dealing with a mentally healthy person. I'm dealing with a personality disorder that is like a mental illness but there's no pill to help relieve it. I've dealt with it all my life.

She is extremely abusive. Who will look after her if I don't?

I'm glad you agree with me that the grocery store is no place for the aged which was my point.