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.