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Communication Needs of the Elderly

February 4, 2013

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has put out some guidelines on communication with the elderly and we’ll summarize some of the most interesting points here to save you reading  the whole document.



If you are interested, the pfd version of the document can be found at:



The following excerpts give a flavor of the report which makes interesting reading for those interested in providing services, or creating applications, for seniors.

“Seniors currently (2005) make up 13% of Canada’s population—projections show that by 2036, they will account for close to 25% of the population.”

“Women account for 52% of seniors aged 65 to 69 and for 75% of those 90 years
or older. Differences in life expectancy between men and women have begun to narrow, a trend that is projected to continue.”

The following numbers surprised me a bit:

“As of 2001, almost all seniors (93%) were living in private households—45% with a spouse or partner, 27% alone, and 18% with a child or grandchild. Only 7% were living in an institutional setting (for example, a long-term care facility).” I would have expected a higher proportion in long term care. But maybe it’s a matter of definitions. Perhaps there are a variety of assisted living arrangements that aren’t classified as long term care.

“Among seniors, more than three quarters (77%) of men and just over half of women (52%) were married or in common-law living arrangements, as of 2001.” Another possibly surprising, but good statistic. Most seniors have partners, and men in particular are doing well with over three-quarters having partners. While isolation may be a problem for many of the elderly it seems that the majority have some sort of companionship.

The following finding is even more surprising and is not such good news:

“Over 80% of seniors have low literacy skills that do not enable them to cope well in today’s complex knowledge society, or to make effective use of such documents as transportation schedules, maps and charts. This is also the case with numeracy skills—with 88% of seniors lacking skills needed to manage effectively the mathematical requirements of a range of situations.”
Note that this figure doesn’t mean that people cannot read and write at all, but rather that they do not have enough of these skills to function well in our society. There are many complex tasks such as doing taxes or reading legal documents and many seniors have trouble doing them.
Seniors in Canada are a good market. “Senior households spent a total of $69billion in 1996 and will be spending a lot more now.  “Most of their expenditures are on personal consumption. In 2003, for example, among couples aged 65 to 74 years, 74 cents of every dollar was spent on personal consumption, with the remainder going to taxes (16 cents), savings (4 cents), security (3 cents) and gifts/contributions (3 cents). Two thirds of personal consumption expenditures were on accommodation, transportation and food.”

From my own observation I would say that healthy seniors like to travel. For instance, a 70-year old that I know spends the worst part of the winter each year in Key West. When I’m in Toronto this time of year I feel a bit of a mug.
Seniors have more leisure time and disposable income than people in other age groups, but they are also afflicted by more disabilities.
PHAC reports that “more than four in ten Canadians aged 65 and older (43%) reported having a disability (condition or health problem) that limits their everyday activities, compared to about 17% of the population aged 15 and older. The disability rate rises with age—more than half (56%) of seniors aged 75 and older reported having an activity limitation.”

 In 2003, 23% of families headed by a person aged 65 or older had access to the Internet from home—up from less than 5% in 1997. More recent findings (2004) show that almost one third (31%) of Canadian seniors are online.” And that number has increased since then and is likely to continue to increase. Those seniors who are connected often spend a lot of time online from home, providing good opportunities for businesses and marketers.The human body wears out over time and there are some natural changes that tend to occur to almost everyone, although with a lot of variation in age of onset. Here is a table from the PHAC report that looks at sensory changes with aging.

There are also cognitive changes with aging. These include changes in memory, reasoning and abstract thinking.  affect a very small percentage of younger seniors, although the percentage does rise with age. These changes are often mild, although their prevalence and severity tends to increase with age.

Here’s an interesting checklist of how one should communicate with seniors.

The PHAC report provides a lot of helpful advice, some of which might seem to border on common sense.
The following checklist for website design seems particularly useful however, and was derived from material original published by two US agencies (the National Institute of Aging, and the National Library of Medicine).

A lot of problems arise for seniors in public places because they have a hard time hearing public announcements. Here is an example of how Vancouver Airport handles the problem:
“Vancouver International Airport has a specially tailored PA system and flight information displays equipped with telephone access for those who can’t read the displays. PA speakers are installed at 15-foot intervals, so that announcements can be broadcast at lower volume—more speakers at lower volume makes the message more intelligible. In some areas, announcements are presented visually on a board or video display. Check-in counters are also equipped with telephone handsets to amplify conversations between passengers and counter staff.”

Some of the guidelines for the elderly seem like they would make communication from effective for all age groups and not just the elderly. Here is an example of a print design checklist that looks like it is not just for the elderly.

Here’s a couple of final quotes from the report summary.
“Don’t try to persuade seniors you’re doing them a favour. Embrace senior-friendly communication because it is logical and makes sense for your program objectives or your bottom line: seniors bring their business to senior-friendly stores and businesses, and they’re loyal customers when they’re well served.”
“Seniors have time, energy and insight born of life experience—they’re a valuable asset to a society that respects them and takes the time to think about effective ways of reaching out to them.”
Bottom line, seniors are an important and ever increasing portion of the population. They are a good market, but they have special needs and those needs should be considered carefully in designing communications, products, and services.
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