We’re All Getting Older

A group of happy older doodles. One doodle uses a wheelchair and is holding hands with another doodle. The other 2 are waving. In the current conversation about health equity and social determinants of health, there’s a lot of focus on racial and ethnic groups, LGBTQ+ communities, and people with disabilities — populations that have been discriminated against in ways that have harmed their health. Today, we want to focus on older adults, a group that sometimes gets left out of this critical equity convo. And the timing of the convo really is critical.

That’s because right now, the United States is older than ever before. And experts expect that trend to continue — by 2050, predictions put the number of U.S. adults age 65 and older at 82 million. That’s a whopping 47% increase from 2022, when there were 58 million. Essentially, we’re getting older, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

One thing that’s well documented is that older adults are more likely to have limited literacy skills than many other groups. Some things that happen naturally when we age (think: vision and hearing issues) play a role — so does the fact that older adults, understandably, may have trouble keeping up with our incredibly fast-moving technological landscape. Older adults also have higher rates of chronic diseases, meaning they generally need more health care.

So it’s a tricky equation: people with complex health care needs who are likely, due to factors outside their control, to have trouble understanding health info and accessing health care. What’s a health communicator to do? We’ve got a few ideas:

  • Always use respectful language when communicating to and about older adults. We’ve shared tips for addressing older adults before, and now’s a great time for a refresher. In general, swap terms like “the elderly” or “seniors” for “older adults” — or get specific about age ranges. We also ❤️ this blog post on avoiding ageism in your writing from the National Institute on Aging, particularly the tip to use first-person (“we/us”) instead of third-person (“they/them”) when writing about older populations. As the author astutely points out, we’re all aging! So when appropriate, let’s take this opportunity not to “other” this group.
  • Tailor your materials and your outreach/dissemination strategies. This is an across-the-board best practice, but it bears repeating. Strategies like increasing font size in a material can go a long way toward making it more accessible to older people with vision loss, for example. Older adults may also prefer reading health info in print, so think about whether you need to provide print versions of materials (and if you’re writing digital content for older adults, make sure it’s print-friendly). We also know that older adults may rely heavily on caregivers to get information, so make sure they’ve got a place at the table, too. These are just a couple examples, and there are many more (including a few in our post on health literacy and older adults).
  • Explicitly call out barriers specific to older adults and offer “next-best” options. We know that older adults often have trouble getting to health care appointments. So if you’re working on a material for older audiences or their caregivers, name the barrier: “It’s normal to have trouble getting to in-person doctor visits as we age. If you’re worried about getting to the doctor, it might help to set up a phone call appointment to discuss it with your doctor. There may also be programs in your community that can help you get to appointments — try calling your local senior or community center to find out more.”
  • Be mindful of intersectionality within this audience. If you refer to the first paragraph of this post, we named “racial and ethnic groups, LGBTQ+ communities, and people with disabilities” as groups often affected by health disparities. And guess what? An older adult could be all 3 of those things! Just as the number of older adults is increasing, so is diversity within the audience. It’s far past time that we start accounting for intersectionality within the older population by creating communications and interventions that speak to the diversity of our aging population.

One last thought: As we know, health comm strategies alone can’t fix systemic issues. That’s why it’s important to advocate for bigger changes that can improve quality of life for all of us as we age. This report from Justice in Aging has a great list of 5 key areas that we can invest in to advance equity for older adults (note it’s specifically for older adults with lower incomes, but the areas stand), like improving anti-discrimination laws and policies. This could also look like naming ageism as a social determinant of health when it comes up in your work.

The bottom line: The U.S. population is getting older, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. As health communicators, there are steps we can take to help advance equity for older adults.

Copy and paste to share on social (and tag us!): The U.S. population is getting older. CommunicateHealth has some ideas for #HealthComm professionals to help advance equity for older adults. Take a look: https://bit.ly/3IAS2sK #HealthLiteracy #HealthEquity


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