Ecumen CEO Kathryn Roberts has a peculiar habit when she calls a staff meeting. She sets a jar in the middle of the table, and anyone who says the "f-word" has to pony up a quarter.
"Oh, we've had lots of quarters," she said. "Lots and lots of quarters."
The naughty word here is "facility."
Roberts, whose organization runs senior housing and long-term care centers across the Midwest, is on a mission to excise the term from the corporate lexicon.
As baby boomers steamroll into old age, a new war on words is unfolding. There's more afoot than political correctness. The over-50 crowd generates some $4.6 trillion in economic activity in products and services. Any company that wants to woo this set can't risk alienating them with words that carry negative connotations, especially when most will eventually need some help with housing, transportation and health care.
"Nobody knows what the right language is, to be honest," Roberts said. "But I'd like to think that this language piece is a placeholder for a much bigger cultural revolution that says we're not going to think about aging in the way we have."
At Ecumen, "facilities" are now "communities." Condo buildings in the Twin Cities are promoting "55-and-better" living. A funeral business promotes "meaningful events that celebrate life." Nursing homes have become "care centers," and social workers have become "concierges."
"Our generation is trying to hang onto our youth and we're fighting it all the way," said Sue Kruskopf, 57, CEO of the Minneapolis ad agency KC. "The language is changing, but products are changing, too. Smart people are getting on board and seeing how they need to adapt to an audience like us."
Use the phrase "gray tsunami," and gird yourself for the backlash. Terms such as "seniors" and "older adults" are clunky and inexact. Do you become a senior at 50 when you qualify for AARP discounts? Or in your 60s when you begin collecting Social Security?
Meantime, "senior citizen" is out, as is "mature adult," according to market research. "Elderly" has been deemed utterly cringeworthy by boomers, though referring to someone as an "elder" carries a measure of respect and wisdom.
Not surprisingly, what constitutes old depends on your point of view.
In one Pew Research report on social trends, few people identified gray hair and retirement as markers of old age. Most defined old age as not being able to live independently or drive.
A poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion found that 45-year-olds consider those who are 61 as "old or middle-aged." Yet people in their 70s or 80s tend to think of 61 as "young."
Still, much of the current terminology remains centered on disability and disease, in large part because of the way the federal government pays for health care services. Repurposing familiar terms often misses the mark, such as "adult day care."
"Language has become a barrier to services we offer," said Larry Minnix, CEO of LeadingAge, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group of 6,000 aging service providers. "No one wants to go to a nursing home because it has a bad image."
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Minnix is on a nationwide campaign to shift the language and provoke broader conversations around the business of aging. In his stump speech, Minnix singles out greeting cards and ads that turn old people into buffoons. The "I've fallen and I can't get up" ad draws laughs, but Minnix points out that for more than a generation it has crudely defined the image of an older woman.
Changing words can only go so far, Minnix argues, and Ecumen's Roberts, a boomer herself, acknowledges that tweaking terminology is just a start.
"It's the last group or class … in this country that we say it's okay to institutionalize and it's okay to marginalize — in advertisements, movies and popular culture," she said.