Guest Column - October 2004
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The Silver Tsunami

International Council on Active Aging

By Colin Milner

You need look no further than your own business to observe the effects an aging population is having on the demographic makeup of your facility. This silver tsunami is changing the face of the industry.

As with all shifts of tidal proportion, the challenge is not to get swept away during the period of transformation. To ensure its safety, ongoing growth and future success, a recreation facility and its staff need to learn all that they can about this special market and then set about to excel at addressing, and serving, its needs.

With this particular market, you are either in or out—there is no middle ground. If you intend to be counted among those who are in, you will need to attend to the following seven elements:

1. Know your market. Determine what segment of the market you want to serve—that is, from highly functional through dependant—and then set out to learn everything about it you can.

Action: Become a sponge for information and insights about the market.

2. Speak their language. Research conducted recently by the AARP indicates that older adults have a very negative response to the word "exercise," as opposed to the term "physically active." AARP also tested words such as "moderate" and "vigorous" to see if seniors understood them with respect to exercise: Vigorous drew a blank, but they understood moderate, particularly when it was equated with a brisk walk. What sort of message are you communicating?

Action: Become a student of their language and then implement it throughout your facility.

3. Operationalize your facility, eliminating barriers. Among the items that may need to be reexamined and revised are hours, policies, staffing, equipment selection and facility design.

Action: Assemble an advisory board of older adults to recommend appropriate changes.

4. Adjust your sales style. With this group, you need to gain their trust before they'll consider joining your facility or programs. Because of their life experience, they know that there's no such thing as "today only."

Action: Hire a consultant who specializes in the aging market and design a sales presentation around health benefits.

5. Create age-specific assessments and programming. When assessing older adults, balance, bone fragility, chronic medical conditions, and so on, become more important than standard measurements, such as height, weight and strength. Because "improved health" is the main reason seniors join clubs, programming should be designed with that goal in mind.

Action: Identify the challenges they face and then program to produce the associated health benefits.

6. Hire competent staff. According to the Medical Fitness Association (MFA), the 55-plus cohort ranks "clinically trained and certified staff" as the most important benefit of medically oriented fitness centers. When dealing with chronic conditions, specialized staff is a necessity, not a luxury.

Action: Hire staff with specialized training and a strong desire to work with older people.

7. Have fun. Older adults want to have fun and to participate in social experiences.

Action: Create fun-filled programming that provides a lot of social interaction.

To succeed with what is now America's fastest growing and most promising market, you need to become a student of older adults, learn how to speak their language, and commit yourself to meeting their requirements and desires. Good luck.

Colin Milner is the CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), the world's largest senior fitness trade association. He can be reached at 866-335-9777, or visit the ICAA Web site,