Unlocking the Communication Code of Seniors

The single biggest problem in communication
is the illusion that it has taken place—-George Bernard Shaw

Despite the unprecedented opportunity afforded advisors by an aging population, many find themselves unprepared to successfully communicate with seniors. Instead, they wind up frustrated and confused about “what went wrong” with their best opportunities. While it would be easy to blame this disconnect on the eccentricities of seniors, new research on aging identifies poor signaling based on misinformation as a primary cause of these communication setbacks. Despite their best efforts, advisors wind up sending the wrong message. What can make this better? The good news is that by updating their understanding about the psychology of seniors, advisors can open the door to more productive and rewarding relationships older clients.

The updating process begins with a new insight about aging: older adults are still growing. How is this possible? Aren’t older adults merely diminished versions of their younger selves, looking backward instead of forward, having lived past their developmental peak? While this turns out to be the physical reality of aging, assuming that the loss of physical capabilities implies a mandatory loss of mental capabilities and the end of personality development has proven to be incorrect. Research has shown just the opposite is occurring.

New research confirms that the brain maintains the vast majority of its capabilities throughout life and personality development is as vital at eighty-five as it was at forty-five. If advisors are going to be successful with seniors, they will have to update their assumptions about a poorly understood part of aging. They will need to become fluent in the language of developmental tasks.

Different Age Groups, Different Tasks

Developmental stages in life are characterized by sets of oppositional tasks that need to be completed so the individual can move on to the next stage. These tasks are the drivers of personality growth, the internal engine that propels a person forward. These stages and their tasks are well documented in children and teenagers. Their identification and impact on the development in old age has only recently been understood.

Beginning in the mid-sixties, seniors are confronted with two seemingly paradoxical tasks that provoke conflict and change:

1. Preserve control in a world where all control is being lost.
2. Create a legacy in a world where time is running out.

One task requires hyper-vigilance to guard against an unending series of losses that threaten to push life out of control. The other task requires a reflective pause, a review of life’s events, and an eventual letting go. Each task is pulling in a different psychological direction, one struggling to last and one preparing to leave.

The Battle for Control

In addition to the losses associated with changes in health and physical strength, seniors are experiencing equally painful losses in other areas of their lives that intensifies the scope and complexity of the battle for control. These include:

• Loss of family
• Loss of peer group
• Loss of status
• Loss of identity
• Loss of home
• Loss of driving
• Loss of financial independence

As the losses mount and control is involuntarily surrendered, seniors run out of options. Failure to underestimate the intensity and impact of these losses can derail the best intentions to be helpful. Good advice may be rejected in favor of illogical or shortsighted choices because from a developmental perspective the need for control is greater than the need for medical, financial, or social correctness.

Control Signals

Given its central importance in communicating with seniors, how do advisors signal they understand the importance of control? It requires a new approach in two primary areas:

1. Utilizing language that resonates with control.
2. Linking products and services to control.

Words like independence, dependence, choice, loss, and control can be used to enhance essential communication skills such as open-ended questions and reflective summaries:

• Would you tell me more about your choices for preserving independence?
• How were you able to navigate that loss?
• So you feel your living situation is slipping out of control.
• Let me see if I understand how you plan to preserve your independence.

A similar developmental resonance can be embedded in the why of the planning process with statements like:

• We plan to preserve choice
• We have found lack of planning results in loss of control

It may also be necessary to rename familiar planning techniques that lack developmental resonance. For example, long term care planning might be recast as long term control planning. A simple alteration in language can help create a control-focused conversation that reinforces the perception that the advisor is both a control confidant and facilitator.

The Search for Legacy

The developmental counterpoint to preserving control is creating a legacy. While advisors are familiar with the legacy concept, they may be less informed about its origin and purpose.

The origin of legacy in older adults begins with a new focus on life review, the retrieving and reconsideration of a lifetime of people and experiences. This great retrospective gathers the raw material that will answer the primary legacy questions seniors face at the end of life:

• What’s the meaning of my life?
• How did I make a difference?
• What are my last instructions?
• Will I be remembered?

Like the need for control, the need to create a legacy is not optional. Legacy insists on being addressed, either consciously or unconsciously. It is a developmental mandate that flows out of life review for those privileged to survive into old age.

Legacy Signals

Given its central importance in needs analysis for seniors, how do advisors signal they understand the importance of legacy? It requires a new approach in two primary areas:

1. Utilizing questions that facilitate life review.
2. Linking products and services to the legacy.

Successful communication with seniors about legacy issues involves a well-rounded repertory of life review questions that might include:

• What was the world like when you grew up?
• What was the most significant event of your childhood?
• What were your family’s greatest strengths?
• Tell me about your best friend when you were growing up.
• What was the happiest time in your life?
• What has been your greatest accomplishment?
• If you could change anything in your life, what would it be?
• What are you most thankful for?

These questions provide a conversation on ramp for seniors to tell their stories. The telling of stories is as much discovery for older adults, a connecting of the legacy dots, as it is recalling people and events. As important, these stories reveal values and themes that propel legacy planning.

As with control, a developmental resonance regarding legacy can be embedded in the why of the planning process with statements like:

• We plan to honor your values
• We have found lack of planning results in loss of legacy

It may also be necessary to rename familiar planning techniques that lack this developmental resonance. For example, estate planning might be recast as legacy search. A simple alteration in language can help create a legacy-focused conversation that reinforces the perception that the advisor is both a legacy confidant and facilitator.

Unlocking the Code

Seniors are crossing the most formidable and complex frontier of their lives. They are engaging developmental tasks that provoke an overwhelming need to maintain some element of control in their lives while at the same time coming face to face with the meaning and significance of their lives as they prepare for the end. This is their mission, their last contribution while they are still here. If advisors are going to facilitate their mission, they are going to have to become better versed in how older adults think and communicate. Their increased knowledge and skills will allow them to unlock the communication code of seniors, giving them the compassion and tools they need to work with them, not against them.

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