Working With Seniors: Advice for Professionals With Older Clients

by Trevor Antley | Jul 28, 2020
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Senior needs and senior care planning used to be considered a niche demographic for most insurance, financial planning, and accounting professionals, but the percentage of Americans over the age of 65 is growing at an unprecedented rate. In 2015, one in seven Americans was over 65, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts more than 20% of the population will be over 65 by 2030.

With nearly 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day, the percentage of potential clients who are at retirement age is rapidly increasing. Older adults have several specific needs as well, including budgeting for retirement, estate planning, understanding Medicare, and finding and financing long-term care. Older adults are also more likely to face sudden crises requiring major decisions to be made quickly which frequently require professional guidance.

In most ways, working with seniors is exactly like working with any other age group. But some professionals may find working with some seniors to have its challenges, especially with those seniors who are well past retirement age. To help with some common challenges and concerns, we’ve put together some advice to help you communicate and work more effectively with your senior clients.

How to Address Seniors: What to Say (and What to Not)

No matter your industry, professionals working with seniors don’t want to offend their clients, but you may be unsure what terminology is best (and least offensive). Fortunately, several studies have been done which show which labels are acceptable and unacceptable for professionals to use.

So, what terms should you use to refer to people over 65? The best adjective to use is “older”, which you can use to modify preferred nouns (for example, “older adults,” “older Americans”, “older individuals”). The best one-word noun to describe people over 65 is “seniors” — but be careful not to use “senior citizens” or “golden years” since these can come across as patronizing. “Retirees” is usually fine (although not everyone over the age of 65 is retired), whereas “aging” (as in “aging population”) can seem demeaning and now tends to be avoided.

“Elders” (as a noun) is a sign of respect, even if it’s sometimes awkward to use, but definitely do not use “elderly” (as an adjective) as it invokes images of frailty and inability. Words like “geriatric” shouldn’t be used for the same reason. However, “Baby Boomers” may be used for those born between 1946 and 1964, and many “Boomers” like and embrace this label.

To summarize: acceptable terms for people over 65 are “older adults,” “seniors,” “retirees,” “elders,” and “Baby Boomers.” Terms that should be avoided are “senior citizens,” “golden years,” “aging,” “elderly,” and “geriatric.”

Avoiding "Elderspeak" When Talking With Seniors

An easy way to offend older adults is by falling into “elderspeak”. Elderspeak is another word for infantilizing seniors when you speak with them, using patronizing language, simplified words, and even a high-pitched voice. Calling an older woman “dear” or “honey”, for example, are common examples of elderspeak. Some people think they’re being extra kind by using elderspeak, but most seniors may rightfully find it insulting.

In reality, many seniors improve their vocabularies as they age, and a lot of the seniors you speak with will have better vocabularies than you. There’s no reason to assume anyone over the age of 65 needs to be spoken to like a child. Some people unconsciously fall into using elderspeak with seniors, so the next time you engage with an older client, stay aware of how you’re speaking to them and make a conscious effort to avoid sounding patronizing.

Working With Seniors With Dementia

It’s a sad fact many seniors are affected by dementia, the effects of which can range from very mild to severe. Dementia can affect a person’s memory, communication skills, ability to focus, reasoning, and visual perception, among other things. If you are working with someone who has a form of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, it’s important to be aware of its effects. A client with dementia can also have rapid mood swings, and if they suddenly seem angry or irritated, you should understand it’s not personal and their behavior is being affected by the disease.

For financial advisors and financial planners especially, in order for you to ethically serve senior clients, you need to be ready to address important issues of diminished capacity and cognitive decline. To help insurance and finance professionals prepare for these issues, we highly recommend the course Ethically Serving Seniors with Diminished Capacity, which reviews normal age-related changes which occur as people get older, the issue of financial capacity and red flags which may indicate its decline, and proactive measures which can be taken if diminished capacity in a client is suspected.

Protecting Your Senior Clients From Fraud and Abuse

Along with the many other challenges of aging, unfortunately it’s not uncommon for today’s seniors to be the victims of financial exploitation and abuse. Elder financial abuse is a serious problem, and despite growing awareness, it remains under-reported and under-recognized. All professionals who serve senior clients have a responsibility to not only recognize and understand these issues but to also advocate for your senior clients and help keep them from falling victim to fraud and abuse.

We recommend all finance and insurance professionals study financial exploitation toward seniors and learn about common scams and other forms of fraud directed at the older population. WebCE offers our course Elder Financial Abuse, which provides an understanding of the nature of elder financial abuse and reviews a number of ways in which professionals can recognize and prevent the abuse and safeguard your senior clients’ futures.

Learn About Senior Care Planning and Senior Needs

For insurance producers and financial advisors who work with seniors, WebCE offers several continuing education courses which focus on senior needs and senior care planning, including specific continuing education courses for Certified Senior Advisors (CSAs). We’ve also recently added two new CPA CPE courses focused on seniors: Senior Care Planning and Elder Financial Abuse.

Many of our courses focused on seniors can be applied as CE/CPE credits towards multiple licenses and designations, including as CE/CPE for insurance, CFP, CPA, CSA and other American College designations, and even as funeral practitioner CE. Some of our multi-credit courses which can be helpful with working with seniors include:

As clients age and the senior population continues to increase at an unprecedented level, it’s never been more important than now to learn how to most effectively communicate and work with senior clients. To order these and more courses for insurance, finance, and accounting professionals, visit our course catalog or reach out to one of our customer service representatives at 877-488-9308.

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