Accommodating Seniors - Rethinking the Meaning of Hospitality for Older Consumers

By Jeffrey Catrett Dean, Kendall College Les Roches School of Hospitality Management | May 19, 2010

In October of 2007, the first Baby Boomer filed for Social Security, marking the entry of America's largest ever generation into the official "senior citizen" age group. In the last ten years, human life expectancies have risen by ten years, swelling the ranks of War Generation seniors. During this same period, Boomers have observed with exasperation the many serious flaws in today's health"care" and professional services systems, as they watch their parents try to deal with the many complexities associated with later years.

If health services and consumer businesses have "gotten away with it" with War Generation seniors, they may have a rude awakening as Baby Boomers pass into their older years. The War Generation, raised on Depression and World War, may have accepted somewhat stoically the difficulties of navigating through an America accustomed to focusing on youth culture, but Baby Boomers have never yet accepted anything anyone has tried to impose upon them and have had the economic might to get their way. As 78 million consumers enter their later years, expect to see sweeping changes in the treatment of greying populations. Intelligent businesses will begin today developing new products and services targeted at this mass of older spending power.

Television advertising is littered with the signs of an aging population from insurance to financial management to pull-strategy medications touting prolonged vitality and easing of the effects of aging. Yet while many products are arriving on the market targeted to mid-life Americans, service businesses in general and hospitality concerns in particular are ill-prepared to serve aging consumers.

Baby Boomers, by all accounts, tend to reject outright the idea of growing old gracefully. The first lesson for business, therefore, is to avoid treating older people like old people. Businesses in the future will have to learn to cope with a dichotomy - they will have to adjust many practices for older clients while not implying that these clients are feeble or challenged or even old.

While Boomers may mentally reject the aging phenomenon, aging nevertheless involves physical and emotional changes. In thinking about how best to serve older guests, hospitality must consider how to overcome each of these challenges and how to downplay them. Some of the most important physical concerns are

  • Stamina
    As seniors experience ambulatory challenges arising from stroke, Parkinson's, muscle or joint deterioration or a number of other causes, distances on foot are increasingly daunting . Hospitality will be challenged to find ways to shorten distances, whether it is the distance to a hotel room, the distance to an available table or the distance from a parking lot or garage to an entrance. Maintaining the integrity of table rotation in restaurants may be good for tipped employees but can lead to frustration and exhaustion for older clients. Few restaurants, however, have trained their host personnel to be proactive in providing convenient seating. It is not uncommon for restaurants to place their restrooms at a considerable distance from dining rooms or in downstairs areas, creating a double annoyance for older customers who must use restroom facilities more frequently yet who cannot always easily negotiate the distances. Today's airports are fatiguing for many younger passengers and can be extremely difficult to navigate for older travellers. If airport layouts remain as they are today, there will not be enough wheelchairs or wheelchair attendants in the future to maintain tourism as we know it.
  • Strength
    Waning strength creates a number of challenges. Restaurant booths and heavy chairs become obstacles. Luggage becomes a problem. Tightly-sprung hotel room doors are difficult to manage. Soft mattresses and tall mattresses present challenges. A bathroom can be a veritable minefield, and stairs may prove daunting. Standard toilet heights and toilet seats in hotels and in highway restaurants are enough to make travel almost impossible for some seniors.
  • Hearing
    Crowd noise and background music can be a great nuisance for older patrons with impaired hearing or with hearing aids, effectively excluding them from conversation. Hotel room telephones equipped with amplifying options can be very useful.
  • Taste and diet
    Tastebuds generally dull with age. Today, surprisingly little attention is paid to providing tasty food and good variety to those with dietary restrictions. A diabetic must disregard the many luscious desserts available to others and choose, more often than not, between a very dull slice of apple pie and a very dull slice of cherry pie. Patients with severe allergies, kidney disease or cardio-vascular illnesses may find that they fare poorly with little to choose from on standard menus. American menus in most restaurants still focus on fried foods which are off-limits for many diets. In general, portion sizes for meals are excessive for seniors with the result that prices also seem excessive, yet ordering off of a children's menu is humiliating. While some restaurants have begun to offer seniors' meals and seniors' pricing, few restaurants have found elegant ways to allow for smaller portioning and reduced pricing without unduly emphasizing age.
  • Balance and dexterity
    Uneven, bumpy or slick surfaces may result in awkward spills with debilitating consequences. While emergency pull cords are common in European hotel bathrooms, they are almost unknown in the US. Anti-theft hangers can be a hazard, and complex temperature controls are less than ideal. Decreased dexterity may mean that something as simple as opening a ketchup packet becomes a chore. Although many fast food restaurants are ideal for senior access and provide seniors with quick service which can contribute to shortened waiting and standing time, meals served on delicately balanced trays in dining rooms with closely packed seating arrangements present several problems, especially for seniors with canes or walkers.
  • Difficulty sleeping
    Variously named celestial beds and showers already address the comfort needs of aging Boomers, and some hotel companies offer a potpourri of pillow options. Finding ways to customize the sleep experience - through sleep number beds, contoured foam mattresses or other solutions - will be increasingly important in order to satisfy older customers. For greenfields projects, greater attention will need to be paid to sound insulation between rooms and floors. Because physical deterioration happens to senior citizens at different times and in different ways, there are no simple generalities for dealing with infirmity. Serving the disparate needs of older guests will greatly reinforce the current trend towards customization of the guest experience.
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