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Tom Kelly: Preferred housing terms for seniors, boomers

Tom Kelly,columnist

What are the terms that housing industry experts expect to run with in the future? Have they found the words that are absolutely taboo when marketing to seniors and aging baby boomers?

For example, any phrases that include the word “challenged” are no longer acceptable. And, while “universal design”, “vistability” and “aging in place” have become important to builders and designers of all marketing niches, boomers and seniors have keen ears and sharp eyes for specific terms.

“The word that tests best with young seniors in our research is ‘vitality’,’’ said Sharon Brooks, partner in Brooks Adams Research, a Richmond, Va.-based firm specializing in research for residential real estate companies and economic development agencies. “Other strong choices are ‘comfortable’, ‘choices’ and ‘individuality’.’’

Brooks said words her company was trying to eradicate from the industry vernacular included: facility, unit, ambulate, socialization, activities, residents and dementia.

“Mature adults” was considered the best descriptor while “seniors” was not seen as a bad word, nor was “retirement”, according to Brooks Adams’ surveys.

And, it’s important not to loop all seniors into one category - especially regarding electronic communication. Brooks said that while older seniors (75-plus) rate the words “computers” and “Internet” negatively, younger seniors (60-75) rate them very positively - in fact, significantly more positively than boomers rated the two words.

As expected, not all analysts agree on the terms that should be highlighted or discarded. John Rude, president and CEO of Eugene, Oregon-based John Rude and Associates, a consulting firm that explores gerontology (the study of aging), marketing and communications to specific age groups, says to avoid using the terms “seniors”, “elderly” and “golden agers” because they are labels that carry negative stigmas.

“Our propensity is to relate to this market as special and then build products especially for them,’’ Rude said. “The outcome is that the product becomes stereotyped. It’s best to make a product as mainstream as possible by focusing on function as opposed to age.’’

Tracy Lux, president of Trace Marketing, a Sarasota, Fla.-based company specializing in the “mature’’ market, said she is encouraging her marketing and builder clients to use the term “age qualified” instead of “age restricted” for communities targeting persons age 55 and older.

“We think ‘age qualified’ is much more positive,’ Lux said. “We also like to have fun with our prospects by saying ‘just think, you are chronologically advantaged enough to live here.’’’

Lux said her research confirms that “lifestyle community” and “resort style living” have been affective marketing terms. She also said the new generation of seniors - the in-betweeners that Del Webb refers to as “zoomers” - are more sophisticated than the World War II generation. Del Webb, the huge company specializing in 55-plus housing, became part of Pulte Homes, the nation’s largest home builder, in 2001.

“These are people who were born between 1928 and about 1946,’’ Lux said. “I call them the ‘crown molding crowd.’ They don’t want a large space but they do want high-level finishes such as Corian and granite counters, special interest or hobby rooms, fine outdoor living accoutrements and cut rooms for the grand kids.’’

Some of these zoomers plan to continue working for the foreseeable future and they find downtown living to be an attractive alternative to mature adult communities, according to participants at a recent urban housing conference sponsored by the Urban Land Institute.

This movement, developers say, has spawned its own terms that already have been recognized by the housing industry. Reportedly, persons in childless households seek a in-city environment conducive to “hiving,” or frequent social interaction, rather than “cocooning,” in which they feel isolated from friends, neighbors and community activities. The terms were first used by the Yankelovich market research firm.

Greg Currens, chief executive officer of Style Interior Design in Irvine, Calif., cited results from the Yankelovich survey in which 64 percent of the participants identified themselves as “hivers,” compared with 33 percent who identified themselves as “cocooners.” The majority of the respondents said an ideal characteristic for their home is for it to serve as a hub of activity for friends and family. The majority also said they preferred maintenance-free living.

Housing has become so specialized. Perhaps we will soon read a term for cocooning only in the country, hiving while on vacation.

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