Are there certain words that make you feel a certain way, triggering either positive or negative feelings? Family, work, home, taxes, and vacation might be a few examples.

Working in the senior living space, I think a lot about the specific terminology that is used within our industry vertical, as well as the aging-related language used in society at large. I’ve often considered how the vernacular might be finessed to improve the image of the industry, giving people a more favorable overall impression of the various senior living concepts, thus improving the industry’s overall “brand” and marketability.

To me, this is one glaring illustration: Why do we tend to use the term “facility” when talking about assisted living, but then when speaking about independent living, use the more congenial term “community” or “village”? Why don’t we ever hear about an assisted living community?

It may seem like mere semantics, but words have meaning, and certain words evoke very different emotions. Further, I believe our choice of terminology says a lot about society’s views on aging.

 >> Related: The Invisible Senior: Confronting Ageism in the U.S.

What IS a community?

I looked up the word “community,” and this is what Merriam-Webster has to say:

“A community is a unified body of individuals such as:

  • people with common interests living in a particular area
  • a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society
  • a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society
  • a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests
  • a group linked by a common policy
  • an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (such as species) in a common location”

There’s no doubt that assisted living residents meet several of these criteria. Thus, I think we should consider why we have opted to label their residence as a “facility” instead of a more positive, warm, and welcoming “community.”

The power of words

In many ways, I think using the label “assisted living facility” implies that when someone is in assisted living, they are basically institutionalized—no longer able to embrace the things that make up a community, which is of course far from true. To me, the word “facility” makes it sound like it is game over—you go from living and enjoying life in a “community” to simply surviving and being cared for in a “facility.”

But people in assisted living can still thrive as part of a truly vibrant community, given the proper physical environment and supportive services. There are still countless ways assisted living residents can enjoy the good things in life and continue to contribute to the betterment of society.

For instance, I’ve written before about a variety of volunteer opportunities that allow seniors to share their own experiences or expertise with others. Intergenerational programs, as an example, create shared locations that allow young people and older adults to participate together in educational, recreational, or social activities.

Seniors who are involved in such volunteer programs are revitalized by the time they spend with the young participants and tend to have a more optimistic outlook, wider social networks, better memories, and engage in better self-care. For the young people, the extra attention from a surrogate grandparent-figure improves their social skills and reduces their fear of aging; they learn that wheelchairs and walkers are not scary–they are simply a part of life.

>> Related: Everyone Wins: Why Society Must Tap into Seniors’ Experience & Wisdom

Choosing our words wisely

It’s not something you may consciously think about that often, but certain words convey definite insinuations—good or bad—and so our word-choice does matter. As society reawakens to the intrinsic value of older adults and how they contribute to the fabric of our culture, it should inform how we label things, both within the senior living industry and society as a whole.

The people who require the services offered by assisted living ARE indeed living within a community, and I believe we should honor them with language that respects both their humanity and their contributions to the world around them.

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