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Scaring seniors -- the hyping of falls, fraud, and weather

Listening to the weather channel could make an isolated senior nervous.  Nearly 46% of women aged 75+ (around 11 million) live alone -- and one in three of them will live until at least the age of 90. In fact, 2 million are aged 90+ now.  If they listen to the news or the weather channel, they have quite a bit of opportunity to be frightened about the prospect of tornados, hurricanes, flash floods, excessive heat, poor air quality or wildfires. Perhaps they're watching TV and they see that absolutely horrendous Life Alert ad. That's it for going down to the basement. Then the telephone or doorbell rings -- a nice distraction from the 4+ hours per day spent watching TV or perhaps the few minutes online -- if there is a computer or tablet around them to use.

Not just the weather scares -- how about scams and fraud?  Last month, Investor Protection Trust released a survey of attorneys, most of whom have encountered some type of elder fraud in their practices. The organization asserts that more than 7.3 million Americans over 65 had already been victims of fraud. In June, In June, AARP's Fraud alert expert blogger, Sid Kirchheimer, noted that a robocall scam has geared up to offer money saving coupons and a free Medical Alert device, courtesy of AARP -- if you just provide address and credit card. In March, AARP published Caught in the Scammer's Net, a great title that was actually not limited to the AARP demographic, surveying only 77 people (women and men) that were aged 75+. What was useful in that survey, however, was the correlation between feeling isolated and lonely as one of the risk factors for participating in online scams.  My guess -- though I found nothing to prove it -- that is a risk factor for telephone, door-to-door and scams of all types.

The summer spike in scams - really?  In June, a 60-year-old woman in Poughkeepsie NY reported a telephone scam -- the caller purported to be an IRS agent calling about unpaid taxes. The New York State Attorney General observed that the IRS phone scam was one of the most common reported and not unusual to see a spike. Beth Finkel, state director for AARP, said that fraud costs the nation's elderly (one in five of those aged 65+) an estimated $2.9 billion in 2011. It is typical to see media attention about frauds and so-called seniors as this WSJ article underscores -- "the fleecing of seniors has become an epidemic." Interestingly, Ms. Finkel was quoting a 2010 Investor Protection Services report -- yup, them again, as cited by Met Life Insurance -- not 2011 data. The IRS scam was one of the top five noted, along with the grandparent, jury duty, lottery and utility bill scams. So how bad is this epidemic, really? Who knows? Maybe information about all types of scams could be a topic for the 2015 White House Conference on Aging.

When trying to scare older adults, age and data don't matter. The Life Alert ad, hyped up weather scares, and noise about the wide variety of summer scams are all based on genuine risks. But the degree to which they are hyped in the media is indiscriminate stoking of fear. Clearly a senior spans four age band decades, all of which must seem old to reporters -- go back to the amazing mismatch between the article's feisty 60-year-old female interviewee and the photo used in the Poughkeepsie Journal. To the elderly women living alone, these attention-grabbing statistics from trusted sources and TV frightening videos gain attention and heighten anxiety. Consider the actual risks of falling (especially for women), of being storm victims if you live near wherever Jim Cantore is standing, and AARP-fueled anxiety about financial frauds and scams.  But wouldn’t women who are the real seniors benefit from less fear-mongering? Change the focus to calibration of meds, home environment safety assessment, financial well-being check-ins from their attorneys, and alerts to families and community members who care about them.


Just read this article and wanted to say that I could not agree with you more – this misreading of a market with enormous potential to use their resources to procure goods and services in support of health security, financial security, wellness and longevity.

If you interviewed friends and families of the 11 million 74+ living alone, you would likely hear these women described as strong family anchors and engines of social connectivity. Strength would most definitely be a theme. Security in the way of health and financial longevity are areas of interest for this strong, wise and socially oriented population. So why the fear-based advertising? Marketers need to understand what women want at this intersection in their life to create meaningful and sustainable relationships around new and inventive products. My bet is on social connectivity as the central value through which brands will interact with and enable this important market segment.