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10 tips for communication to senior citizens about the corona crisis

All over the world communication professionals, policy makers, and crisis teams face the challenge of informing older adults about the COVID-19 pandemic, explaining the behavioural rules recommendations (e.g. social distancing, handwashing etcetera) to help flatten the curve. In this Bitefile we provide 10 science-based guidelines for effective communication with senior citizens. These tips have been collected by Julia van Weert (University of Amsterdam), Liane de Haan (senior citizen association ANBO), Jesse Jansen (Maastricht University), Minh Hao Nguyen (University of Zurich), Ruth Pel-Littel (Vilans), Daniëlle Timmermans (Free University of Amsterdam) and Olga Damman (Amsterdam UMC, location VUmc). These tips summarise their insights from the academic literature and their own research on communication with seniors.

Starting point: Positive norms

Often the communication focuses on frail older people who no longer live independently, however, the majority of older people live at home and are still active. It is important to appeal to their sense of responsibility. Show the good examples in the media, these are inspiring and reinforce the positive new standard.

1. Communicate rules and recommendations in a brief and clear manner, and repeat key messages through different channels

Use clear, unambiguous messages in understandable language – be careful not to patronise. Avoid too much text, use visuals and audiovisuals (animations, videos). See this appendix for specific information tips on how to do this.

2. Make recommendations practical and concrete

It is important for older people to understand the practical consequences of the new recommendations. Therefore, show concretely what recommendations entail for everyday life and how it can be acted on. Social distancing affects older people significantly because their social network is generally becoming smaller. Give examples of how their social network can be maintained and visualise it. What are the consequences not only for seniors, but also for their children and grandchildren?

In addition, communicate where older people can go to discuss what the measures mean for them personally. E.g., telephone number of the senior citizens’ associations or (in The Netherlands) Luisterlijn, Zilverlijn, Red Cross telephone line, (in the UK) Covid-19 Community Aid Groups as well as the NHS that have been launched specially for this purpose.

3. Focus on using a positive tone, but also provide important “negative” information and use a neutral frame

A “positivity bias” is more common in older people, as a result attention is mainly focused on positive information. Take advantage of this by modelling positive behaviour and emphasising what is still allowed. At the same time also highlight important “negative” information (e.g., risk) in a neutral frame (see appendix), otherwise older people will only focus on positive information.

4. Acknowledge emotions and uncertainty

As we get older, cognitive attention shifts from “cognition” towards “affect”. Older people tend to invest less cognitive energy in knowledge and more in emotions. Provide emotional support by showing empathy and acknowledging emotions, for example, by recognizing that it is a difficult time for them. In general, older people are better able to deal with uncertainty than younger people. Therefore, be transparent about uncertainty and acknowledge the uncertainty.

5. Address older people as little as possible as “older”

Many older people do not identify with the target group “elderly people”. They do not feel old and therefore do not recognise themselves in messages that are meant for older people. Clearly indicate the target population for messages, for example, “people aged 70 and over living in the community.”

6. Use entertainment and narratives

Personal stories from a first-person perspective are effective. These are narratives in which the core message is expressed by a role model (“someone like me”) who is easy to identify with. Supplement these narratives with personal experiences to make it more lively and practical. Remember that older people identify more with a “younger” older person than with an “older” older person.

You can also use older, famous people (‘celebrities’) who are still active to tell your message.

7. Involve target groups and experts in campaign development

Develop campaigns through co-creation using existing successful co-designed communication strategies as an examples. Involve, for example, senior citizens’ unions, but also (where relevant) home care organizations, association for nursing and care homes, carers and nurses, geriatricians and/or GP’s.

Note: campaigns that have been developed (professionally) with and for older adults often prove to be very suitable for younger adults too.

8. Support those looking after older people

Healthcare providers are the most important source of information for older people, in particular the ones suffering from one or more illnesses. Make sure that care providers are well informed and support them through the channels they use (e.g., professional magazines, professional associations). This can for example focus on providing support for shared decision making and conversations around COVID-19. For example how best to support timely discussions about goals of care (hospital admission, ventilation etc) and including this an electronic medical file.

9. Support the children of older adults

Children of (vital) older adults can have a big influence on their parents. Out of fear for Covid-19, they may impose stricter rules on their parents than the government. For example, healthy older adults with no symptoms going outside for a short walk or going to the supermarket during quiet times (as long as this is in line with the governments’ recommendations). It is important to target some of the communication specifically to the children of older adults and give them tools to discuss how best to implement the rules for their specific situation. Point no 8 explains how to discuss goals of care in case the parent is infected with Covid-19 can also be given to children of older adults.

10. Use their own channels and spreadable content

Television, radio, teletext, newspapers and Facebook are the most powerful tools. The internet is widely used for health information seeking, but follow available guidelines for websites development for older adults (see appendix) and do not ónly communicate via the internet. Letters and leaflets via institutions and government / municipality are well-read, and the only source of information for some older adults. Spreadable content can work well on WhatsApp and Facebook. Give push messages as often as possible on the various channels such as Facebook, Wordfeud, news websites as (in The Netherlands), teletext and websites of senior citizens’ associations. 

Want to know more? Read our publications on communication with older adults on the ACHC website or contact Prof. Julia van Weert ( 

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