Seniors are the New Millennials! 8 Do's and Don'ts for attracting elderly visitors

Trommelnde, diskutierende, entdeckende, neugierige, auf eigene Faust nach Lieblingskunstwerken suchende, ihre selbstgezeichneten Kunstwerke mitbringende, mikroskopierende, forschende, experimentierende und schon gar tanzfreudige ältere Männer und Frauen warten noch auf ein entsprechendes Angebot in Museen.

When I wrote my first blog post on How Museums can attract Millennials AND Baby-boomers almost two years ago, I was surprised by the feedback it received. Still today, it’s one of my most popular posts – but I’m not astonished any longer. And this is why:

For more than a decade, Generations X, Y and Z were seen as the visitor group on which the future of museums decided. Almost no conference passed by and no article was published, which didn’t discuss new ways of attracting young adults. Social media activities and digital interpretation were seen as key to an audience, who was born into the digital age – and of course, as responding in general to digitisation as one of the most challenging developments nowadays.

But there is another development, which since, has been moving more and more into the focus: the aging of society.

Over the same period of time, the average age of people in Europe has increased from 38 years in 2007 to 42 years in 2017. Today, already every 5th person is over 65 years old; by 2050 it will be one out of four. The younger generation instead, is decreasing – not everywhere in the world, luckily, but unfortunately in most of good “old” Europe. In Germany, to give you an example, twice as many kids were born in 1964 than in 2000.

Thus, it’s with no surprise that museums are realising the need of focusing on Seniors more than on Millennials if they want to stay relevant!

Institutions like the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have already taken on the lead in the field by developing very successful Age Friendly programs , which ensure accessibility for the growing group of elderly people. As the museum state on their website, they have turned their attention specifically to “vulnerable elderly people”, for whom it can be “difficult (…) to experience art independently”. The programs start with stimulating the physical visit of the museum and encouraging elderly people to actively participate in art and culture.

But wait a minute! Is this how elderly people look at themselves? As being inactive or somehow impaired in some way or another?

Esther Gajek, Speaker of the German National Association for Museum Education task-group, “Generation 60+ in Museums” has published her research on museum programs for seniors and pointed out some very interesting misunderstandings in regard of elderly people. Most importantly, that old age should not be seen as equivalent to infirmity! Instead, most elderly people are still very active and want to be acknowledged as such. They know they are seniors, but don’t want to be addressed like this, because of its implications.  

So, if your museum wants to attract more Seniors, here are some very important Do’s and Don’ts:

  1. Don’t call your educational offerings “Senior Program”, as this is being perceived as exclusive and relegating elderly people to the fringes. Find a more inclusive, inspiring and exciting title!
  2. Don’t advertise your programs as being “comfortable”, focusing on deficits by offering enough chairs to rest, short tours, only a few objects, enough time for coffee & cake or written material in large fonts. Instead, focus on the active part!
  3. Don’t exclusively schedule your programs during the morning or early afternoon hours, implying that elderly people want to be back home before dark
  4. Acknowledge that you are not talking to a homogenous group. 60+ can cover up to 3 generations of individuals with very specific needs, background and interests. Shape your programs at least as diversely as you do for youngsters.
  5. Don’t think old people are only interested in Old Masters! Instead, the young, modern and contemporary are seen as just as fascinating and inspiring. Your elderly visitors are still alive, and interested in what is going on.
  6. Don’t limit your topics to affirmative themes: raise questions and be disruptive! The new and the fresh is very much appreciated by people whose daily lives can be quite uneventful.
  7. Don’t treat your visitors as passive recipients. Engage them pre- and post- exhibition. Realise that you are talking to people with the experience of a whole lifetime. You may be surprised by their own knowledge and skills, and they will appreciated being invited to share and contribute!
  8. Don’t follow the stereotype that elderly people just want to sit down, listen and enjoy. As Esther Gajek writes in the German quote below: “Drumming, discussing, discovering, curious, on their own looking for favourite works of art, their self-drawn artworks bringing, microscoping, researching, experimenting and even dance-happy older men and women are still waiting for a corresponding offer in museums…

If all this sounds familiar, it is probably because this is the way most museums are approaching young adults: through social activities and discovering learning. And this is why museums can attract both Millennials AND Baby-boomers at once.

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