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Senior Health

Generational Diversity, Part 3: Savvy Motivation

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink!" Does this saying bring back any memories about a time when your advice or professional recommendations were not followed even though made in the best interest of individual(s) and focused on the best outcomes? Did you believe the person was cantankerous or simply not motivated? Could be that motivation for behavior change was lacking or not strong enough to move the person forward.

Motivation is defined as "a stimulus, drive or incentive for behavior." Frequently, motivation is the secret sauce that moves someone from resisting professional health and service recommendations to engaging in behavior change to enhance safety, health and wellness. As health and social services profic differences in motivational it is important to understand bas essionals working with older adults, influences experienced by different generations, leading to divergent attitudes, beliefs, values and a world view formed within the first 10 - 15 years of age.1

The lens of life that people of different generations see through can help us understand what has influenced them and give us insight to what may or may not engage and motive them.

Traditionalists 61 yrs + War, Silent Generation, Respect authority
Boomers 43-60 yrs Equal rights, Speak Up, Partner, Fairness
Generation X 22-42 yrs Coach-don't direct, Clear expectations, truth

For example, older Traditionalists lived through war and serious economic depression during their formative years. During that time, courage in the face of adversity was considered the ideal. Therefore, it is understandable that fear-based tactics intended to motivate behavior change in this group would not work. Likewise, research indicates that older adults do not respond well to warnings of diseases and premature death that are often used to promote exercise even though a significant body of scientific evidence has found exercise as effective in promotion health and well-being of older adults.2,3 In this scenario, the delivery strategy of the intended motivating message becomes a barrier to healthy behavior change.

Suggestions to enhance motivational messages for healthy behavior change:
  • Action oriented (assess readiness for action, what can the person do)
  • Goal directed (help set realistic goals)
  • Concrete, specific information on "how to"
  • Frame the message in positive, acceptable terms (e.g. avoid "exercise" - sounds like work, rather than activity and choice)

Barriers in Motivation to Change Unhealthy Habits include:

During interactions, it is important to pick up on comments made by individuals such as "I'm too old to quit . . . now","It's too late to stop drinking", or "My pain is such that I can't . . .". Professionals understand the need to address such stereotypical remarks knowing that not challenging such risk enabling comments reinforces current beliefs and unhealthy behavior choices. Understanding and using knowledge about generational diversity can help professionals tailor messages to inspire change.

Effective motivational strategies include educating, counseling, coaching, and positive reinforcement, techniques that motivate, not intimidate.5 Older adults are more likely to adhere to motivational messages that promote health behaviors that are relevant to their situation, practical, and affordable in terms of time and resources.

Knowing that courage is valued by Traditionalists and that it takes personal courage to make change, we share the following quote as an example of a motivational message to inspire positive change in those who may lack confidence or fear failure:


"The stories of past courage can provide hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this, each must look into his/her own soul."
John F. Kennedy



  1. Gleeson, P, B,. (2003). Managing and Motivating the Generations
  2. Older Adults Concern for Personal Health Linked to Walking Difficulty. News and Communication Services Media Release, Oregon State University.  
  3. Johnson, N. L., Hodges, J. S., & Keller, J, M,. (2007). Get moving and keep moving: Motivating older adults for participation in leisure time physical activity. Activities, Adaptation & Aging. 31 (2), 57-71. doi: 10.1300/J016v31n02_04.
  4. A New Vision of Aging: Helping Older Adults Make Healthier Decisions. Issue Briefing No. 2, March 2006. Center for Advancement of Health. Washington, D.C. 
  5. Ibid.

GERO GEMS is a monthly publication of the Center for Aging with Dignity. Compiled by Evelyn Fitzwater, this publication is designed to raise awareness of aging and related issues impacting health care professionals and our society as a whole.

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Last Reviewed: Nov 05, 2009

Evelyn L Fitzwater, DSN, RN Evelyn L Fitzwater, DSN, RN
Associate Professor Emerita
Associate Director of the
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati