The Ageless Diver: Keeping Your Customers Diving into Their Golden Years

By September 1, 2016March 28th, 2022No Comments
This image portrays The Ageless Diver: Keeping Your Customers Diving into Their Golden Years by Dive Center Business.

Editor’s Note: I entered the dive industry in the 1980s, along with a wave of fellow so-called baby boomers, propelled by an unparalleled popular interest in the aquatic realm and exploration. This generation watched the first moon landing on television, and series such as “Sea Hunt” and “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” captured our collective imaginations. While the industry enjoyed this increase in participants, it also fretted over the attrition of this demographic due to aging, and how to replace them with younger participants. Less has been discussed about how to help older divers continue diving so that the industry might enjoy their support as long as possible.

In this issue, I have the pleasure of presenting another article by friend and former colleague, Dan Orr, past president of Divers Alert Network, and a role model for all divers who aspire to enjoy scuba with vigor and enthusiasm throughout their maturity.

This article provides useful information for retailers and instructors who promote, seek to attract and retain older customers and students. Dan’s advice below can help dive leaders appreciate and understand the cognitive and physical challenges that aging poses to divers so that they can offer their older patrons an experience that is enjoyable, safe and keeps them returning to dive centers, resorts and vessels well into their senior years. The first thing you need to do is forget outmoded notions of aging.

Active participation in outdoor recreation is considered to be an essential component of quality of life by a large segment of older Americans. Quality of life depends upon a variety of factors, including heredity, physical health, nutrition, activity levels, mental health and many others.

In her book, “What’s Age Got To Do With It?” Robin McGraw quoted a longevity study conducted by Mount Sinai Medical Center, showing that genetics has only a 30 percent influence on an individual’s longevity while one’s lifestyle has a 70 percent influence. Research also indicates that of the 10 leading health-related problems in people over the age of 65, 80 percent of those conditions are lifestyle-related. In other words, to achieve and enjoy a higher quality of life, it is essential to have the right attitude and stay active. That means as long as you are in good health, you can and should enjoy doing the things we love, including scuba diving.

It’s just a fact that the largest and most active group in our sport is made up of those of us who happened to be born between 1946 and 1964. We are the “baby boomers.” We make up a population of more than 78 million Americans. The baby boomer generation has been described as being very individualistic, competitive with a serious interest in self-fulfillment through personal growth as well as being self-confident, ambitious and having a very progressive attitude.

As a generation, baby boomers are living longer, having generally lower rates of disability, and achieving higher levels of education than ever before. They also recognize that time is precious and want to take full advantage of every opportunity to live life to the fullest. As a group, baby boomers are known to work hard, play hard and spend hard.

This boomer population has been steadily growing and is reaching a point at which it is likely to crest as more and more reach their “golden years.” As author Jeffrey Ziegler so aptly quoted Dylan Thomas, the baby boomer generation is not about to go “gently into that good night”! It has been said that our generation would prefer to end their time on this earth with a smile on their face and their credit cards totally maxed. They will leave the surely bonds of this earth knowing full well that they have fulfilled all their wants and desires and are too exhausted to continue enjoying life.

Economically Important

Since a significant portion of the current active diving population is made up of baby boomers, it is essential for professionals in the diving industry to recognize the potential economic importance this group represents and understand their unique needs.

There are numerous studies by researchers in the field of recreation that suggest the baby boom generation that was responsible for the surge in outdoor recreation in the 1960s and ’70s are likely to return to the outdoors once their children have left the nest and their career aspirations are less important or time consuming. This certainly portends well for the sport of scuba diving and is consistent with the age demographics seen at popular dive destinations.

This group also includes people who were certified in their youth but due to career and/or family obligations had to give up active participation in diving. Now, with more time and resources on their hands, many are returning to the sport. The diving industry should be developing ways to make the return to scuba diving attractive through refresher or recertification courses targeted at the older returning diver.

As industry professionals, one of our primary roles is to recognize industry trends and use this information to effectively plan for the future and to ensure the longterm viability of our sport. To help industry professionals take full advantage of this “Silver Tsunami” (Maples, 2002), let’s take a look at some general characteristics of this generation:

  • They have always been fixated on all things youthful. Satchel Paige once quipped, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” Baby boomers would undoubtedly report that they are at least 10 years younger than their chronological age. It must also be remembered that there may be a significant difference between a person’s chronological age and their physiological age. Chronological age is defined by your actual birthdate but, as we all know, many people seem older or younger than their years.
  • Physiological age is defined by a person’s health status, their fitness level, their cognitive function and, to a large degree, their attitude. Indiana Jones may have said it best: “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage!” Growing old is an individual process influenced by many factors so it is difficult to make generalizations regarding the abilities and limitations of the older diver. Being old is actually a self-chosen set of values and involves your attitude, the perceptions people have about you and your expectations.
  • Their nostalgic mindset keeps boomers returning to things that represent or remind them of their youth. That could bode well for targeting those individuals who were certified when they were young for a return to the sport.
  • Boomers view retirement as a ‘midlife’ event and don’t view it as an end of their useful life. This is likely to be a good sign for older adults to view scuba diving as something they would like to do. After all, there have been many AARP advertisements where you see happy older adults wearing exposure suits having just enjoyed a great dive at some exotic dive location around the world.
  • Time has been and will continue to be a precious commodity for baby boomers. Members of that generation want to take full advantage of every hour of every day and want to fulfill all their life’s ambitions while they still can.
  • Boomers are known to purchase more upscale goods and services than other age groups. One report indicated they are attracted to destinations that are consistent with the Club Med or country club philosophy.
  • Boomers will attempt to distance themselves from those things that represent ‘being old’ or represent their parent’s generation.
  • This age group tends to enjoy more individualized activities rather than group events.
  • Because boomers tend to be well-educated, they’ll likely continue to pursue education, including diver education programs and continue doing so well into retirement. Having older adults in a classroom can be a double-edged sword. While they enjoy learning, they can be quite challenging for the ill-prepared instructor or dive guide. For the dive retailer, they can be very savvy consumers where quality rather than price can be the determining factor. They also tend to look for guidance from those with proven expertise when purchasing products or services.
  • Scuba diving represents for them a sense of exploration, excitement and adventure. Older adults tend not to be put off by “Shark Week” or by the silliness of “Sharknado.”

Some see the aging population as signaling the industry’s collapse. It is true that there are many older divers in the sport than ever before; but it is these very divers who have shaped and are now the leaders of the diving industry. They are not only our instructors, instructor trainers, course directors, sales reps, vice presidents and presidents of the companies and organizations in our field, but, most importantly, they are us! When you look around you at any dive site, on any dive boat and at every seminar on diving, you see a clear reflection of the demographics of the diving community.

Dive Center Business

My wife Betty and I have been tracking the demographics of people who attend the seminars we give at dive shows around the country, and those demographics seem to be a clear indication of who is out there diving. From our data (and the data published by Scubacomm/blogspot.com), 65.7 percent of those actively diving are over the age of 40. As we all agree, the diving community has been aging. As president of Divers Alert Network (DAN) until my retirement in 2013, I saw the average age of a DAN member increase from 38 years old in 1991 to over 46 in 2010.

With these older divers making up such a large portion of the current active divers, our industry must be prepared to cope with the demands and unique characteristics of this population who are known to have worked hard and now, many with time and money on their hands, want to play hard and spend their hard-earned money in pursuit of things that are meaningful to them.

While it is essential for our industry to keep its eyes firmly fixed on the horizon and continue to encourage the next generation to learn about and enjoy our sport, we cannot and should not ignore this huge pool of divers who want to return to the sea where their passion for scuba diving was born. In our travels, we have seen many of these older divers now introducing their children and grandchildren to the sport. They are, indeed, a great resource for the future of our sport.

What Makes Them Different?

While preparing to take full advantage of this “Silver Tsunami,” we must consider what differentiates the older diver from younger members of the diving population. The fact of life is that most of our organs and organ systems lose function at a rate of about 1 percent per year beginning around the age of 30. The majority of these changes, however, do not become apparent until around the age of 70. Plus, while these changes may have a negative effect upon performance, improved judgment and reasoning that comes from years of experience can compensate for most decrements in body functions.

When it comes to aging, certain facts are vitally important to understand. Aging begins when we are born and continues throughout our lifespan. There is a slowing down of bodily functions, which continues throughout adulthood. Some of these losses may not be noticeable until much later in life. And the changes that we experience as we age are not necessarily harmful. While many of our human abilities peak by age 30, other abilities continue to grow and improve throughout our lifetime. The great majority of those over age 65 today are healthy, happy and fully independent. Therefore, as professionals in the diving industry, we need to avoid stereotypes when it comes to older adults and be prepared to bring them into (or back into) diving in a way that maximizes their enjoyment and learning potential and minimizes the risks.

Let us consider the six basic characteristics of aging so that we can better prepare ourselves to serve the needs of this population.

  1. Loss of balance. As we age, we experience decrements in balance, spatial orientation and coordination. Our sense of balance relies on the complex interaction of three of our body’s functions: vision, the inner ear’s balancing mechanisms, and the muscles and joints that help sense your body’s attitude and position. Our brain receives signals from these areas, processes the information, and helps give you a sense of spatial orientation; in other words, your balance. As we age, eyesight changes, as do our muscles’ ability to sense surroundings. Meanwhile, the cells in the inner ear, essential for balance, die off and do not regenerate. These declines combine to throw off the signals to your brain regarding your balance.Consider the instructional and diving scenario to see where the areas of concern might be and determine what accommodations can be made. If loss of balance is a potential issue, movement from place to place in the pool area or at the dive site can present challenges. Imagine being on a rocking boat not designed with railings or handholds when you have a diminished capacity to maintain your balance. Donning and doffing your equipment presents a challenge for everyone but may be even more difficult if you have a hard time maintaining your balance.

    To accommodate for the potential loss of balance, you may want to consider encouraging older students to ask for help whenever and wherever loss of balance could present a safety or comfort issue. This is especially true when getting into and back out of the water. The older diver may require assistance in donning some or all of their equipment in the water. The same can be said of the return to the boat. The older diver may need assistance removing the equipment to make ladder egress much easier.

    The older diver may also want to consider a modification in their equipment configuration to accommodate easy donning and removal in the water. Sidemount configurations may be just the thing for those who would prefer not to wear those heavy cylinders on their back. The egress from the water may also need special consideration. The importance of an easily accessible pull-up bar at the exit point or helping hands from a buddy or crewmember will make getting out of the water after a great dive much less of a chore when it otherwise could present a serious challenge for the older diver.Above all, the older diver must be encouraged to move at his or her own pace. This may present a challenge for buddies and divemasters but it is far better to take it slow and easy than to risk pushing a diver beyond their physical abilities. Divemasters should be especially cognizant that they may have to alter their usual routine of wanting their divers to see what they consider to be the most important parts of a particular dive site to accommodate the slower (or more methodical) divers in the group.

  2. Cognitive impairment. As we age, the function of our nervous and sensory systems diminishes. Despite these losses, as a result of our life experiences, we may actually experience an improvement in judgment and reasoning ability. This can help mitigate some of the challenges we experience as we age.Older divers should also be encouraged to ask questions if there is anything about a discussion or briefing that they do not understand. Even though it should be standard practice to review the dive plan before entering the water, it is even more critical to make sure older divers did not miss an important point in the briefing. It might be a good idea to write the dive plan down on a slate so you can refer to it periodically during the dive.

    With any degree of cognitive impairment or reasoning ability, there is the potential for an increase in reaction time during an emergency. When diving with an older buddy it is important to continually be situationally aware and very attentive. Situational awareness, being aware of all things that could have a negative effect on one’s safety (depth, time, air consumption, currents), is critical for all divers but even more important when diving with someone with any level of impairment.

  3. Loss of strength/stamina. Strength and stamina are essential for all aspects of diving and require fully functional musculoskeletal and cardiopulmonary systems. As we age, our lean muscle mass decreases, caused in part by loss of muscle tissue. The rate and extent of these changes appear to be genetically determined. Muscle changes in men often begin in the 20s and for women, their 40s. Strength and endurance change. Loss of muscle mass reduces strength. Endurance, on the other hand, may be enhanced by changes in the muscle fibers as a result of regular exercise. Aging athletes with healthy hearts and lungs may find that performance improves in events that require endurance, and decreases in events that require short bursts of high-speed performance.Somewhere around age 35, our bones begin losing minerals faster than they are replaced. Our maximum heart rate decreases and the heart becomes a less efficient pump, reducing tissue perfusion and the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to bodily tissues, as well as eliminate gases and wastes. So the body requires more oxygen to do the same amount of work. Maximum breathing capacity diminishes with each decade of life as our lung tissue begins to lose its elasticity, and rib cage muscles shrink progressively.

    Besides a decrease in strength and mobility, we experience a decrease in flexibility and joint range of motion. It is not uncommon after activity to experience increased muscle stiffness. Coupled with a reduction in grip strength, especially after a long and/or cold-water dive, this could make ladder exits particularly challenging. Again, many of these deficits may be mitigated in older divers with regular exercises to maintain joint flexibility, muscle strength, aerobic capacity and endurance.An older diver may experience difficulty in moving from place to place with diving equipment, donning and doffing their equipment, entering and exiting the water and simply moving around the dive site. They may also get tired faster and be slower to recover from an arduous or strenuous dive. Because of potential deficits in strength and stamina, older divers should be encouraged to conserve their energy and take frequent breaks if necessary.

    All divers should be encouraged to ask for assistance when necessary and choose a dive location and diving conditions fully consistent with their experience and physical capability, but older divers should be especially aware.

  4. Visual impairment. With age, our eyesight changes and we experience a loss of peripheral vision, decreased ability to judge depth and a decrease in color clarity. Cells responsible for normal color vision lose their sensitivity as we age, causing colors to become less bright and the contrast between different colors to be less apparent. This is particularly true of the blue colors that may appear faded.Older divers may reach a point where their arms or hoses are not long enough to clearly read gauges, both underwater and on the surface. Anyone, young or old, having difficulty reading their gauges should consider a different style of gauge or seriously consider prescription lenses in their mask. Failure to admit an inability to read the gauges could have serious safety consequences on the diver and their companions.
  5. Hearing impairment. As we age, we experience a loss of hearing acuity, especially sounds at the higher end of the spectrum; also, a decreasing ability to distinguish sounds when there is background noise.After the age of 30, we experience a decrease in auditory acuity equal to about 10 decibels per decade. We may also find it more difficult to hear and understand instructions. This may be difficult in a classroom but can be compounded with the addition of background noise at a dive site and during the predive briefing. So instructors and divemasters should speak loudly and distinctly, looking at the divers/students for signs of understanding, repeatedly asking if anyone has any questions and thoroughly understands everything said.
  6. Increased sensitivity to cold, drafts and direct sunlight. As we age, we experience physiological changes that result in a lowered metabolic rate along with a reduction in tissue perfusion, making us more sensitive to cold. When selecting exposure protection, even 80-degree Fahrenheit (27-degree Celsius) Caribbean water is nearly 20 F colder than our body temperature. Our skin also changes, decreasing our tolerance to injuries, increasing our recovery time and making us more susceptible to sunburn. Our sweat glands also shrink, making us more prone to heat-related injuries.These changes increase the likelihood of dehydration and that can significantly increase the risk of decompression sickness. Therefore, the appropriate level of hydration is especially essential for older adults. The Academy of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that anyone who engages in outdoor activities drink 16-20 ounces (480-600 milliliters) of water (or other noncaffeinated/nonalcoholic liquid) one to two hours before any vigorous outdoor activity and rehydrate post-activity with 16-24 ounces (480-720 milliliters). When you are properly hydrated, your urine is clear and copious. Since aging also results in the kidneys becoming less efficient, older adults may feel the need to urinate more frequently. For divers who either cannot or choose not to pee in their wet suits, intentionally avoiding liquids before a dive so that you won’t have to pee is a potentially dangerous practice. Therefore, an older diver may be wise to choose a dive location (boat/shore site) that has a bathroom/head available. There is also nothing wrong with terminating the dive early for any number of reasons, including needing a bathroom break.

    Because of the potentially damaging effects of the sun, coupled with the changes in the skin of older divers, it is strongly advised to use sunscreen liberally. For extended, intense exposure to the sun, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher. SPF 30 filters out up to 97 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation; SPF 50 filters out up to 98 percent.Even though the older diver may remember when it was in vogue to spit in your mask to prevent fogging, due to reduced saliva production in older adults, the use of chemical mask clear solutions are the order of the day.

‘Geezer Gas’

All divers, regardless of age, want to fully enjoy the diving experience with minimum risk to themselves and those they dive with. Older divers should adhere to safety and conservative practices that include diving within the limits of training and recent experience. As an older active diver, I live by the mantra, “Dive your experience, not your C-card.” Choosing the most conservative options is always a word to the wise. The use of enriched-air nitrox blends as though it was air is considered by many, including the author, an excellent way to increase conservatism in recreational diving.

Older divers use nitrox blends so frequently nowadays that many call it “geezer gas.” I use a nitrox blend on every dive I make and geezer diver is a moniker I will gladly wear if it reduces my risks in diving. As with divers of any age, practice slow ascents, always be situationally aware, carry surface signaling equipment that can not only signal your presence when unable to return to the exit point but can also provide additional buoyancy if needed. Older divers should also not feel compelled to make every dive available on every day. Taking frequent breaks may allow them to more fully appreciate the dives they do make.

To be fully prepared to safely enjoy diving, older divers should never be afraid to ask questions until they fully understand everything they need to know to make the diving experience safe and enjoyable. They should also not be afraid to ask for help in donning and doffing their equipment or entering and exiting the water. Help older divers choose dive locations (including dive boats) that have easy access to and from the water, including a wide swim step or entry platform complete with pullup bar or other mechanism to allow for easy exit from the water.

At some point the decision should be made when to hang up the fins for good. The decision may initially be to refrain from scuba diving but to continue to enjoy the water through snorkeling. The decision should come when the sport is no longer fun, and the older diver may also want to consider stopping diving when they feel that they may be putting themselves or their buddy at risk. That decision could come on any dive they make. There is always the option of “calling” the dive rather than putting themselves or others at risk.

This very difficult decision can also be made with the advice of a physician, especially if they are knowledgeable in diving medicine. If not, the best medical resource available, Divers Alert Network (DAN), is always there for a diver and can consult them and their doctor.

It’s All About Quality of Life

Diving may be an important part of our life. It may be one of those things that certainly helps us maintain our quality of life but there may come a time when the best decision is the one that keeps us on the surface. If and when that time comes, as the water rolls off us for the last time, we will be smiling all the way knowing that we have shared our experiences with those we know and love and our legacy as a certified diver is to encourage the generations to come to love the sport and the diving environment as much as we have.