Fall 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

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Lifelong Learning for the Older Adult

The preferred topics and sources of information.

Kristine L. Blacklock
Assistant Professor
Department of Family Development
University of Wisconsin - Extension, Sauk County

Although demographers have forecasted changes in the age pyramid since the 1970's, these trends appear even more striking now. The 1980 Census creates far-reaching implications for adult educators. The population aged 55 years and older, now totaling over 46 million people, is the fastest growing segment in the United States and will continue to grow faster than any other age group.

With these societal trends come important considerations for adult education programming. Educational programs can become keys for the older person to develop knowledge and skills for survival, discover new role options, and enrich their lives.

Aging is a process we can neither ignore nor escape: it's constant and universal. Several aspects affect the quality of survivorship. These include income, physical environment, physiological and psychological changes, and educational pursuits.

Value of Education

Education is a valuable asset for people of any age. "Only by learning can they adapt to, cope with, and challenge the ever-changing internal and external environments as they move through the life cycle."1 This view of education as a vital human resource was reaffirmed at the 1981 White House Conference on Aging. With education having the potential to help and maintain the quality of life of older people, it's important for educators to understand the reason for participation and non-participation in educational opportunities and to use this knowledge to maximize future participation.2

Reasons for Participating

Participation in educational endeavors by the older learner is generally not for credit or formal recognition, but primarily for immediate application, personal satisfaction, and socialization.3 Three types of barriers to educational participation exist in the older adult years -situational, dispositional, and institutional.

  • Situational barriers arise from a situation in life at a given time. Cost (such as tuition charges and transportation expense) and reduced mobility (such as poor physical health, inadequate transportation, lack of adequate time, or physical handicap) are contributing factors to lack of participation.

  • Dispositional barriers, such as feeling one's too old to learn, may stem from previous educational experiences or societal pressure that one's incapable of learning.

  • Institutional barriers are found within the educational system itself. These include complex course registration systems and requirements, inconvenient course scheduling, or inaccessible locations.4

In planning for educational programs for today and tomorrow, it's necessary to understand real needs and potential obstacles in relation to learning endeavors. As the number of older learners increases, a greater demand will exist for education that's low-cost, non-traditional, flexible, and done locally to provide practical application, personal fulfillment, and socialization. Through effective and innovative programs, the adult educator can attract the older learner and overcome participation barriers.

Wisconsin Study

The question now is two-fold. What educational needs are specific to the older adult? Which sources of information are preferred by the elderly?

A research study was conducted during October-December, 1983, to assess the individual interests of older adults in Wisconsin's Trempealeau County to determine family living education program development priorities, identify preferred sources of family living information, evaluate the impact of family living education cable television programs in respect to the older adult private home subscriber and the Title III nutrition site participant, and identify factors that facilitate the use of cable television.

Cable television was selected for study because it's an innovative educational medium by which information can be extended beyond school walls directly into communities and private homes. Specific audiences can be targeted and reached through promotional activities, outlined program objectives, and feedback and evaluation mechanisms.

The study's subjects were elderly men and women age 60 years or older who had access to cable television either in their home or at a Title III nutrition site. Two random sample subject groups were used. A random sample of 70 elderly individuals was selected from private home cable television subscribers. A total of 60 surveys (86%) were returned with 55 (79%) of the surveys usable. A random sample of elderly individuals was also selected from Title III nutrition sites with access to cable television. Every third nutrition site participant was asked to complete the survey. A total of 45 surveys was completed and usable (100%).


Data were analyzed by frequency counts and one-way analysis of variance. Preferred sources of information and cable television viewing habits were affected by age, gender, educational attainment, residence, and subject group.

Topics Preferred

Younger elderly (aged 60-65 years) were more interested in learning than the quite aged (81 years and older). Younger elderly were more interested in learning about major consumer protection laws. Men were more interested in leadership development and public policy education topics than women. Respondents who owned their homes were more interested in maintaining records, understanding basic home care and repair, and saving home energy than those who rented their homes.

Overall, respondents were interested in learning about recordkeeping, leisure activities, saving home energy, low-cost decorating, home care and repair, housing alternatives, food and nutrition-purchase and preparation, diet selection, public policy changes, and laws and regulations affecting families.

Information Sources Preferred

This study also identified local community newspapers, local access cable television programs, and local radio station programming as preferred sources of information. The majority viewed cable television either in their home or at the Title III nutrition site 2114 to 6 hours during an average weekday. Program selection was based on newspaper schedule listings and channel flipping. Reception difficulties were experienced, but didn't affect respondents' viewing habits. The most convenient viewing time slots were 6:00-7:00 p.m., 7:00-8:00 p.m., and 11:00 a.m.-12:00 noon.


In providing educational opportunities for the older adult, consideration needs to be given to their interests and their preferred sources of information. Information about topics of interest would gain more "mileage" if disseminated through the preferred media of local community newspapers, cable television, and local radio stations.


  1. Harold Johnson, "Report of the Technical Committee on Creating an Age Integrated Society: Implications for Educational Systems" (Paper presented at the White House Conference on Aging, Washington, D.C., December, 1981), p. 4.
  2. J. A. Thorson, "Future Trends in Education for Older Adults," in Introduction to Educational Gerontology, R. A. Sherron and D. B. Winstein, eds. (Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere, 1978).
  3. K. P. Cross, "Adult Learners: Characteristics, Needs, and Interests," in Lifelong Learning in America, R. E. Peterson, ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1979).
  4. Ibid.