Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW2

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Programming for the Elderly


Judith A. Weber
Extension Agent-Home Economics
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Julie M. Johnson
Professor, College of Home Economics
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The elderly should be a priority clientele for the Cooperative Extension Service now and in the future. Projections beyond the year 2000 point toward increasingly greater life expectancies. People in the United States today can anticipate living beyond 70, continuing to enjoy an extended and productive life. Not only is the number of older people increasing, the proportion also continues to increase. By the year 2000, people 65 and older are expected to represent 13% of the population, and this percentage may climb to more than 21% by 2030.1

If social and psychological well-being are to accompany physical vitality in old age, we need to recognize education's potential contributions toward well-being.2 What are the implications for Extension and its efforts to strengthen individuals and families? How can Extension determine and then respond to the needs and interests of older people? Our study set out to study those questions and identify what the elderly want to learn, where they want to learn it, and how this information could be applied in Extension programming.

Independent rural elderly, aged 73 years and older, were interviewed in the winter of 1987-88. The 54 individuals, 36 women and 18 men, lived in a rural county in a midwestern state and lived with or without a spouse in the countryside or in small communities with populations of 131 to 4,872.

Each respondent was asked about his or her extent of interest in seven areas: health, transportation, family, personal, finances/consumer problems, housing, and faith/death. Not surprisingly, the general area the elderly exhibited the most interest in was health. Other general areas of interest in descending order were personal, family, housing, and transportation. However, perhaps also surprisingly, respondents were least interested in obtaining information about faith/death, that is, topics related to dealing with loss and bereavement, uncertainties, religion, and the living will.

Each individual was also asked: "How do you prefer receiving information about your major interests?" Response options included: one-on-one, listening, watching/reading, or taking classes. Their favored method of getting or receiving information was watching/reading, while taking classes was one of the least favored, especially for men.

Finally, the individuals were asked: "Where do you prefer receiving this information?" The options offered were my/another's home, church, office of professional, senior/community center, school, or other. The most popular choice was their/another's home or a senior/community center. As a group, they weren't interested in enrolling in classes. In fact, the men interviewed seemed to exhibit a more passive attitude toward learning than the women, evidenced by their indicated interest in fewer topics and their favorite methods and locations being watching/reading and home, respectively.

All elderly, however, can't be viewed as a composite group with the same characteristics, interests, needs, goals, or desires. The elderly of the 1990s and each successive decade may differ tremendously depending on their circumstances and experiences. For this reason, the elderly themselves must be used as a resource in determining their interests and needs. The first step in programming effectively for elderly is to ask them about their needs, interests, and preferences.


1. U.S., Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, "Demographic and Socioeconomic Aspects of Aging in the United States," Current Population Reports, Special Studies, Series P-23, No. 138, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, August 1984).

2. D. A. Peterson, Facilitating Education for Older Learners (San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 1983).