February 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA4

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Promoting Programs in Aging Through Interdisciplinary Collaboration

This article describes the formation and work of an interdisciplinary aging team (IAT). As an example of the team's effort, the article describes how the popular Senior Series program was adapted to meet the needs of limited resource seniors, in response to a needs assessment conducted at five senior centers. Findings suggested the need to expand certain Senior Series program guides and/or add new ones. Written materials were added/adapted and training was held. It is evident that lowering disciplinary and organizational barriers and working together to target materials is a more effective way to meet the educational needs or seniors.

Stephen F. Duncan, Ph.D.
Family and Human Development Specialist
Montana State University Extension Service
Bozeman, Montana
Internet Address: uhdsd@msu.oscs.montana.edu

Ralph Foster, M.S.
Director of Outreach Information
Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama
Internet Address: ralphf@uce.auburn.edu

America is a graying society. The size of the population over 65 years of age has increased far more rapidly than the rest of the population for most of this century. By the year 2030, the elderly population is expected to double (Aging in America, 1993). Responding to this trend, Extension has made programming for older persons a high priority, as emphasized by National Extension's recent "Aging in America" booklet.

Reaching out with educational programs for seniors has also been a high priority in Alabama. It has been observed that a number of different organizations and educational institutions were working very hard to serve the educational needs of older persons. However, most groups were working independently of one another with little coordination of effort. On the Auburn campus, resident instructional and Extension faculty tended to not work together on projects for older persons and little effort was being made to address their educational needs from an interdisciplinary perspective. Consequently, it seemed that lowering interdisciplinary and organizational barriers and working collaboratively would be a more effective way to meet the needs of our growing aged population. This article describes what the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service and its collaborators did to promote interdisciplinary programming for older persons.

An Interdisciplinary Aging Team (IAT)

Under the leadership of an Extension specialist, an Interdisciplinary Aging Team (IAT) was organized. It was comprised of Extension specialists, departmental faculty, and staff from the Centers on Aging and Governmental Services. Eleven disciplines were represented: family and human development, family resource management, nursing, health and human performance, psychology, clothing and textiles, governmental services, housing and safety, nutrition, economics, and gerontology. External partners, such as the Area Agency on Aging and the Alabama State Commission on Aging , were also members of the team. Center staff and external partners assisted the discipline-based faculty by providing information regarding state and local data on older persons. They also assisted with data collection needed for targeting programs, providing valuable insights into content and process of educational programs, and collaborated in the actual development of these programs. At the university level, the IAT later functioned for a time as an ad hoc committee appointed by the Vice President for Extension/Director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, to facilitate communication, collaboration, direction, and resource sharing among groups interested in educational programs for older persons.

Program Description and Objectives

By fostering internal interest and collaboration on multidisciplinary projects and activities related to aging, the IAT focused on creating or disseminating community-based programs in which senior citizens have meaningful social roles, educational experiences, and/or productive volunteer work assignments. The major objectives of the IAT, adapted from the objectives of the Senior Series program, were to stimulate programs that:

  • Provide information to help senior adults improve the quality of their physical and mental health, strengthen their independence, enhance personal and family relationships, and provide opportunities that allow them to continue living in their home communities.

  • Help county Extension faculty and their collaborators build a meaningful, long-range educational program for senior adults and establish working relationships with appropriate agencies.

  • Encourage the use of knowledge, talents, and skills of senior adults through public service volunteer activities.

Having objectives is one thing. But can an interdisciplinary, interagency group really work together effectively to provide practical benefits for older persons? Here is an example of what was accomplished.

A Case Study: Adapting Senior Series

A few of the IAT members had recently received training in the original Senior Series program, developed by the University of Missouri-Extension and funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The team was impressed with the content and organization of the material, but weren't sure if the program covered the particular needs of older persons in Alabama, especially those with limited resources. Thus, members of the IAT worked together to develop an assessment tool that would help determine the kinds of topics older adults would like to know about and in what form (e.g., classes, radio, television, etc.) they would like to receive that information. Topic areas addressed in the assessment included physical health and comfort, mental health and well-being, literacy and education, housing and energy conservation, personal and family relationships, planning for retirement, government programs and community services, death and dying, and consumerism. Several subtopics were listed under each general topic area. For instance, under the general topic area "Physical Health and Comfort," subtopics such as "physical changes experienced as we grow older" and "food and nutrition" were listed. The IAT had at least one person per general area with recognized expertise in that area.

In Alabama, many limited resource older persons congregate in neighborhood senior centers. Education coordinators at five senior centers were contacted and agreed to participate in an assessment of seniors' educational needs. Each coordinator explained to their seniors the purpose of the assessment and asked for volunteer participation. A total of 80 limited resource seniors agreed to be interviewed (20, 13, 23, 10, and 14 per center, respectively). Two undergraduate interns trained in interviewing skills conducted the assessments. Respondents were asked about how much they needed information in the various topic areas. Possible responses ranged from "A Great Deal" to "No Additional Information." They were also asked where they typically acquired information in the topic area, the source of information they used most often (or best source), and from what sources they would prefer to get the information.

Findings from this assessment suggested the need to expand certain Senior Series program guides and/or add new ones. For example, in the Government and Community Services area, nearly three-fourths of the respondents reported some or a great need for information about Medicaid, a topic not addressed in the current materials. In the Personal and Family Relationships area, nearly two-thirds of senior center participants reported some or a great deal of need for information about friendships during later life, likewise not addressed by the current Senior Series.

Overall, the greatest percentage of seniors said they were getting their information on topics from television (43%), followed by professionals (31%), and radio (27%). Television was the most frequently indicated source of information on every topic except physical health and comfort (professionals were most frequently indicated), and personal and family relationships (friends were most frequently indicated). The greatest number of seniors (40% overall) indicated television to be the best source of information on topics, followed by professionals (31%), and radio (25%). Again, television was most frequently indicated as the best source of information on every topic except physical health and comfort (professionals were most frequently indicated), and mental health and well-being (professionals were most frequently indicated).

The greatest percentage of seniors (44% overall) also indicated television as their preferred source of information, followed by professionals (30%), and radio (26%). Television was the most frequently preferred source for every topic except physical health and comfort (professionals were most frequently indicated). In summary, findings from the assessment suggested that more limited resource seniors would be reached if instructional materials were adapted for media outlets and for distribution by professionals.

In response to the assessment, members of the IAT agreed to develop the needed instructional units and adaptations in their particular areas of expertise. Adaptations for television (e.g., videos) were not attempted at this time. A five-day, system-wide training was held for county Extension faculty and their local collaborators on the adapted Senior Series. Members of the IAT agreed to do the training. Each participant received two Senior Series notebooks, plus an adaptation notebook put together by the IAT. Feedback from participants in the training was very positive.

Response from Alabama Extension field faculty using the adapted Senior Series has likewise been positive. Agents are using the materials for newsletters, leader training, and special interest classes. They enjoy the quality and adaptability of the programs. One agent wrote, "The Senior Series has been wonderful for me. I've used material for quarterly newsletters at Senior Centers, information for news articles, and started a Creative Aging Radio Program that has a sponsor. The grandmother of a rising country star is on the program (it's twice a month); so there have been requests for our program as far away as California."

The IAT also identified many other opportunities for educational efforts to benefit older Alabamians. For example, team members discussed utilizing existing state Extension information networks as a clearinghouse for information promoting senior adults as volunteers for public service organizations. This clearinghouse would provide information and consultation to seniors desiring involvement, as well as to public organizations seeking senior volunteers. This would help define expectations, increase volunteer effectiveness, and promote productive senior involvement in meaningful public activities.


The story of the IAT shows what can be accomplished when a group of individuals and a university make a commitment of its resources and faculty expertise to serve a growing population of older persons. Interdisciplinary collaboration can enable cooperating agencies and communities to be more responsive and proactive to the needs of that population, and to demonstrate the values of the knowledge, talents, skills, and life experiences of senior adults. The process used by the IAT to more adequately address the educational needs of older persons can be replicated in any Extension program area.