Winter 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Older Rural Adult Learners


Barbara A. White
Kellogg Fellow
Center in Adult Learning Research
Montana State University-Bozeman

Rural America, characterized by an agricultural tradition, sparse population, isolation, and the presence of small, loosely knit communities, presents a significant challenge to the Extension professional. The demographic shift toward an older population is coupled with increased attention to rural America, influencing program development, delivery, and evaluation. Perceiving learning needs and recognizing the issues of transportation, accessibility, social support, and costs aren't the only constraints the educator must try to accommodate. "The programmer therefore must be sensitive to the educational milieu and different modes of instruction for older persons."1

A study conducted by Nelson, based on the assumption that local planning of educational programs for older adults ultimately depends on the perceptions of community service providers, presents an operational framework for Extension. Findings from the study are applicable to the program development process, with specific attention to needs assessment and program delivery. Three specific questions addressed in the study were:

  1. What are the perceptions of educational needs within service systems?
  2. What are the perceived obstacles that must be overcome to expand educational opportunities at all levels?
  3. How might educational programming for the older adult feasibly be put into effect?

Findings were based on a needs assessment of older adults living in a rural Pennsylvania community as perceived by 418 service providers who were in regular contact with this clientele group. Service providers represented six occupational groups: physicians and dentists, nurses, administrators of health and social service programs, social workers, clerical-technical personnel, and volunteers.

A 70-item questionnaire was designed to fit characteristics of the community. Findings of particular interest to the Extension professional include:

  1. Obstacles to learning, in rank order, included cost, physical infirmities and poor health, uncertainty of trying something new, lack of interest, and lack of community resources and availabilities.
  2. Most service providers favored informal approaches to learning among older people - incentive for improvement or enjoyment without academic credit, certificates, and degrees.
  3. No one preferred type of delivery system was indicated by the majority of responses; group or classroom situations, individual meetings, and media provided the basis for the distribution of responses.
  4. Contact of a personal and social nature must be a guiding principle in program development for the older adult.
  5. Major differences existed in outlook between occupational groups for mode of instruction:

    Classroom instruction: physicians and dentists, administrators

    Individualized instruction: nurses, social workers

    Media and combination of approaches: clerical-technical and volunteers.

  6. Service providers sampled weren't isolated from the current knowledge base in gerontology, as their level of knowledge about aging was found to be high, perhaps due to in-service training and workshops.

Numerous implications for the Extension professional can be drawn from this study:

  1. Program development along educational lines should address basic assumptions about "needs." "Perceptions of educational needs among older adults are found to be related to differences in occupational orientation, which in turn reflect on the training received by the service provider and the situational milieu where contact is established."2
  2. The potential exists for increased educational opportunities at all levels for the older learner with programs tailored to individual requirements.
  3. Modes of instruction identified reflect a need for alternative strategies for older adults living in isolated communities.

Regardless of how the educator chooses to characterize educational needs, the importance of individual differences in the advanced years of life must not be overlooked.3 The potential exists for increased educational opportunities at all levels for the older learner. Extension, as provider of information and education, can be an important vehicle for dissemination to the rural adult learner.


1. G. K. Nelson, "Determining the Learning Needs of the Older Adult in a Rural Community: Perceptions of the Service Provider," Adult Education, XXXIII (Winter 1983), 97-105.

2. Ibid.

3. B. O. Baker, "Understanding Rural Adult Learners: Characteristics and Challenges," Lifelong Learning: An Omnibus of Practice and Research, IX (October 1985), 4-7.