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More Adults Over 55 Seek Literacy Instruction, Study Shows


More Adults Over 55 Seek Literacy Instruction, Study Shows 

The percentage of older adults enrolled in adult literacy and basic education programs has doubled since the economic downturn began in 2008, according to a study by the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing adult literacy and basic education in the nation.

ProLiteracy surveyed 950 member programs serving some 286,000 students on the participation of students aged 55 and older. Results showed that in the 2009-10 program year, individuals in this age group made up 12 percent of the student body of responding programs, a significant increase. Older adults made up just 6 percent of the students enrolled in adult literacy programs in program years 2006-07 and 2007-08, and 6.5 percent in program year 2008-09.

Senior Service America (SSAI), a nonprofit organization that provides community service and employment training opportunities for low-income older workers, contracted with ProLiteracy to conduct the research after SSAI noticed an increase in the number of older Americans needing to return to the workforce due to the downturn in the economy. SSAI also noted that many of these adults required education programs to gain skills needed to find employment in the resulting “new” economy.

“Additional research is required, but the initial findings support SSAI’s position—the economic downturn is pushing older adults back into the workforce and many of them are looking to improve their literacy and English skills to help them be more employable,” said David C. Harvey, ProLiteracy president and CEO. “We know from prior research that an alarming number of adults in this age demographic have severely limited reading skills and that literacy skills deteriorate as we age.”

The survey showed that more than one-quarter of the adults age 55 and older currently receiving instruction are unemployed and seeking work, one-third are enrolled in a basic literacy program, and 40 percent are receiving English language instruction. Of the adults in the age cohort who left programs at the end of the 2009-10 program year, close to 1,400 had either found employment, found a better job or received a promotion, or reported that they had increased their employability skills.

Despite the increase in enrollment by older adults, the majority of responding programs—77 percent—said they did not target the age bracket in student recruitment programs nor do they adjust instruction to meet the specific learning needs of older adults.

“Older adults often have barriers to learning—vision and hearing problems or short term memory loss, for example,” Harvey said. “ProLiteracy and SSAI can offer literacy programs some support in dealing with these barriers, in the form of training and materials.”

Other key findings:

  • 64 percent of responding programs worked with community organizations that serve older adults, including senior centers, social service agencies, and workforce development agencies
  • Nearly half the responding programs—49 percent—report providing employment assistance to older adults, including resume writing and job search strategies
  • Older adults also serve as volunteers in literacy programs—in the 2009-10 program year, adults over age 55 represented 51 percent of all volunteers for the responding programs

For more information about this study, contact Amy Schmitz, director of communications at ProLiteracy, at (315) 422-9121. ext 285 or



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