Learning Strategies and Coping Mechanisms of Older Adults with Low-Level Literacy Skills

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Virginia Tech


Limited literacy remains a prevailing issue among older adult populations. This qualitative study sought to answer the following research questions: How do older adults with limited literacy skills navigate and learn to navigate their daily lives in an advanced literate community such as the United States? What types of informal learning strategies and coping mechanisms have been used by these adults, and what perceived barriers and hindrances have participants faced and are facing in their lives? The study included the interviews, data collection and analysis of five women and two men, ages 67-87, two of whose activities also were observed by the researcher. The objective was to investigate their informal learning strategies and coping mechanisms within their current living environment.

A thematic analysis of the seven narrative 'life stories' resulted in the emergence of four themes, which represented how these adults with limited literacy skills learned to navigate their daily lives and use informal learning strategies and coping mechanisms to survive in a changing environment: (a) Family support (or lack thereof), (b) social networks, (c) desired GED Program engagement, (d) self-directed gained knowledge.

The study concluded that although none of the participants received a high school diploma, all successfully obtained employment and navigated their daily lives by incorporating various strategies. Likewise, given their implementation of self-directed learning strategies (Ausubel, 2000; Knowles, 1990; McClusky, 1974; Tough, 1982), participants viewed some of the dispositional, institutional, and situational obstacles (Cross, 1982), not as barriers, but as navigable and surmountable challenges.

Implications of the study suggested limited literacy adults relied upon family support, social networks and self-direction to pursue knowledge and conceal limited literacy. They gained confidence and developed coping mechanisms to navigate daily activities, circumvent barriers and function in an advanced literate society.

Future professional practice recommendations included incorporating ABE/GED programs at adult living facilities/community centers; invalidating false assumptions regarding limited literacy older adults; volunteering time and building trust with these adults; and validating their current and desired needs. Research recommendations included investigating limited literacy adult capabilities; shadowing their navigation; conducting similar studies in other U.S. regions; and investigating comparative life-span research.



Adult Learning, Limited Literacy, Learning Strategies, Social Networking, Adult Learner, Older Adults