Social Aspects of Aging and Aging Families

Module 2: Social Support in Later Years

Unit 1: Psychological Theories of Aging

Professor's note

What is a theory?


How many times have you heard a teacher say that theories are important? Why? The reason possibly lies in the definition. Researchers are “searching” for the truth. They search again and again (thus the “re”) in order to find the most truth. You see, you can never really prove anything. We can show that things don’t fit or that they don’t make sense but we can’ ever truly prove anything. So we rely on theories to guide us in search of the truth. Theories provide a way to gather what is known and what fits together. Theories are series of facts or “knowns” pulled together to form a idea of what is happening. How about this…a theory is what you derive when watching a murder mystery. You learn about each character, gather facts about the crime, and put all the information you know together. What you come up with is a theory of who committed the crime and why. The same concepts are applied when studying aging. Researchers gather all of the facts and the “knowns” about aging and derive theories to explain why we age and the causes of aging. Once you see it like this it can make studying aging more like trying to solve a mystery. This may be why some instructors are so excited about teaching theories…they are really detectives underneath the teacher role!

Nature or Nurture?


There are two basic concepts and three models used to explain age changes. The first is nature. This concept uses an organismic model. Our genetics are the blue prints of life. If you are genetically programmed to age fast you will. There are ways that the aging process can be slowed, thus the individual is involved and has choices, but ultimately the plans are written already. Freud and his ideas of psychoanalysis conform to this type of thinking.


Another concept accepted by researchers is that of nurture. This mechanistic model views each person as having a blank slate that is impacted by his or her environment. The individual is passive, learning all behaviors, and it is the things that affect him/her externally that cause aging. John Watson and B.F. Skinner are theorists who conform to this type of thinking.

Lastly, there is a combination of nature and nurture known as the contextual model. Researchers who believe this way see both nature and nurture affecting aging. The individual has a reciprocal relationship. That is both genetics and environment play a role. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory was created using this way of thinking.

Micro Theories of Aging & Critiques

An interesting thing happened with a study on aging conducted by four researchers in the 1950’s. Elaine Cummings, William Henry, Bernice Neugarten, and Robert Havighurst worked together on a study known as the Kansas City Study of Adult Life. You read about this study in your text. Was there anything “interesting” about the fact that the researchers included 270 Caucasian adults age 50-90 in the study? Could there be a bias in the results? What if you learned that the researchers secured their study participants from senior centers and that the elders had to be able to get to the center in order to participate in the study? What does that say about elders who didn’t have transportation or who were physically incapable of accessing the center? These are all questions to ask when looking at the “facts” or “knowns” presented in a study. Could forming a theory based on this information be totally correct? The truly interesting thing was that the four researchers disagreed upon the interpretation of the data. Cummings and Henry (1961) saw the results pointing towards disengagement while Neugarten and Havighurst (1961) decided that the results pointed toward remaining active and engaged. These have remained the main theories in the field of aging for years. Researchers continue to put together what is known and arrive at new theories to explain changes with age.

Here are brief descriptions of some of the theories posed by gerontologists (people that study aging) along with links to websites for you to explore further. Be sure you have a good idea of each theory before moving ahead to the application. You will be asked to watch a movie and apply a theory to characters based on what you have learned.

Disengagement Theory


The main premise of disengagement is that there is a loss of roles and energy due to age that makes people want to be dismissed from their social expectations of productivity and competitiveness. Disengagement is an adaptive behavior that allows for the maintenance of a sense of worth and tranquility while performing peripheral social roles. Disengaging is an orderly way of transferring power from one generation to the next. The disengagement process is mutual and has positive consequences for both society and the individual. The belief is that social services should not empower the older adult but assist and encourage their withdrawal from society.

A critique of the disengagement theory offered by McGuire, Boyd, and Tedrick in their book Leisure and Aging suggests that disengagement does occur but for elders who represent the oldest segment of society, this would be persons 85 years and older. These elders tend to experience a reduction in involvement in physically demanding engagements. The authors note again that the sample studied in which the theory was developed came from an urban area. This suggests the possibility that disengagement may be a more a function of the urban setting offering increasingly limited opportunities for meaningful engagement rather than a “natural” process of disengagement.

Activity Theory

Havighurst and Neugarten determined that older adults who remained active would be more satisfied and better adjusted than less active older adults. A person’s self-concept is validated through participation in roles that are characteristic of middle age. They believed it is desirable to maintain as many middle age activities as possible. If a person substitutes a new role for one of those lost (due to widowhood or retirement) they will age more successfully. Mainly, to stay busy and active helped a person age more successfully, anything less than this was seen as maladaptive.

The critique in Leisure and Aging offers several interesting points to consider. First, activity theory, like disengagement theory, is prescriptive in nature. It advises people what to do and not do to age well. Activity theory is really a branch off from role theory. In activity theory, adaptation of role loss or role change is made by remaining active. If this is so, activity theory is not exclusively for older people. Younger people adapt to role changes too (i.e. student to employee by graduating from high school and beginning a professional career). Secondly, the levels of activity necessary for positive aging are questioned. For example do high activity levels equal high life satisfaction and/or does high life satisfaction equal high activity levels? (p. 23). Lastly, is it truly the activity that is creating the satisfaction or is it the support a person gets from the role they play in the activity itself? If an elder is a good dancer and others tell them how good they are, is it really dancing or the role reinforcement that is increasing self-concept and life satisfaction?

Continuity Theory


This theory continues to explore the substitution of roles mentioned in the Activity Theory. Think homeostasis or balance. Aging persons are advised to substitute new roles for those they have lost. By continuing to maintain typical ways of adapting to the environment older adults are able to maintain an inner psychological “continuity” as well as an outward “continuity” of social and behavioral circumstances. Maintaining an integrated personality is the key to satisfaction.

The continuity theory is not prescriptive however it doesn’t address the unique, non-shared events as instigators of change. The theory does recognize change but forces the concept of change into one of continuity. Does everything that happens to us throughout our lives have to fit into what we have done earlier? Are we allowed to change directions without fitting into our past ways? Secondly, continuity theory assumes that earlier stages of development set the criteria for successful aging. For example, how you adapt to stress now may not be the most adaptive way later in life. Do you really hope to continue this style of adaptation into old age? Third, the need for continuity may reduce a person’s self-esteem when physical or mental declines force a change in lifestyles held earlier. A colleague provides this example, “If I get the blues my adaptation style is to go for a run or buy a pair of shoes. When I get older I may not physically be able to run and may not be able to financially be able to purchase a pair of shoes.” The continuity theory would suggest that this colleague would not be satisfied with life because of the adaptation choices she made when she was younger. Lastly, continuity theory gets in the way of a person who wishes to stop or change certain behaviors or roles. Releasing oneself from former roles can have a “freeing effect” on a person. If a man was forced to be macho in order to survive in the work world he may embrace the change in roles and be relieved to finally relax once out of the work loop.

Subculture Theory

Subcultures are…college students, members of a church, gangs, dance groups, music groups, tennis clubs, bowling leagues, punk rockers, skateboarders, Goths, etc. A subculture is all members within a society who spend more time together with each other thank they do with other members of society. In a way, older adults themselves are a subculture due to biological aging and physically visible signs. This theory states that older adults must maintain their self-concepts and social identities through their membership in a subculture. Do we support an older adult subculture when we create senior citizen centers?

Can you offer a critique of this theory? What does “labeling” do to a person or group?

Social Exchange Theory


Think of a scale you would see at a grocery store. This theory has to do with maintaining balance (similar to the homeostasis mentioned in the Continuity Theory). With older adults power is acquired through the ability to satisfy one’s needs without having to depend on or become indebted to other people. This sociological theory developed by Homans (1961) and Blau (1964), attempts to explain the social inequality among age strata (or groups). The key factor in defining older adults’ status lies in the balance between their contributions to society and the cost of supporting them. The overall social class determines the older adult’s resources and which ones are valued most. Younger people may try and use older adults as “scapegoats” saying that older people are breaking the federal budget. Comments like these arise from fear as the young attempt to remain the dominant social group. Reciprocity is important in this theory. Older adults like to give as well as receive. If they begin to receive more or give more the balance is compromised and stress is placed on the social relationship.

This is why some older adults want to “pay” you for the things you give to them. Here is a really quick story from my past. I worked as an Activity Assistant in a long-term care facility with 162 older adults. One evening while I was passing out root beer floats a woman opened her purse, pulled out .50 cents and attempted to pay me for the drink. When I refused her money she became irritated and a bit angry with me. It took a long time to convince her that she had already paid me for the drink in her monthly “rent” at the facility. Once she understood that she wasn’t receiving a handout she was relieved. Giving and taking affects power and something as simple as a foamy drink can ruffle one’s feathers!

How about this theory, any thoughts or critiques? Is it always possible to give and take?

Macro Theories of Aging

Age Stratification Theory


Matilda White Riley derived this theory in the early 1970’s. The best way to visualize this theory is to think of an organizational flow chart. Basically, society divides people into categories or “strata” according to age (young, middle, old). People are defined by their social roles and responsibilities as well. The theory is concerned with the relationships across and within each age strata. For example, think about intergenerational activities. This would be looking at relationships across the young and old strata. As you probably know, some strata have more value than others. The values come from the allocation (assigning people to roles in order to meet society’s needs) and socialization (smoothes the transition from one strata to the next). Socialization is needed throughout a person’s entire lifetime.

Social Breakdown Theory


This theory is not mentioned in your text but it is one that is important. It’s both individual and societal in its concept. Negative feedback is generated by a person who is already susceptible to psychological problems (i.e. an older adult hospitalized for depression a long time ago may be “labeled” by friends allowing for interpretations of incompetence to be made by others and the older adult themselves). Once the cycle begins, it reinforces others’ perception of incompetence. Older adults may behave in ways that older people are “supposed” to act in our society and previous skills of independence atrophy. The older adult perceives themselves as inadequate, and a negative spiral is set into motion. An example of this may be when a husband loses his wife and can’t decide if he wants to sell the house or not. Their son comes in

Symbolic Interactionism Theory

Interactions with factors such as the environment, other individuals, and day to day life can significantly affect the kind of aging process people experience. If there are changes in the interaction variables they may produce results that are erroneously attributed to inherent maturational changes rather than the variable itself. For example, if an older adult decides to move from a home into an apartment they may be labeled senile when in fact moving may be for convenience purposes. Both environmental constraints and individual needs can be adjusted or changed in this theory. Again, it’s a balance of pressures, but this time they are perceived by the individual.


Investigate More


Psychosocial Theory Word Search (for fun)


As a fun way to help reinforce the concepts and terms you have learned in this unit you can download this word search handout. See if you can find all of the words hidden in the chart. As you find each word try and remember which theory it relates to and a little bit about the theory. Have fun!

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