Module 2: Social Support in Later Years Social Aspects of Aging and Aging Families
Gerontology Education through Linking Into Networked Knowledge Systems
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Learning Objectives
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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?

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