The Social Theories of Ageing

Essay, 2014

5 Pages, Grade: 5.0


Social Theories of Ageing

Ageing is a constant process that every individual goes through as long as there is still life. This process is an essential part of nature, as it ensures that the homeostasis of the universe is kept constant. Ageing has to do with the additive effects of changes that occur over time, and in human beings, refers to the multidimensional progression of biological, psychological and social changes that occur (Moody 2010). In humans, ageing has its advantages and disadvantages which reflect the growth and expansion of some dimensions of human life, while on the other hand, others decline. The inevitability of ageing has driven a whole lot of researches into finding out how and why ageing occurs. This is why there has been several theories developed to help understand the phenomenon of ageing.

Ageing has been looked at from different perspectives, but particularly from the biological, psychological and social points of view. The biological theories of ageing attempt to describe the phenomenon as a programmed event, and that it arises as a result of constant wear and tear leading to a decline of the usual functions of the human body. The psychological concept describes ageing in terms of the specific changes in behavior, cognitive functions, and roles that occur in an individual undergoing the ageing process. On the other hand however, the social theories, which would form the crux of this paper, explain how factors such as the prevailing circumstances, available resources, caste systems, social accelerators, etc can either speed up or slow down the process of ageing (Troll 1971).

Over the years, the influence of the society on the ageing phenomena has been obvious, especially as regards the increased number of old people and longer lifespans in developed societies like the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), and others. The relationship between quality of life and its effects on successful ageing is still under extensive study. There have been several theories propounded to explain the concept of ageing, each drawing from a general assumption that late-life changes in particular socio-emotional purviews follow the same downward trend as cognitive development as individuals grow older (Troll 1971). For nearly all these theories, loss constitutes a central theme, especially in models like that of the disengagement theory (Cumming & Henry 1961). Six social theories would be examined here, with the first three – continuity, disengagement, and activity – presenting a different pattern of ageing, while the other three emphasize more on the developmental processes that occur in ageing.

The continuity theory of ageing focuses on adaptive choices that older and middle-aged adults make in order to maintain both internal and external continuities in their lives (Streib & Schneider 1971). Internal continuity connotes the process of forming linkages between new circumstances and the memories left by previous ones (Atchley 1999). External continuity on the other hand refers to the interaction with familiar people and familiar environments (Atchley 1991). It focuses on the idea that elderly people tend to ensure familiarity – with their environments, their families, and other situations – as this helps them to continue to be independent. According to Atchley and Barusch (2004), this continuity in their environments and activities helps the ageing person to concentrate energies on familiar situations, which in the long run helps to minimize and offset the effects of ageing. The continuity theory does not mean that the individual experiences no change at all, but that the individual adapts to changes with persistent, consistent and familiar attributes and processes that produce less stress (Menec 2003).

The disengagement theory explains that elderly individuals reduce their levels of activity or involvement by withdrawing from previous roles and activities they have been undertaking (Atchley 1991). This was drawn from an observation that these elderly people hold on to age as being their rationale for withdrawal from activities that were previously found meaningful. This theory, as shown by Cummings and Henry (1961), assumes that the inward turning typical of ageing individuals leads to a normal and natural withdrawal for social activities, reduction of involvement with other people, and an increasing self-preoccupation. This withdrawal is as a result of individual disengagement, plus the effect of the society’s drive for withdrawal of old people from active service with the belief that they have little to contribute (Mabry & Bengtson 2005). However, this disengagement theory contravenes the general belief that the best way to tackle ageing is to keep active and fit, although it has been suggested that differential withdrawal rather than total disengagement is the rule (Streib & Schneider 1971).

On the other hand, the activity theory seems to be an alternative view or a direct opposite of the disengagement theory, propounded to explain the psychosocial processes in ageing. According to Havighurst, Neugarten and Tobin (1963), elderly individuals have the same social and psychological needs with middle-aged people, unless inhibited by disability or debilitating disease. They argue that the changes in activities in old age was due to a change in meaning derived from these activities as seen through the life of the individual. Just like every other individual, the elderly engage in activities due to the benefits derived even though there are different benefits associated with different types of activities (Menec 2003). However, this theory fails to take into consideration the physical wellness, personality profiles, and the past life of the elders. In explaining the continued engagement of these people in activities, it does not take into consideration the particular meaning or value the individual derives from these activities, but instead focuses on the quantity of roles and the volume of involvement in these roles (Bonder & Wagner 2001). Also, the idea that activity is better than inactivity which forms the basis of this theory is seen as a Western sentiment, rather than a proven fact. And again, the activity theory assumes that the value of humans derives from what we do, and know, rather than what we presently are or have been (Rowles 1991).

The other three social theories are Erikson’s theory of human development, life course/life span theory, and Peck’s stages of psychological development. Erikson’s structure focuses on expected developmental tasks at particular stages of an individual’s life. For the aged, the most relevant is the stage of integrity versus despair in which the elderly person comes to accept the gradual decline of bodily functions, and at the same time reflecting on the multitude of experiences and wisdom acquired over the years (Erikson 1985). On the other hand, Peck’s stages of psychological development suggested, as a modification to Erikson’s stage of integrity versus despair, that it would be better to focus more on the second half of life, and separate it into distinct psychological and adjustment stages. Unlike Erikson’s categorization which is sequential and logical, Peck’s proposed a set of four and three stages in middle and old age respectively which were not chronological, insisting that these stages occur at different periods for different people (Peck 1968). A more recent approach is the life span/life course theory of ageing that explains ageing on the basis of socially defined roles. This theory purports that the middle ages, and later maturity are defined by the society with individuals expected to follow particular sequence of roles and progressions as they mature. Supporters of this theory believe that prevailing norms define generally what people in particular age groups are “allowed” to do, assume, and become at specific ages (Elder, Johnson & Crosnoe 2004). However unlike Erikson’s and Peck’s developmental stages, these life courses are associated with particular chronological ages.

One feature of the social theories, as distinct from the other theories of ageing (biological and psychological) is the ability to explain and give correlations between the individual and societal implications of ageing. The biological and psychological theories examine ageing from an individual perspective, with much focus on what happens in the DNA, cell and mind of the ageing individual. Also, social theories can explain how individuals experience ageing differently even though almost the same set or sequence of biological processes takes place in almost every one to cause ageing. The relationships between social factors such as economic status; public programs, initiatives and policies; health status; and the strength of social support can be explained by social theories.


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The Social Theories of Ageing
University of Michigan
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Pohl Ron (Author), 2014, The Social Theories of Ageing, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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