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Psychosocial Theories of Aging: Activity Theory, Continuity Theory & Disengagement Theory

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  • 0:07 Aging Theory
  • 1:03 Activity Theory
  • 2:30 Continuity Theory
  • 3:54 Disengagement Theory
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

Growing older - we all do it. How we grow older successfully is debatable. There are many theories that have been hypothesized about this life transition. This lesson explores three such ways.

Aging Theory

Everyone wants to age well. I mean, we all want the freedom to be crotchety old people yelling at young whippersnappers on our lawn. That's the dream of having the ultimate freedom to say or do what we want and still be healthy enough to chase those kids with our cane.

When we get to psychosocial theories of aging, defined as a focus on social and psychological aspects leading to successful aging, we have different ways of defining 'success' and varied ways of reaching it. While we all have the dream of being old people who yell at young people, there are other and more varied ways we can define successful aging and how to get there. We will look at each of the main psychosocial theories and see exactly what they are.

Briefly, before we dive into our first theory, here is the list of the theories we will explore:

  • Activity theory
  • Continuity theory
  • Disengagement theory

Activity Theory

The activity theory occurs when individuals engage in a full day of activities and maintain a level of productivity to age successfully. The activity theory basically says: the more you do, the better you will age. It makes a certain kind of sense, too. People who remain active and engaged tend to be happier, healthier, and more in touch with what is going on around them. Same goes for people of any age.

Often, the activity theory is dismissed to some degree because it falls a little flat. It isn't sufficient to just be busy, like the definition states. You can't wake up every day and do the same thing, like riding a stationary bike, and expect to age well. This theory was taken and used by many program designers for the elderly, who filled older folks' schedules with busy work and required them to complete tasks. A heightened level of activity is needed, but it needs to be engaging and fulfilling, rather than just busy work.

The theory also fails to consider maintenance of one's mid-life or changes that are made when entering retired or older life. If I was a high-powered, high-stress executive and I retire and go into pottery making, am I going to age successfully? Not likely, particularly if I enjoyed my job as an executive. Maybe what is needed is another theory that looks at the lifespan instead of just older age.

Continuity Theory

The continuity theory states that individuals who age successfully continue habits, preferences, lifestyle, and relationships through midlife and later. Again, this theory makes a certain kind of intuitive sense. People who are doing well in midlife, who are happy, healthy, and just plain dandy should carry over the habits and ideals that made them that way. Basically, good stuff should be continued because it's good stuff!

An easy way of thinking about how the continuity theory can demonstrate successful aging is by considering your own life. For most people, middle school and high school are fairly similar despite them often being physically very different (different place, more people, different teachers, etc). However, the habits, preferences, and relationships often continued if most of your cohort moved with you. It helped make the transition easier.

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