Social Theories of Aging: Definitions & Examples

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  • 0:08 Social Theory
  • 1:18 Disengagement Theory
  • 2:42 Activity Theory
  • 3:48 Social Clock
  • 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.

This lesson explores the idea of how social interactions can differentiate how a person ages. Included is the progression of theories, and why they have changed over time.

Social Theory

Have you ever just sat around and wondered what life will be like in the future? Who will still be around, and will you care that they are there? Maybe those friends you cling to now will just drift away. Maybe new friends will come into your life.

Oh! And hover-boards. Definitely hover-boards.

Social theories of aging are expected progressions from midlife to older life based on social factors. The social theories attempt to explain how certain people age well. We aren't talking about how some people don't get wrinkles or gray hair as they get older; we are talking about people who don't despair or become depressed. What sets them apart, socially, from others?

There are three main theories we will discuss, and they are:

  • Disengagement theory
  • Activity theory
  • Social clock

Each of these attempts to explain how a person successfully ages into older life. When we talk about a theory, it is worth noting that these are ideas based on observations and predictions about future events. So, I don't want to hear any of that 'It's just a theory' argument.

Disengagement Theory

The disengagement theory is the process of individuals withdrawing and isolating from prior social interactions due to age. This is one of the oldest theories put forth, and was originally posited around the 1950s. This is important, because in the time since the 1950s there has been an explosion of elderly activity.

Work in the 1950s was often very hard on the body and the medical care was not what we're used to today. These life and medicine issues led to shorter life-spans and less vigorous older people. Back then, it was quite intuitive to say that as people grew older, they would disengage from activities they were part of because they no longer had the stamina or energy to stay involved.

This theory has been largely abandoned or modified due to the increase in the life-span of people as well as the increase in the general health level of elderly people. Older folks don't sit at home in rocking chairs anymore. While they may not be climbing Everest every day, they are staying involved through volunteer work, continuing to work past retirement, and engaging in more activities with retirement. It has been modified to indicate that older people may disengage from activities but will likely engage themselves in an alternate activity, such as spending time with their family or hobbies.

Activity Theory

The basis of the activity theory is that the need to remain involved in activities continues into older life, but the meaning and the focus changes. Older people have the same wants, needs, and motivations as their middle-life counterparts. To say that you cross an imaginary threshold and now suddenly you're a different person doesn't really make sense.

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