Theories of Aging (Part 3) - Sociological Theories

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VickyRN is a Nurse Educator with over 23 years in experience.

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Aging is a complex process and what one becomes in late life is a product of a lifetime of personal choices.

Theories of Aging (Part 3) - Sociological Theories

Within the sociological theories of aging, variables of ethnicity, gender, lifestyle, and socioeconomic status are only minimally considered, if taken into account at all. None of the following three theories can be supported with evidence-based data.

Disengagement Theory

The Disengagement Theory, one of the earliest and most controversial theories of aging, views aging as a process of gradual withdrawal between society and the older adult. This mutual withdrawal or disengagement is a natural, acceptable, and universal process that accompanies growing old. It is applicable to elders in all cultures, although there might be variations. According to this theory, disengagement benefits both the older population and the social system.

Gradual withdrawal from society and relationships preserves social equilibrium and promotes self-reflection for elders who are freed from societal roles. It furnishes an orderly means for the transfer of knowledge, capital, and power from the older generation to the young. It makes it possible for society to continue functioning after valuable older members die.

Weakness: There is no base of evidence or research to support this theory. Additionally, many older people desire to remain occupied and involved with society. Imposed withdrawal from society may be harmful to elders and society alike. This theory has been largely discounted by gerontologists.

Activity Theory

The Activity Theory, developed by Havighurst and associates in 1953, asserts that remaining active and engaged with society is pivotal to satisfaction in old age. This mentality is diametrically opposed to the Disengagement Theory. Successful aging equals active aging. Activity can be physical or intellectual in nature, but mainly refers to maintaining active roles in society. To maintain a positive self-image, the older person must develop new interests, hobbies, roles, and relationships to replace those that are diminished or lost in late life.

This theory proposes that an older person should continue a middle-aged lifestyle, denying the limitations of old age as long as possible. Likewise, society should avoid the injustice of ageism by applying the same norms to old age as it does to middle age. Society should not demand declining involvement of its aging members.

Activity is preferable to inactivity because it facilitates well-being on multiple levels. Because of improved general health and prosperity in the older population, remaining active is more feasible now than when this theory was first proposed by Havighurst nearly six decades ago. The activity theory is applicable for a stable, post-industrial society, which offers its older members many opportunities for meaningful participation.

Weakness: Some aging persons cannot maintain a middle-aged lifestyle, due to functional limitations, lack of income, or lack of a desire to do so. Many older adults lack the resources to maintain active roles in society. On the flip side, some elders may insist on continuing activities in late life that pose a danger to themselves and others, such as driving at night with low visual acuity or doing maintenance work to the house while climbing with severely arthritic knees. In doing so, they are denying their limitations and engaging in unsafe behaviors.

Continuity Theory

The Continuity Theory of aging relates that personality, values, morals, preferences, role activity, and basic patterns of behavior are consistent throughout the life span, regardless of the life changes one encounters. This theory builds upon and modifies the Activity Theory. Unlike the other two sociological theories, the Continuity Theory offers the backdrop of life perspective to describe normal aging. The latter part of life is simply a continuation of the earlier part of life, a component of the entire life cycle.

For instance, a garrulous extrovert at 25 years of age will most likely be a social butterfly at 70 years of age; whereas a laconic, withdrawn young person will probably remain reclusive as he ages. In fact, personality traits often become more entrenched with age.

Patterns developed over a lifetime determine behavior, traditions, and beliefs in old age. Past coping strategies recur as older adults adjust to the challenges of aging and facing death. Successful methods used throughout life for adjusting to situational and maturational stressors are repeated.

Aging is a complex process, and the Continuity Theory explores these complexities to a greater extent than the other sociological theories, and within a holistic framework. Aspects of aging are studied in regards to their relation to other aspects of human life. It encourages young people to consider that their current behaviors are laying the foundation for their own future old age. What one becomes in late life is a product of a lifetime of personal choices.


Eiopoulos, C. (2010). Gerontological nursing (7th ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Moody, H. R. (2010). Aging: Concepts and controversies (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Tabloski, P. A. (2006). Gerontological nursing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

VickyRN, PhD, RN, is a certified nurse educator (NLN) and certified gerontology nurse (ANCC). Her research interests include: the special health and social needs of the vulnerable older adult population; registered nurse staffing and resident outcomes in intermediate care nursing facilities; and, innovations in avoiding institutionalization of frail elderly clients by providing long-term care services and supports in the community. She is a Professor in a large baccalaureate nursing program in North Carolina.

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