Growing Old: Social Aging
There are a number of prominent theories of social aging, each of which examines the phenomenon from a different perspective. However, although all are based on observations of the real world situation of older adults, none of them comprehensively account for all the social aspects of aging or for the wide range of individual differences in the ways that older individuals interact with society. More research is required not only to better understand social aging, but also to better understand the interaction between the physical, psychological, and social aspects of aging. In addition, as older adults increasingly lead longer, healthier lives, it is important to also reexamine older definitions of aging and to rethink social policy and attitudes in order to avoid marginalizing this growing segment of the population.
Keywords Activity Theory; Ageism; Age Stratification; Cognitive Ability; Conflict Perspective; Disengagement Theory; Functionalism; Industrialization; Modernization Theory; Quality of Life; Social Role; Society; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Status; Symbolic Interactionism
Many social theorists have posited that human beings go through different stages in life. Although the titles and details vary according to the theory, psychologists generally use the following guidelines for life stages based on physical, psychological, and social development:
- Childhood (0-10 years of age) when one's primary focus in life is to learn and grow;
- Adolescence (11-19 years of age) when individuals struggle with the changes that puberty brings and find their place within society;
- Early adulthood (20-39 years of age) when one settles into a career or job and many find a mate and become a parent;
- Middle adulthood (40-65 years of age) when one takes stock of one's life and either changes or continues on the same path;
- Late adulthood (over 65 years of age) when one adjusts to the social and financial changes brought on by retirement, as well as changes in cognitive abilities and physical capabilities.
Each stage brings with it bodily changes ranging from continuing growth during childhood through early adulthood, slight declines during middle adulthood, and often significant loss of functioning in late adulthood. However, physiological changes are not the only changes that one undergoes over the span of life. Socially, one also changes as one deals the changing expectations of society and social roles from being a child to being a parent to being a grandparent and, often, to being taken care of by one's own children.
When one experiences these changes and life transitions varies from individual to individual, however. As far as "old age" is concerned, most individuals consider themselves to be middle-aged until they are approximately 75 years of age, not 65. Up until this point, most people continue to be socially active, politically influential, and many continue to be physically vigorous. Most people who are employed retire from their jobs during this period, although the transition into happy retirement is easiest if this is seen as a choice that the person makes for him/herself. In general, most of the "young-old" consider themselves to be just as satisfied with their lives as they have been throughout their adulthood. During this time, people tend to look inward and make adjustments to their attitudes and lifestyles that allow them to adjust to the physiological changes in their bodies that cannot be altered. In many cases, this means that they interact with other people less often. However, although social interaction may decrease during late adulthood, people generally deem their relationships to be more satisfying, fulfilling, and supportive than the relationships of their earlier years. However, as long as they have a social network of at least three strong relationships with friends or relatives, most people find themselves content.
Theories of Social Aging
There are a number of theories of social aging. According to the structural functionalists, society and older individuals mutually sever many relationships during the aging process. This disengagement theory attempts to explain the observations associated with aging on both the macro level (i.e., society and the population at large) and on the micro level (i.e., individual, family, and group) as well as the declines that occur with age in individuals physical, cognitive, and psychological functioning as well as in the social interactions. Disengagement theory is based on a study of elderly individuals in good health and relatively comfortable economic circumstances. According to this theory, as people age, they voluntarily drop out of their earlier social roles (e.g., employee, volunteer, spouse, reader) and allow younger people within the society to take on these positions. This mutual social disengagement also allows older people to prepare for death. In addition, disengagement theory posits that as people age, they pass their social roles on to the next generation. For example, many older people willingly give up their roles as obsessed career person or strict parent to become, instead, relaxed world traveler or doting grandparent, roles that were, in turn, relinquished to them by the previous generation. According to disengagement theory, this practice of passing on social roles helps ensure the stability of the society.
Further, according to disengagement theory, it is not only the elder who withdraws from society, but also the society that withdraws from the elder, voluntarily breaking ties or otherwise disengaging. In fact, many proponents of disengagement theory posit that society should help older individuals pass on their social roles and disengage in order to help maintain the stability of society. According to this theory, society may ease the way for social disengagement of older persons in many ways. For example, as people continue to age, society may offer various programs designed to meet the needs of older individuals such as active living senior communities, retirement homes, or special education or social programs designed specifically for senior citizens. Further, according to this theory, retirement packages, pensions, and old-age economic support policies (e.g., Social Security, Medicare) reward older individuals for disengaging from society. However, although such programs are intended to meet the specific needs of the older individual, they also segregate older individuals and help them to disengage from mainstream society and may take away status and responsibility. Further, social disengagement and senior programs may result in age stratification in which the older people are demoted within the social stratification because of their reduced status and income. This situation can result in ageism; discrimination not on the basis of the physical or mental capabilities, but purely on the basis of age, such as in the implementation of mandatory retirement ages in some jobs. Ageism is another way in which society disengages from older individuals and segregates them away from mainstream society.
Not all social theorists hold with disengagement theory, however. Symbolic interactionists, for example, posit that those elderly individuals who remain active will be the most well adjusted. Proponents of this activity theory maintain that although older adults may not necessarily want to (or can) engage in the same activities as they did when they were younger (e.g., being employed, raising a family), they still have the same needs as other people for social interaction. In addition, medical research increasingly supports the conclusion that social interaction and the maintenance of relationships and activities into later life is correlated with a lower decline in cognitive abilities than in people who do not have such activities and interests. In 2012, Alan J. Gow, Erik L. Mortensen, and Kirsten Avlund published the results of their thirty-year longitudinal cohort study of 802 individuals from Glostrup, Denmark, who were all born in 1914. The study tested the participants’ cognitive abilities and collected information about their leisure and physical abilities to see if there was a correlation between physical activity level and cognitive ability over time. The researchers concluded that while greater activity was consistently associated with higher cognitive ability, this association was largely due to differences that persisted throughout the study, although there was a small but significant correlation between higher levels of physical activity at age 60 and 70 and less cognitive decline. As opposed to disengagement theory, activity theory posits that withdrawal from society is bad for the individual who is reduced in status, isolated from society, and stripped of his/her role set as well as for society which loses the wisdom and insights that can only be gained by the accumulation of years of experience.
Activity theorists suggest that there are a number of different categories of activities that can enhance the quality of life for aging individuals....
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