Disengagement theory defines the aging process as a period of mutual separation between the old and the young. The theory predicts that the social order requires a transformation among those advancing into old age, from a state of active involvement in society to one of steady withdrawal. It suggests that the elderly desire both psychological and social separation from the young, and this comes at a time in their lives when societies tend to devalue the importance of their contributions. As a result, those advancing into old age tend to seek isolation at the same time in which society is discouraging their continued participation. The most compelling evidence in support of disengagement theory may be its apparent usefulness for explaining why elders seem to prefer early retirement, leisure, and isolation. According to the theory, these choices represent successful and adaptive responses for older people who normally find their lifestyles and philosophies inconsistent with those maintained by popular culture or mainstream society.
This theory envisions the disengagement of those advancing into old age as natural because it occurs in all societies, regardless of the high status that the elderly possess in some cultures. It is also inevitable since growing old leads to unavoidable death, the ultimate separation from society. Perhaps most significantly, disengagement is a necessary function of the aging process because it facilitates the replacement of old ideas with newer and more advanced knowledge. By withdrawing from society, disengagement theory suggests that the elderly assist in the modernization of science and technology and also in the creation of new job opportunities for the young.
Intense criticism, beginning as early as the theory’s inception in the 1960s, led to the near universal abandonment of disengagement theory by the field of gerontology. Functionalist theorists argued that disengagement theory overlooks the presence of dysfunctions inherent in its assumptions. For example, disengagement theory neglects the negative outcomes for the elderly that are associated with isolation. Critics also contend that societies do not advance any more effectively by casting the elderly aside. To the contrary, gerontologists believe that societies bring harm to themselves by discouraging participation among older members of society. Such exclusionary practices are a common result, however, of negative stereotypes based on age (or ageism). Many believe that this results in the false notion that disengagement is a typical and socially acceptable course of action for those who are growing old. In fact, empirical research reveals great diversity in the routes that people follow into old age and that little or no basis exists for the notion that disengagement leads one to age successfully.
- Adams, Kathryn B. 2004. “Changing Investment in Activities and Interests in Elders’ Lives: Theory and Measurement.” International Journal of Aging and Human Development 58:87-108.
- Cumming, Elaine and William E. Henry. 1961. Growing Old: The Process of Disengagement. New York: Basic Books.
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