What is disengagement theory?

The biological process of aging is cyclical. We begin life as babies totally dependent on parents or others to meet our needs: nourishment, mobility and reassurance. As teenagers and adults we break away from this dependency and establish our independence, creating outside support networks. Then later as we enter our mature years and our bodies' age, we once again become dependent on others for care.

Our ability to drive, bathe and feed ourselves diminishes with time and with this our freedom to gather with friends declines, too. Some friendships peter out naturally following retirement or with a move to a nursing home. At this stage in life, our opportunities for social interaction become primarily dependent upon our physical health and mobility. The number of people with whom we will share our last days is miniscule in comparison to the number with whom we have shared a relationship with over our lifetimes.

The values of a culture and its reverence for aging is revealed by the experience of its aging population and the psychological and social effect aging has on these individuals. Social gerontologists seek answers to questions about how societies treat older individuals and how those individuals confront death in light of this treatment.

Up until World War II, scientists had expended much energy attempting to unravel the mysteries surrounding the biological process of aging and death. With the conclusion of world war, much self-reflection and introspection crossed the minds of scholars and individuals worldwide. In 1948, the Social Science Research Council recognized that the relationship between physical aging and society had not been examined. As a result, a new area of academia arose in the form of social gerontology. Ten years later the first psychosocial theory on aging was published. This theory concentrated on thoughts about aging and the behavior of those who were aging.

In their book entitled, "Growing Old", published in 1961, social scientists Elaine Cumming and William Henry presented a new theory of aging - disengagement theory. Based upon research conducted by scientists at the University of Chicago who studied hundreds of people from middle age to old age, Cumming and Henry concluded that aging in America is socially isolating. The older people get, the more they are alone.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.