What is disengagement theory?

hand in hand
Social networks change when we age.


­The biological process of aging has an intriguing symmetrical quality. As babies, we depend on caregivers to feed us, transport us and soothe our discomforts. While growing up, we break away from our guardians and form an external support network. When we cross the threshold of old age, our bodies begin to break down, and we gradually fall back into the care of others.


Along with the freedom to drive, bathe and eat on our own time, our freedom and ability to socialize diminish as well. Certain social networks will naturally disintegrate after retirement or moving into a long-term care facility. From there, the amount of interaction with other people depends largely on health and mobility. The people who surround our deathbeds will number precious few from the thousands of associations forged over the years.

The psychological and social effect of aging tells us a lot about how a culture values the elderly and the internal processes that take place as we approach death. How does our impact on society and vice versa shift as we age? Are older people valued for their wisdom and pluck or dismissed as useless geezers? Social gerontologists seek to answers such questions.

­Social gerontology took root in the late 1940s after World War II. At that time, society in the United States and across the globe had changed irrevocably, and sociologists assumed the task of sorting out the differences. Scholars had long examined the biological way that we die, but the Social Science Research Council of 1948 concluded that academia had paid little attention to the interaction between biology and society [source: Achenbaum and Bengston]. In response to that call to action, the first formalized psychosocial (focusing on thoughts and behavior) theory of aging was published around a decade later.

Social scientists Elaine Cumming and William Henry outlined the disengagement theory of aging in their 1961 book, "Growing Old." They based their theory on data from the Kansas City Study of Adult Life, in which researchers from the University of Chicago followed several hundred adults from middle to old age. What Cumming and Henry surmised is that growing old isn't a cheerful time in which cardigan-clad grandmas bake cookies for their adoring offspring and grandchildren. In old age, we end up inevitably alone.


How Elderly Withdrawal Works (Theoretically)

­Cumming and Henry's disengagement theory offers a bleak portrait of old age. Consider the plight of an older woman we'll call Connie. A retired college professor and widow, Connie enjoys fairly good health, but the loss of her husband and a handful of close friends wears on her mentality. She stays active by playing bridge and volunteering at a soup kitchen. Her two adult children call regularly. Gradually, Connie's arthritis prevents her from being able to cook at the soup kitchen. Then, she falls in the shower and breaks her hip. Afterward, Connie's children arrange for a nurse to come by the house every day to help her. Now, Connie is housebound, and she loses contact with her bridge friends. As her health fails, she only has the energy to visit with family. By the time she dies, Connie's multiple social networks have been whittled down to a few individual relationships.

According to Cumming and Henry's model, the major shift in interaction between seniors and society begins once older people fully recognize the brevity of their remaining life spans. For Connie, that probably happened after she broke her hip and essentially lost her independence. Once that realization sets in, the elderly will remove themselves both consciously and subconsciously from many social networks. Simultaneously, society distances itself from the elderly, and the roles and authority reserved for the older members of a population are passed along to the younger ones.


From Cumming and Henry's sociological perspective, disengagement has theoretical benefits as well. For one thing, it gives the elderly a new role. Connie used to be a wife, mother, professor and community activist. Old age removed her capacity to fulfill those roles and facilitated disengagement. In industrialized nations, the disengagement theory also ensures a viable labor force as older people whose job skills degrade willfully remove themselves from the workplace. Finally, full disengagement then frees a person to die.

If you think this sounds like an overly harsh assessment, you aren't alone. When the disengagement theory circulated through the scholarly community, it wasn't universally embraced. Other scholars commended its thoroughness and clarity. But the claims didn't jive with their observations of elderly people who stayed engaged and active until death. Surely, some reasoned, old age isn't an unavoidable road to isolation.


Critiques of the Disengagement Theory of Aging

old woman sitting alone
According to the theory of disengagement, we grow old and withdraw from society.

­Soon after the publication of "Growing Old," sociologists developed other models of aging that contradicted disengagement. Two resulting theories of aging offer a softer outlook on the transition from able adult to dependent senior. Both assert that the elderly remain a viable part of society until death, and that society places value in the role of seniors.

  • Activity theory starkly contrasts with disengagement. It posits that the older population is able to stay involved and active and that doing so, in fact, is the most advantageous approach to growing old. The only thing separating old age and middle age are biological processes, not societal wants and needs [source: Schulz and Rockwood].
  • Continuity theory takes a more nuanced approach to the idea that we remain active and engaged throughout life. It proposes that in old age, people fall back on the most successful social frameworks they built over the years [source: Schulz and Rockwood]. That eases the physical and social limitations that naturally accompany aging.



Today, disengagement theory is largely a relic of a bygone era. Socialization in old age is known to have positive health benefits, more so than social withdrawal. Modernized long-term care facilities are designed and managed to foster interaction and activity among the residents. The link between old age and depression also highlights the importance of the elderly community maintaining contact with other people.

Hearkening back to the Kansas City Study of Adult Life, the first nationwide empirical study conducted on connectedness and old age was conducted from 2005 to 2006 by researchers at the University of Chicago. The recent study found that retirement years and beyond foster closer bonds with certain networks and a pulling away from others. Specifically, old age comes with a smaller social network, closeness to network members and secondary relationships. At the same time, it also brings with it more frequent socialization with neighbors, increased religious participation and volunteering [source: Cornwell, Laumann and Schumm].

From the contemporary sociological perspective, aging is meant to look more like a fluid process than a dramatic, sharp digression. Physical decline is unavoidable, and at some point, it limits what a person can do. But in the optimal circumstances, the sunset years will proceed as a gentle slope, eased by the support of the people and communities around us.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Cornwell, Benjamin; Laumann, Edward O. and Schumm, L. Philip. "The Social Connectedness of Older Adults: A National Profile." American Sociological Review. Nov. 17, 2008. (March 13, 2009)http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2583428
  • Cumming, Elaine and Henry, William. "Postulates of Disengagement Theory of Aging." Growing old, the process of disengagement. Basic Books. 1961.
  • Hendricks, Jon. "Revisiting the Kansas City Study of Adult Life: Roots of the Disengagement Model in Social Gerontology." The Gerontologist. December 1994.
  • Hinterlong, James E. and Williamson, Angela. "The Effects of Civic Engagement of Current and Future Cohorts of Older Adults." Generations. Winter 2006-2007.
  • Schulz, Richard and Rockwood, Kenneth. "The Encyclopedia of Aging." Springer Publishing Company. 2006. (March 13, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=tgS29D0Mr4gC
  • Victor, Christina R. "The Social Context of Ageing." Routledge. 2005. (March 13, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=b4bmPNnzR4gC