What is disengagement theory?

Critiques of the Disengagement Theory of Aging

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

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  • 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