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How theories of ageing approach older people

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3472 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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How have different theories of ageing tried to approach older people and their circumstances? Discuss with reference to at least two theories.

This essay will look at how two specific theories of ageing approach older people and their circumstances. The two theories, one of which from a functional character and one from a conflict character will be used to explore who developed theories, the context the theories were developed in and the approaches those theories took.

First there will be an overview of the history of the sociological theories of ageing, then the essay will go on to describe each theory in turn, there will be a brief comparison of the two theories, which will then lead onto the conclusions that I have drawn.

Theories are used to help us to understand processes that occur throughout the life course, it is an aid to understanding and interpretation. Theories often shape the actions and interventions that are used to overcome the processes that are identified within theories. Approaches, interpretation and context can often mean that theories change or undergo critique, and therefore can evolve very differently to one another. They often relate to different levels of society, whether that be at the; macro level, how society’s social processes and political forces relate to older people, or at the micro level, the individuals experiences and adjustment to the ageing process.

Gerontological theory has seen to have evolved through three characters; Functional, where individuals have a role to ensure that society functions. Conflict, theories often have an emphasis on disagreements and differences within society, and Culture and Identity, based on self-created identity and life chances.

The two theories that will be explored are; Disengagement theory and Structured Dependency theory. I will go on to conclude that both of these theories, although they approach older people differently, do have a place in explaining the process of ageing.

Overview of the history of the sociological theories of ageing

The three phases of ageing theories, as described above, have evolved from around 1900 onwards. They have often been shaped by the political, economic and social situation that the Western world finds itself in.

Functionalism was developed when life expectancy was low. There was a requirement for stability, function and order for society to run smoothly. Citizens of society were a mechanism to maintain the smooth running of society, and ageing was very much a concern of the individual. As we moved towards the 1950’s ageing became to be perceived as a problem. People were living longer and posed a threat or burden to society. This was highlighted by the creation of the welfare state in the UK. Ageing as a problem was to see resurgence in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Theories were strongly based on the individual having to adjust to society, and successfully managed to separate older generations from the rest of society.

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As we moved towards a society dominated by austerity, unemployment and early retirement in the late 1970’s to 1980’s, theories of conflict began to emerge which are typically associated with capitalist societies and the tensions that they create. Ageing was seen to be a social construct, and that policy change was needed, not adjustment of the old. Conflict theories were in opposition to functionalist perspectives, and were based on competition of groups within society competing for advantage. Life course approaches became important along with critical gerontology.

Globalisation and internationalisation has also had a role to play in the development of ageing not being homogenous and that it is influenced by culture and identity, and that people create their own circumstances and paths along which they age. Theories developed, to understand if we take place in ageing just because society wants us to? Ageing is now of global concern; as global policies, cultural differences and the suffering of older people are highlighted throughout the world.

This essay will now go on to discuss the Disengagement theory in detail to help understand how it approached older people and their circumstances.

Disengagement theory

This functionalist theory was proposed by Cumming and Henry in 1961, in ‘Growing old: The process of disengagement’. It mainly approaches older people from the micro-level, but does draw on some factors at the macro-level. The theory suggests that; older people are involved in a mutual withdrawal from society, meaning that they have less interaction with the society that they belong to. The process is thought to be gradual but inevitable.

In the 1960’s the study of personality changes at later ages was groundbreaking, and Disengagement theory was seen to be revolutionary as it explored later life as its’ own single focus. It was one of the first distinct theories of ageing from a scientific perspective, and it was one of the first theories to move away from solely focussing on the individual, but also on how the individuals ageing process impacted upon the functions of the social system.

The functionalist influence for the theory is highlighted in the proposition that disengagement is mutually beneficial for both the individual and society. Order is maintained as workers retire, and younger generations take on their jobs, and society is less impacted upon by the deaths of the older generations as they have already detached themselves from society. The process is thought to be natural and desirable. The heavy focus of the theory was the withdrawal from the labour market of older people, which would allow the seamless adjustment in society, as younger people moved into their roles.

The theory goes on to suggest that a process known as ‘double withdrawal’ occurs. This represents the influences of the micro-level factors; which is the individuals actions to disengage with society, and also the macro-level factors; which is society allowing the individual to disengage for its’ own benefit. (Hochschild, A. 1975, Pg 553) The individual disengages by “reducing the number of roles he plays, lessening the variety of roles and relationships and weakening the intensity of those that remain.” (Hochschild, A. 1975, Pg 553) Society provides the individual with permission to withdraw. Cumming and Henry also proposed that the disengagement process is irreversible, and universal, although it was acknowledged that the process may vary due to factors such as; physiology, life situation and personality of the individual.

“A key assumption made in this approach is that ‘ego energy’ declines with age and that, as the ageing process develops, individuals become increasingly self-absorbed and less responsive to normative controls.” (Phillipson, C. and Baars, J. In Bond, J et al, 2007, Pg 71) This suggested that older people would not react to society or their roles in society at older ages, and that life would become more centred around the individual rather than society. This is influenced by the proposition that the individual maintains morale in old age due to the withdrawal from relationships. This morale remains higher than if they tried to maintain their social relationships. The level of happiness that you experience in old age is determined by how well you disengage.

As we age, we disengage from our major roles in life, these roles are critical to the maintenance of the social system, so disengagement acts as a mechanism in which to keep the equilibrium of society. Disengagement can be measured by attitudinal changes in the elderly, involvement in social activities and investment in ego, but ultimately death is the key disengagement from society, which is prepared for throughout the older ages. If you fail to disengage from society, you inevitably become the burden of society.

Disengagement theory approaches older people, by explaining how the individual adjusts to the ageing process and how disengagement must occur in order to maintain the equilibrium of society. It understands that both society and the individual have a role to play. Disengagement theory was subject to criticism some of which will be touched on below.

Hochschild (1975) highlighted three key flaws in the theory; ‘The escape clause problem’; this suggested that because the process of disengagement was universal and inevitable, but the form and timing of disengagement may vary, some parts of the theory are constant and others are variable. The theory also contained numerous ‘back door’ explanations as to why people don’t disengage, they may be; ‘unsuccessful’ disengagers, off ‘timing’, or biologically elite. This all added to the evidence that the theory was unfalsifiable. (Hochschild, A. 1975, Pg 554)

Hochschild (1975) also went on to discuss that the use of the variables age and disengagement were flawed. These can be termed as ‘umbrella’ variables, which can be influenced by many intervening variables. She also highlighted the failure of Cummings and Henry to explore the individuals own concept of the ageing process.

Disengagement theory was thought to reinforce ageing as a social problem; “growing old represented a significant degree of discontinuity from prior life events and experiences.” “Physical and mental changes were seen to bring processes of decline and mental inflexibility” (Phillipson, C. and Baars, J. In Bond, J et al. 2007, Pg 72)

It also fails to consider the impact of societies’ structures in influencing the lives of older people.

In contrast I will now go on to look at Structured Dependency theory in more detail.

Structured Dependency theory

“Retirement, poverty, institutionalism and restriction of domestic and community roles are the experiences that help to explain how the dependency of older people came to be artificially structured or deepened.” (Townsend, P. Pg 31 in Bernard, M. and Scharf, T. 2007)

Structured dependency, as proposed by Peter Townsend in 1980, is often seen to cross over with Political economy in the literature. The theory comes from a conflict perspective, which tries to address the role that older people have been ‘forced’ into and explores what brings about isolation and depression, as created by the processes of Disengagement theory. It has a sociological background and provides evidence that ageing is of social construction. Social context is of great importance in explaining the basis for how this theory was developed, and why it largely comes from a Macro-level perspective. It focuses on the role and action of the state and society in creating a dependent older population, through retirement, pensions and residential care. The government’s actions influence where the elderly stand in society, and the public perception of ageing.

I will now go on to explain how retirement, pensions and residential care create structured dependency, shedding light on how Townsend approached older people and their circumstances.


Townsend describes how “the evolution of the economy, the state and social inequality has been taken for granted, and the implications of the trends for people as they become older neglected.”(1981, Pg 6) Retirement is one of those evolutions. The decreasing numbers of people aged 65 and over in the workplace in the 1970’s, was facilitated by the changing employee requirements of companies, the move of multi-national companies to LEDC’s, and the changing nature of work. The enforced retirement of society was seen as an achievement, as the workers had earned a rest, but “(M)any who have retired deeply regret their inactivity or loss of status.” (Townsend, P. 1981, Pg 10) People may have agreed to retirement as this is often what they felt is expected of them. Society was thought to have accepted that the value of workers past a certain age decreases, and began to overvalue the education and qualifications of younger workers. Retirement was to be associated with poor health and incapacity, and at the time when Townsend was writing, high unemployment meant that it was “convenient to governments to shift some of the total unemployed into the category of the retired,” (Townsend, P. 1981, Pg 11), often lowering the retirement age further. It is clear from the literature that Townsend was suggesting that actions of the government, the economy and society often led to people having to leave the workforce to satisfy societal norms. This is very context specific to the economic situation in the 1970’s.


Townsend (1981, Pg 12) recognised a trend toward poverty in older ages, and attributed this to “low levels of resources, and restricted access to resources, relative to younger people.” This often leads to the restriction of new styles of living for the older ages. State pensions and benefits, paid on an imposed age of retirement, are often of lower value to the wages that could be earned.

Pensions that were structured around subsistence needs, that did not follow inflation, and available from the state, were taken to be a societal norm but often led to the elderly losing their position in the economy.

Townsend also went on to suggest that the loss of family members and friends through retirement, along with the decline in cities and towns would lead to deprivation of access to resources and could lead to additional cost. (1981, Pg 13)

Structured Dependency theory did acknowledge that in contrast to the low status in which older people were held in society, families held them at a much higher status, and that retirement from the family is much more flexible. The family can act as a means of escape from societal norms and dependencies that are created by the state.

The theory shows how pensions and resources that are restricted for older people can lead them to have a lower status in society and into poverty. This in turn means they may become more dependent on their families and the state.

Residential care

“…institutions have been, and are, serving major functions other than those for which formally they were and are supposed to exist.” (Townsend, P. 1981, Pg 14) The use of care homes as public housing and services have helped to instil public ideas as to the amount of care a family should provide. Townsend suggested that the common practice of not specialising care in homes, and not tailoring to specific needs has led us to have a dependent older population.

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Three types of dependency were identified by Townsend; physical, mental and social. In many cases, as identified through surveys, older people in homes or in the receipt of care are often able physically and mentally to care for themselves, and often only require help with specific tasks, this means that the level of care that they do receive creates dependency. Townsend went on to describe the social determinants of the occupants and the care homes in which they found themselves. Less family networks often mean care homes substitute for families, and the loss of property often leads to the admission of older people into homes.

Poor health and nutrition can often be combated through care homes, which means improved status and wellbeing of older people, but then they often remain in the homes receiving care that they no longer need. Townsend identified that people who remained in care on a long term basis were often restricted by; the authority of staff and the restricted access to their own income.

Staff in homes are seen to be acting upon the ideology of care, and do not encourage self help. Townsend also suggested that care homes often followed a class system, meaning the entrapment of the lower classes into residential care. Policy also plays a role in ensuring that long stay hospital patients move into residential care; this is in combination with a growing elderly population.

“The elderly are usually viewed as the grateful and passive recipients of services administered by an enlightened public authority. This can but reinforce their dependency both in their own eyes and that of the public.” (Townsend, P. 1981, Pg 22)

Structured Dependency theory takes a sociological approach towards older people. It tries to explain the process in which society shapes them as a population, and therefore describes their standing in society, emphasising the political, material and social inequalities that they experience. Townsend is often sympathetic towards older people, holding society to blame for their low status. Townsend approaches three different circumstances of older people, as described above. Within these circumstances he makes some assumptions which are critiqued below.

Although Structured Dependency theory has shifted thinking from a negative individual view towards an “emphasis on the structural factors which work against elderly people,” (Wilson, G. 1997, Pg3 41) it fails to look at diversity, personal views and emotion. It views older people as a homogenous group, failing to acknowledge different circumstances, for example with money, pensions and care, and that some groups in society may want to retire. The theory can be seen as generalist.

“The theory therefore allowed for a view of older people which was not wholly based on age, though the emergence of elder abuse as a policy concern casts doubt on family esteem as a universal condition.” (Wilson, G. 1997, Pg 343) This acknowledges that Townsend’s assumption that families hold older people at a high status, cannot be applied to all older people’s situations.

Gail Wilson (1997, Pg 347) suggests that if we were to speak to older people to collect qualitative data it may actually pose problems for the theory, suggesting that a great number of older people don’t actually feel dependent.

Most importantly “the ageism which informs structured dependency theory” can lead to the “tendency to see older people as marginal to society…” (Wilson, G. 1997, Pg 348)

Conclusion; Contrast in approaches

After exploring both theories individually it is clear to see that the approaches that each theory took are very different. Although both are sociological theories of ageing, they are each shaped by the context within which they were proposed. Disengagement theory comes much earlier than Structured Dependency theory. It comes from the micro level, in combination with a functionalist perspective. This provides us with a theory that; explores the individuals’ adjustment to ageing, but also focuses on how this impacts upon the functioning of the social system.

Structured dependency theory is shaped by social context and a capitalist environment. It comes from the macro level, with influences from conflict theory. It provides us with evidence of how the social system relates to older people in society, and that older people are often competing for advantage against other layers of society. Structured dependency theory may be seen to try to explain what disengagement theory neglected. Both theories assumed that the Western model of ageing applied to all cultures across the world.

I have selected two theories of ageing that work in opposition to one another. They both show how different theories of ageing approach older people from different levels and perspectives. It shows how theories of ageing can be shaped by context and the critiques of previous theories. Theories of ageing evolve throughout time and are grouped by their common approaches to ageing. It is clear to see that theories adapt according to the changes in the wider world around them, and will continue to do so as we move towards a more global society. I hope that this will expose the way in which different cultures experience ageing.

Although the two theories that I selected approach older people and their circumstances in very different ways, they both have a major part to play, alongside all the other theories of ageing, in helping us to understand the ageing process. No single theory could explain the process of ageing from every angle and perspective, and so it is in combination of all the theories that we can build a full and complete picture of ageing.

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