Disengagement Theory of Aging Explained


How humans age has always been the subject of a great debate. In the disengagement theory of aging, it is proposed that as people age, they have a withdrawal from interactions and relationships to the various systems of which they belong. The theory states that this withdrawal is inevitable and mutual.

It is one of three major psychosocial theories describing the development process of individuals as they age. The other two theories are the Activity Theory of Aging and the Continuity Theory of Aging.

First proposed in 1961, the idea was that older adults should find it acceptable, even natural, to withdraw from society. It was published in the book Growing Old, authored by Elaine Cumming and William E. Henry. What it proposes places this theory at odds with the other two major psychosocial theories of aging.

Postulates of the Disengagement Theory of Aging

Cumming and Henry propose that there are 9 postulates that describe the process of disengagement within their theory of aging.

1. Everyone expects death.
This means that older adults accept that their abilities will be deteriorating over time As a result of this deterioration, they begin to lose contact with their societal networks.

2. Fewer contacts creates behavioral freedoms.
When individuals reduce their interactions with societal networks, there are fewer constraints placed on them to behave in a certain way. This freedom feels liberating to the individual, which encourages it to continue happening.

3. Men are different than women.
The disengagement theory of aging suggests that women play socioeconomic roles, while men play instrumental roles, and this causes disengagement differences.

4. The ego evolves as it ages.
Age-grading allows for younger individuals to take over from older individuals in knowledge- and skill-based positions in society. This means older adults step aside to the younger adults through the retirement process, which encourages disengagement. Instead of seeking power, the ego of an older evolves to seek out personal enjoyment.

5. Complete disengagement occurs when society is ready for it.
Only when society and older adults both approve of their disengagement will it occur. If society is not ready to let go of an individual, then they cannot completely disengage from their personal networks.

6. Disengagement can occur if people lose their roles.
The disengagement theory of aging suggests that a man’s central role is providing labor, while the woman’s role is family and marriage. If these roles are abandoned, then the disengagement process begins unless different roles can be assumed within their state.

7. Readiness equates to societal permission.
The readiness of disengagement occurs for older adults when they are aware of their scarcity of time, perceive their space decreasing, and loses “ego energy.” Society will then grant disengagement to these individuals because of the occupational system requirements in the society, differential death rates, or the nature of the family unit.

8. Relational rewards become more diverse.
By disengaging from society and the central roles that are played, people transform their relational rewards. Societal rewards become horizontal instead of vertical, causing people to engage more with their remaining interpersonal relationships for vertical, instead of horizontal, rewards.

9. This theory is independent of culture.
Yet the disengagement theory of aging, for it to properly work, but also take on a form that is bound by the individual’s culture.

Concerns with the Disengagement Theory of Aging

Since its publication in the 1960s, the disengagement theory of aging has been on the receiving end of strong concerns regarding its validity.

One of the primary criticisms of this theory is that it is unidirectional. There is no concept of individual circumstances within this theory except for the idea that society may not allow certain people to disengage while they age because they still have contributions to be made. Those contributions are focused on the central roles that people play in this theory.

Those central roles are clearly dated by time. Men are not always the household provider and women are not always the spouse that stays home. This theory assumes that each family unit is a two-parent household with a father and a mother. There is no consideration for the single parent in this structure. One could argue that in a same-gender family unit, one person could be the “father” and the other could be the “mother” to make this theory fit, but it would be a difficult argument to make because the central roles in this theory are clearly based on gender.

The disengagement theory of aging has proposed different ideas to what happens to people as they get older. It may be controversial to some, but it has also play a significant role in our current understanding of gerontology.