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What is the Disengagement Theory?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Disengagement theory is a model originally proposed in 1961 by William Henry and Elaine Cumming, two social scientists interested in studying aging and the way interactions with other people change as people grow older. According to their theory, as people age, they tend to withdraw from society, and this can be mutual, with society being less likely to engage with and include older people. They argued that this was a consequence of people learning their limitations with age and making way for new generations of people to fill their roles. In modern gerontology, the study of aging and society, disengagement theory is controversial, and many people do not agree with it.

Under this theory, as people age, they tend to grow more fragile and their social circles shrink as they start to pull away and be less actively involved. Critics point out that often this disengagement is enforced, rather than voluntary; someone who needs to move to a nursing home, for example, experiences a curtailment of her social circle as her friends may not be able to visit, and may start to die, leaving her with fewer connections.

When disengagement theory was popular, supporters believed that it explained how people prepared for death. By slowly letting go of society, older adults were supposedly getting ready to let go of life as well. Researchers posited that disengagement was also beneficial to society, as people moved through different roles in life and created spaces for younger people to grow into those roles. Entering retirement, for example, allows other people to enter the job market. As social networks shrink for older adults, younger people build up their own new networks and connections.

Critics of this theory do not support certain conclusions and aspects of the theory. It could be viewed as an excuse to explain why society is less welcoming to older adults, and justifies the barriers to participation in social activities for older people. A person who must stay at home with a broken hip, for example, may not actually want to be isolated, but may be forced into being alone because people may not be able to visit since they have their own health problems, and the individual may not have access to an assistant to help him get out and about. Likewise, older adults may not want to leave community organizations, but may have to because their planning does not accommodate the needs of older members.

The history of caring for aging people differently in diverse societies also argues against the disengagement theory. At the time people were developing this theory, a centuries-old tradition of allowing older people to age at home with their families was shifting into a tendency to place them in assisted living facilities and nursing homes, separating them from friends, family, and community. The idea that this separation might be mutually beneficial has been challenged by elder rights activists, as well as sociologists who see flaws with the disengagement theory.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon959847 — On Jul 07, 2014

Does anyone have any well known people who have taken part in the social disengagement theory? I am currently doing an essay on both this and the continuity theory and I have a few examples for continuity. but not disengagement. Everything's better with examples! Many thanks.

By anon278512 — On Jul 07, 2012

Withdrawal and segregation is because the oldies feel left out of this new and modern theoretic society, where patience is required.

By MrMoody — On May 19, 2011

@nony - I don’t want to split hairs, here, but the retirement communities in my opinion do not prove disengagement theory. Yes, they are separated facilities, but no more than condominiums are. More importantly, they provide lots of activities—it’s the activities and social interactions that provide a sense of self worth for these people.

There’s even a theory behind that. It’s called, appropriately enough, the activity theory of aging. It says that since people find their sense of “self” in what they do, then the more they do the more valuable they see themselves as being. Conversely, the less they do (as would be the case in nursing homes), the less valuable they see themselves as being.

By nony — On May 18, 2011

@MrMoody - I think the example you cite may in fact prove the disengagement theory of aging, rather than disprove it. The retirement villages you refer to are, by definition, somewhat detached from the rest of society, are they not?

By MrMoody — On May 16, 2011

@Gerry54, Yes, I’d have to take issue with social disengagement theory myself. We had our elderly grandfather in a nursing home, thinking that’s where he’d be happiest, but he was miserable. He was disengaged, not because he wanted to be, but because he was forced to be. In actuality his mind was still sharp and he could carry on conversations with people who were many years his younger.

He had an interest in sports, liked to talk politics and didn’t like, as he put it, feeling patronized in a nursing home.

So a bunch of us siblings got some money together, and made a commitment to improve his standard of living. We moved him out of the nursing home and into one of those retirement village communities. Those places look like resorts and have their own golf courses. He loves it! It’s ten times better than where he used to stay and he’s enjoying every minute of it.

By Gerry54 — On May 16, 2011

This is an interesting theory of aging but it does have a few holes in it. First and foremost I have to site that my grandmother, age 85 and still loving life, is always inviting me, and my cousins, over. She's not disengaging anything. She's out playing bridge twice a week, and poker at the Eagles Club on Saturdays. Actually most of the older people I know are active, or at least as active as they can be.

In Okinawa the elderly are honored members of society. Family members argue over who will have the privilege to take them into their homes and care for them. The elders often end the arguments by agreeing to move around, giving everybody the opportunity to benefit from their wisdom.

It's also a fact that people in Okinawa live much longer, on average, than people in most other parts of the world. Some experts, including Dr. Andrew Wyle, hypothesize that feeling needed, and actually being important to their families, is a large part of what is helping Okinawans to live longer lives, and avoid many of the illness' related to aging. I think we could learn a lot from the Okinawans about how to treat our elders. And in turn benefit ourselves, today and in the future.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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