Definition of the Disengagement Theory of Aging

Disengagement theory is a theory of aging, it has been given by Elaine Cumming and William Earle Henry in their book ‘Growing Old’ in 1961. This theory entails that all individuals tend to disengage or detach themselves from the larger society i.e. the social norms, their social roles, and the ways of behaving and doing and other persons of the society.

Cumming and Henry claimed that this was a natural process and every individual underwent this process in the curse of their life. It was important for this process to take place for the maintenance of order in the society, the order would be maintained as when the older people would disengage, the younger generations learn the skills to replace this generation.

Cumming and Henry gave nine postulates or assumptions for this theory, there were:

  • People tend to lose the social ties around them as their abilities to do things and engage with others will deteriorate over time, and they start expecting death.
  • The norms that we follow are often learned through the process of interaction, once an individual begins to disengage from the larger society and reduce interaction, they become more and more free from the norms of the society. This further facilitates the process of disengagement.
  • The process of disengagement differs for women as opposed to that of men as they play different roles in society.
  • The process of disengagement becomes important and necessary as when we grow older we begin to lose certain abilities and skills, as mentioned above, thus to avoid any damage in our reputation due to the loss of skills we are likely to disengage from the society, but at the same time the individuals younger to us learn the skills and knowledge that will be required to take up the position of those who have disengaged.
  • Complete disengagement occurs when both the society as well as the individual are ready for the process to take place, when neither are ready, there is likely to be the continuation of engagement, when the society s ready however the individual is not, there is a kind of disjunction, this results in disengagement, and at the same time when the individual is ready but the society is not, this will also result in disjunction, which will lead to a continued engagement against the individuals desire as he will not be free from the interaction with other members of the society.
  • When disengaged people are likely to adopt new roles so as to not face any sort of an identity crisis and still feel worthy.
  • Disengagement occurs when people realize that they only have a short period of time to live, at this point it is the society which allows them to disengage from all aspects starting from losing the desire of indulging in social roles, giving jobs to the younger generations, etc.
  • With disengagement, the remaining relationships change and so do their rewards.
  • Disengagement takes place in every culture, however, it varies from culture to culture and thus will be different for every individual in a different culture.

This theory has also been critiqued as Cumming and Henry have taken this to be a natural process and do not consider the role of other social factors such as class in the aging experience, and they do not consider the individual agency in the role of aging and assume that people comply with this theory no matter what.


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