The article explains the meaning and scope of social gerontology and its significance in society. It also uses examples to explain different theories and perspectives on aging, such as disengagement theory, activity theory, and continuity theory. Later on, the article provides insight into the actions and steps taken by different countries for the elderly population of their countries.
What is Social Gerontology?
As we grow older, our needs and demands change. And as a result, the perspective of society towards us also changes. Everyone must deal with the social concept of aging at some point in their lives. It can seem challenging, different, or lonely. As the body ages, we see a difference in ourselves and our outlook on the world. The concept of ageing and growing old in various social environments and functions is central to social gerontology. In gerontology, the goal is to help the elderly lead a quality life. It strives to make them more independent by helping them interact and communicate with others. Furthermore, it understands the issues of the elderly and looks forward to solving them.
Social gerontology is also known as the social psychology of aging. Understanding older people’s behavior is an important part of its scope. It focuses on making life easier for the elderly. Additionally, it facilitates their access to free or affordable healthcare services, financial guidance, or legal assistance. Social gerontology also focuses on specific recreational activities and community engagement programs to assist them in interacting with others, as communication becomes increasingly difficult as they age.
Perspectives towards the elderly:
- There is a perception that the elderly section of society is lethargic and incapable of adapting to new technology and things. But social gerontology proves that the conception is false and aims at assisting the elder population of society to be more productive and engages in educating them so that they can keep up with modern times.
- A global view of gerontology includes a change of mindset and opinion among employers when it comes to the employment of older workers. Elder people are mostly not preferred by organisations and companies even though they bring a lot of experience to the table. Gerontology in social settings aims to change stereotypes created toward hiring elders so that they will be socially dependent and secure.
- There are various misconceptions that mental health issues are only faced by the young or working population but the grim reality is that elder people also suffer from mental health issues like depression, loneliness or anxiety. Gerontology tries to lessen and eliminate the neglect faced by old people at their homes or other facilities.
With the help of various theories and approaches of social gerontology, sociologists strive to understand the role played by the elderly in society. Functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism are a few of the theories that are tested to figure out the functioning of society. A functionalist perspective provides further insight into attitudes toward the elderly, their behaviour, emotions, and perspectives with the help of three social theories: disengagement theory, activity theory, and continuity theory. These theories help us to perceive ageing and old age through different social lenses.
Disengagement Theory –
The disengagement theory gives an insight into the voluntary social withdrawal of the elderly from society, its functions, and its norms. The withdrawal process can be different for people from different backgrounds. The disengagement theory was developed by E. Cumming and W. E. Henry, who noted that disengaging from society after a certain age is normal and acceptable. The main aspect of the disengagement theory, which is common among all societies, is the physical and mental withdrawal from day-to-day activities. In the course of ageing, the body and mind may become less capable of participating in daily activities. When one is nearing or at the end of their life, they feel a decline in interest or enthusiasm for engaging with the world. One aspect of detachment from the world is that they can live the life they have always dreamed of and desired. After a certain point, they don’t have to live with the pressure of agreeing with the social norms, as they believe they have fulfilled their duties and are free from obligations. The withdrawal or disengagement is also gendered since the traditional concepts of society and the unwritten rules predetermine that women should engage in household chores and men should focus on their work and careers. As a person grows older, he or she may be forced to renounce or freely give up roles in order to live a new and different life. However, during this particular phase of life, feelings of loneliness or having no direction or aim in life hit the majority of people. And that feeling stays until a new role or goal is adopted by them. Disengagement leads to a lessening of social interaction, which impacts some of the existing roles that an individual is portraying.
For instance, a single mother whose entire life was focused on working and raising her children might feel disengaged from society after a certain age. After achieving the sense of fulfilling her duties, facing retirement from her job and moving out of her family might be challenging for her until she discovers a new purpose for her life.
However, the social disengagement theory has also been refuted by many social scientists, psychologists, and sociologists. Socially-active older adults have been cited as evidence against the disengagement theory, proving that they remain actively engaged with society and have many roles. Fully disengaging is not possible since an individual is attached to one or another role and responsibility throughout their life. This is why considering social disengagement as natural for all the older individuals in society is often condemned, as one might like it but one might not.
Activity Theory –
Some elderly people indeed find solitude in being reclusive, while others find it by participating in various activities within society to age well and live a fulfilling life. The activity theory was developed as a response to the disengagement theory by R.J. Havighurs. He stated that rather than socially isolating themselves, elderly people of society can be the happiest if they remain active, maintain social interactions, and communicate with people. Activity theory is also defined as a pathway to successful ageing. It not only focuses on the physical engagement of the elderly in sports or exercise but also on the mental engagement and activity that can happen via social gatherings and participation in events. Continuous and regular activity and interaction keep one mentally and physically healthy, resulting in ageing well. It also eliminates the monotonous lifestyle that the majority of the elderly population leads and provides them with a sense of contentment. Various research has proved that regular activities, engaging with people you love, building new relationships and learning new things fight the feeling of isolation and loneliness among the elderly. Even notable scientists have put forward the importance of easy to moderate exercises in the day-to-day lives of the elderly, which can have a favorable impact not only on their health but also on their mental wellness. Being in a group of people, mostly the same age as them, who are slowly disengaging from their old social roles and embracing new ones also gives a sense of belonging.
An elderly person leaving alone might find it difficult to pass the day. Lack of interaction and communication indeed makes one’s life boring especially if they are old. Not all elder people are adaptive to technology and might find it difficult to talk to their close ones. Participation in a social group or community might help the person to enjoy his/her life. It can even be simple interaction without the need of joining some specific groups. One of the most common is going for a walk in the park regularly helps one to interact with people of the same age, and build relationships and camaraderie. It also enables them to create their social circle and group where the members go on increasing. It gives elderly people a safe space to share things and thoughts.
Elderly people can interact with society in a variety of ways. Various clubs, NGOs, and groups can be joined, or activities can take place in open spaces. Some critics, however, assert that not all older adults have access to such freedom. Some people may not have the freedom to leave their homes, or they may not be financially independent or physically capable of interacting and participating socially. A problem with the activity theory is that it fails to consider the lack of opportunities and equality in life of different elderly people. Furthermore, not all elderly people feel happiness among others, so stating that the activity theory is the only way to attain a happy old age is frequently condemned by critics.
Continuity Theory –
The continuity theory of ageing in social gerontology proposes that humans are adaptable and comfortable with changes in themselves and society. It is different from the other two theories. To keep things the same, the elder population believes that continuing their behaviour or habits like their early lives is more important than disengaging or engaging in something new. It was developed by R. Atchley. He stated that aging is a process that takes time, which is why most elders maintain their social roles, relationships, and interactions. In the event that a pivotal position of responsibility is lost, it is replaced by others. Old age is not described as a distinct stage of life, but rather as an integral part of life in which a person continues to fulfill both internal and external roles. The internal structures like character, personality, interests, and beliefs will not change suddenly, they might develop through a process of development and experience, but the majority of them are the same. Also, the external structures, like their relationships and social roles, and their interaction with and participation in society and its events remain constant as per their early lives. Continuity theory proposes that people need to continue and keep up with their daily habits, schedules, and lifestyles so that there won’t be a sudden change to take them by surprise. It also states that too much continuity would lead to boredom. Optimal continuation is stated to be one of the finest ways of ageing well under the continuity theory, as it keeps space for new challenges that excite one. The theory emphasizes that the elderly will face the brunt of ageing with minimal changes in daily routine.
For instance, if a middle-aged person is used to going for a walk every morning with his or her friends and continues to do so in a less severe manner after attaining old age then he/she will easily adapt to the changes. The theory doesn’t focus on a single path or way of ageing. Continuing with the daily habits or schedule but also changing them according to the current situation is underscored in the continuity theory.
The theory is criticized because it assumes that continuing with their early life habits is affordable, healthy, and possible for everyone in society. If someone who exercised or traveled a lot during their youth suffers from any disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s in old age, they will find it very hard to continue living as they did back then. Also, stating that the continuation of habits will prove good for the elderly can be wrong sometimes. Critics often condemn this aspect of the theory by stating that any unhealthy habits, like eating junk food or exercising less, if continued, would have a negative impact on the body and mind as we age. Letting go of bad habits or traits is not mentioned in the theory.
Also Read: Mental Health
Social conditions of the elderly in the United States and other societies –
- Poverty is a problem which is faced by almost the majority of the elders in many societies. However, in the United States of America, the percentage of poverty among old age people is on a decline and currently stands at 9 per cent of the total population. It has been on a decrease all thanks to the social security code and advanced public health facilities. Many people at this age suffer from various diseases like Dementia or Alzheimer’s. The USA has over 16,100 nursing homes and approximately 3.9 per cent of the elder population of America resides in them. Since the elderly also require help to do daily things like bathing, eating food and taking medicines, especially those who are suffering from chronic and severe illnesses, nursing homes prove to be their haven. Also, there are adult day-care facilities provided by the Government for at-risk elder adults. A programme launched by the government called LifeLine provides a free or subsidised cell phone or telephone connection for the poor elder section of society who can’t afford one. So that in case of emergencies they can ask for help.
- In addition to financially helping its elderly, the Netherlands also provides other services. In that nation, approximately one-fourth of the elderly receive regular visits from housekeepers and/or healthcare professionals for regular health check-ups. It is subsidized by the government, allowing them to remain independent and avoid nursing homes. It also gives the elderly a sense of belonging and relief that they are not being neglected. The elderly is also entitled to free rail rides for seven days every month. Along with that, there is a Dutch National Care for Elderly Programme which has various organisations participating in it to promote better ageing. The programme aims to promote that ageing is not a disease or something abnormal and it is just a regular phase of life.
- Singapore has come up with active ageing programmes for its elderly population. Most of the elder population in any community and society feels lonely at one point in time and the motive of this programme by the Government of Singapore is to keep them engaged in physical and mental activities that can also act as a refreshing break or rejuvenation. It includes health workshops to help them make better nutritional choices and social activities like cooking classes, book clubs, open mics or karaoke. Initiatives like these help to keep the elderly section of society socially engaged. Also, there are various community and health care camps and organisations that look after the elderly in need.
- India has various national pension schemes for their elderly people which are fully funded by the Government. Along with that, there are healthcare benefits and policies which are also available for the entire family of an elderly person who is dependent on that person only. There is also a National Award crafted specifically for the contribution made by the elderly people in various sections of society like arts, science, technology and social welfare. Also, there is a portal called SAGE (Seniorcare Ageing Growth Engine) which is a one-stop website for the elderly. It promotes various products and services available for the aged population and makes them aware of them.
An elderly population is a boon to any society or economy. Having accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience, they can contribute to the enlightenment of various sections of society. The process can be carried out without exploiting them in any way. Furthermore, it will also help reduce loneliness, social isolation, and other mental health problems that older people encounter. The treatment of the elderly reflects the true nature of society, which is why they need to be treated with the utmost care and sensitivity.