Throughout life, we interact with others through different roles. Some of the more common roles are as a romantic partner, a parent, and as a professional (in our career). Over time, these roles change. Markedly, some of the most significant changes occur in our later years. For one thing, our role as parent changes when children grow and leave the family home. Another change is We leave careers in retirement. Activity theory of aging suggests that activity helps older people adapt to these significant changes.
The roles we played in middle age provided a significant source of interaction fulfilling psychological and social needs necessary for wellness. T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “life long needs for belonging are set early in life. We have a biological predisposition to crave warmth and security from others. A child’s first moments outside of the womb are softly wrapped in the arms of a mother, where the infant is lovingly embraced. Here the child begins their lifelong pursuit to belong. The journey typically travels through both comforting and chaotic attachments” (2021).
Disengagement theory emerged in the early 1960’s. Cumming et al. (1960) theorized that as a person enters old age their is a mutual disengagement between the individual and society. The individual and society withdraw from each other. Cumming proposed in disengagement theory that while the middle aged person is in equilibrium when he is engaged, the old person when he successfully adapts to disengagement.
In contrast, activity theory of aging suggests that it is not adapting to disengagement that creates equilibrium but adapting through establishing new social roles that fulfill our innate need to belong. Basically, the underlying concept of activity theory is that as we age, we continue to have the same social and psychological needs as we did in middle age.
Abraham Maslow placed social security and belonging in the middle of his pyramid of needs. Accordingly, Maslow proposed that social belonging was essential for self-actualization. Likewise, Havighurst wrote that there are needs common to all people. He stated that these needs are:
- emotional security, met by receiving love and by living in a world where things are predictable and come out usually in a favorable or at least tolerable way;
- social recognition and status, met by receiving respect from people who count in one’s world;
- a sense of worth and self-respect, met by living up to one’s ideals;
- adequate food, clothing, shelter, and health (Havighurst, 1952).
Activity theory proposes that a sense of wellbeing or life satisfaction is achieved through active participation in life. Subsequently, these activities contribute to satisfying, at least in part, some of these common needs.
Activity Theory Development
The concept of continued activity to satisfy core needs was a prevailing viewpoint of the mid twentieth century. Robert J. Havighurst and Ruth Albrecht helped cement these ideas into a theory with the publishing of their book Older People in 1953.
Havighurst and Albrecht contended that “maintaining high activity levels was necessary to inhibit the negative effects caused by old age and thereby improve life satisfaction” (Burbank, 1986).
Much of the early research on aging is traced back to the Kansas City Study of Adult Life. This was a longitudinal study of older people that followed 275 persons aged 50 to 90 years of age. Data was collected on activities and life satisfaction between 1952-1963. From the data, researchers created theories.
A topic of contention and numerous research articles became whether continued participation in social roles (activity theory) or successful disengagement (disengagement theory) was the best avenue to life satisfaction in old age. However, like many other either/or questions the answer usually is not definitive.
Problems with the Activity Theory
One of the early issues with the activity theory of aging was that it was not replicable. The theory lacked definable terms. Consequently, the theory was more of an educated observation. However, without definable terms, researchers couldn’t prove or disprove the general idea that activity enhanced wellbeing in old age.
The theory credited to Havighurst and Albrecht was based on their statement that “maintaining high activity levels was necessary to inhibit the negative effects caused by old age and thereby improve life satisfaction.” However, vague concepts of activity level, negative effects of old age, and life satisfaction needed replicable measurements for the theory to be tested.
Lemon’s Theory of Activity and Psychological Wellness in Old Age
In 1972, Bruce W. Lemon et al. addressed the vagueness, providing greater clarity to the concepts of activity theory. He provided a clear hypothesis and definitions.
Lemon’s approach focused on role losses in old age; the impact of these losses on self-concept; and the relationship between self-concepts and life satisfaction.
He theorized that:
Activity Provides various role-supports necessary for reaffirming one’s self concept. the more intimate and the more frequent the activity, the more reinforcement and the more specific will be the role supports. Role supports are necessary for the maintenance of a positive self-concept which in turn is associated with high life satisfaction (1972, p. 515).
Three Types of Activity
Lemon defined activity as “any regularized or patterned action of pursuit which is regarded as beyond routine physical or personal maintenance.” He further separated and prioritized activity into three types:
- informal activity (social interactions with relatives, friends, and neighbors);
- formal activity (social participation in formal voluntary organizations);
- solitary activities (watching television, reading, and hobbies of a solitary nature).
Lemon emphasized that the type of activity was important and correlated to life satisfaction. Informal activity provided the most role support, self concept lifting benefits.
Lemon defined role support as the “expresses support accorded to an individual by his audience for his claims concerning role identity.” We achieve balance through our identity. We create an image of self through the variety roles we play. When those around us support these visions of self, they help stabilize self images, assisting the person maintain equilibrium (1972).
As we age, and our roles shift during these significant life transitions, we need support from others. Supportive others reaffirm the importance of the individual in their new roles, smoothing the disruption to self concepts that are inherent to major changes during these critical points in our life course.
When we achieve stability in new roles that provide a positive self-concept, and we can adapt our autobiographical narrative to integrate these changes, we enjoy higher life satisfaction.
Other Studies Supporting the Activity Theory of Aging
Sheldon S. Tobin and Bernice L. Neugarten created a study giving clarity to the activity theory concepts. Tobin and Neugarten organized data by age of individual, type and frequency of interaction and rated the individuals life satisfaction. All the data was taken from the Kansas City Study of Adult Life. They rated life satisfaction using the Life Satisfaction Rating(LSR).
Tobin and Neugarten concluded that “social interaction is positively associated with life satisfaction for all ages included in this study.” They continued, “it appears that, with advancing age, engagement, rather than disengagement, is more closely related to psychological well-being” (1961). After all, activity seems to be part of wellness at any age.
Martin R. J. Knapp replicated Lemon’s research with a small sample of 51 elderly individuals in the England. His research reported a statistically significant positive correlation between “felt levels of life satisfaction…to the level of activity” (1977).
Karen A. Conner, PhD., Edward A. Powers, PhD., and Gordon L. Bultena, PhD., concluded from their research that “the quantity (frequency and scope) of social interaction is not crucial to understanding psychological adaptations to old age.” They explain, “it seems it is not ‘how often’ or with ‘how many’ one interacts, but rather under what circumstances, for what purposes, with what degree of intimacy and caring the interaction takes place that will have impact on morale” (1979).
Complexity, Personality, and Activity Theory of Aging
While many core concepts central to the activity theory remain relevant to healthy aging, most researchers, even those fundamental to the theories development, recognize the theories shortcomings. Following the early debates between engagement and disengagement, many began to realize that studies were unveiling a greater complexity and diversity among aging styles and life enjoyment. Evidently, much of the diversity was not due to the amount of activity, or the acceptance of disengagement, but to individual personalities and environments.
These discoveries led to a whole new field of research, examining personalities and diverse styles of healthy aging. In conclusion, activity theory has some strong arguments in its favor. However, theoretical proof is missing. Common sense should always be balanced against empirical evidence.
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Conner, K.A., Powers, E.A., & Bultena, G.L. (1979). Social Interaction and Life Satisfaction: An Empirical Assessment of Late-Life Patterns. Journal of Gerontology, 34(1), 116-121.
Cumming, Elaine; Dean, Lois R.; Newlell, D.S.; McCaffrey, Isabel (1960). Disengagement—a tentative theory of aging. Sociometry. 23. 23-35.
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Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Belongingness. Our Psychological Need to Belong. Psychology Fanatic. Published 4-16-2021. Accessed 8-1-2022.
Tobin, S.S., & Neugarten, B.L. (1961). Life Satisfaction and Social Interaction in the Aging. Journal of Gerontology, 16(4), 344-346.