Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Overview of sociological theories of aging

Sociological theories of aging focus on the changing roles and relationships that accompany the process of normal aging. These theories discuss how these changing roles, relationships, and status impact the older individual’s ability to adapt.

Since the 1960s, gerontologists have been developing conceptual social frameworks or to identify and elaborate ideal outcomes of the aging process of human beings. One of the most commonly used terms to describe a good old age is successful aging, introduced by Havighurst (1961). The concept of successful aging is central to gerontology, and the article by Havighurst appeared as the first conceptual piece in the first issue of The Gerontologist, one of the profession’s prime journals.

Interest in successful aging has remained high through the successive decades. However, there is no single well-accepted definition of successful aging that has stood the test of time (which is not surprising, given the ambiguity of the term success itself).

  • Havighurst (1961) defined it as adding life to the years and getting satisfaction from life.
  • Rowe and Kahn (1987) defined it in terms of multiple physiological and psychosocial variables.
  • Ryff (1982), a psychologist, defined successful aging as positive or ideal functioning related to developmental work over the life course.
  • Fisher (1992) interviewed 19 senior center participants age 62–85 and found that they tended to define successful aging in term of strategies for coping.
  • Gibson (1995) stated that successful aging referred to reaching one’s potential and arriving at a level of physical, social, and psychological well-being in old age that is pleasing to both oneself and others.
  • In the Encyclopedia of Aging, Palmore (1995) says that a comprehensive definition of successful aging would combine survival (longevity), health (lack of disability), and life satisfaction (happiness).
  • Additionally, some gerontologists have discussed similar issues using different terms such as adjustment or adaptation to aging. The shifting meanings of successful aging have paralleled changes in prevailing theories of social and psychological aspects of aging, because ideas of what constitutes successful aging are implicitly contained in each theory.
Among the features people identify with successful aging are the following (although some may prioritize these differently):

  • physical health
  • financial security
  • productivity and employment
  • independence
  • coping well and an optimistic outlook
  • staying involved in activities and with people who bring meaning and support.
The concept of "wellness" has been associated with successful aging and is often confused with the notion of health. Wellness represents balance among the environment, emotional, spiritual, social, physical and cultural aspects of the individual's life. Health is a part of wellness. New definitions of successful aging continue to be developed as research and practice with the older adult population progresses.

The longevity component of successful aging has been studied through research on causes of mortality and longevity. There have been numerous studies of factors associated with mortality, and a few studies of predictors of longevity. Predictors of longevity include being female; being physically active; not smoking; having good cognitive functioning; higher than average socioeconomic status; high levels of social activity; life satisfaction, and work satisfaction; a high happiness rating; and satisfying sexual activity. In general, the predictors of longevity also predict better health (less disability). This is contrary to the popular theory that greater longevity causes greater disability.

Other studies have focused on factors associated with life satisfaction. These factors include good health, higher than average socioeconomic status, being single or married (as opposed to widowed, divorced, or separated), and high levels of social activity (especially organizational activity). Lawton found that the factors most closely correlated with feelings of well-being were health and activity level.

Usually, there is little or no relationship between life satisfaction and age, race, sex, or employment—once controls are made for health and income. The lack of relationship to age is explained by Brandstädter and Greve as being due to three interdependent processes that older persons use to maintain their life satisfaction as they grow older: assimilation (instrumental coping to attain desired goals), accommodation (changing desired goals), and immunization (filtering out threatening information). A series of analyses of studies of the causes of happiness (e.g., Okun, Stock, Haring, and Witter) also found that health (especially self-rated health), was the most potent correlate of happiness. Achieved social status variables (such as income), as well as lifestyle variables (such as social activity and housing), were modestly related to happiness.

There have been few longitudinal studies of the predictors of happiness or life satisfaction. In the Second Duke Longitudinal Study, the strongest predictors of life satisfaction were health, social activity, and sexual enjoyment. There is considerable overlap between these two sets of predictors: both longevity and satisfaction were predicted by health, higher socioeconomic status, social activity, and sexual enjoyment.

An analysis of the predictors of successful aging in the Second Duke Longitudinal Study of Aging (Palmore) defined successful aging as survival to age seventy-five and being generally happy. Multiple regression analysis found that the significant independent predictors of successful aging were secondary group activity (organizational groups and reading), work satisfaction, physical activity, physical abilities, and happiness. These findings support the activity theory of aging, in that two of the strongest explanatory predictors of successful aging were group activity and physical activity. There is probably a reciprocal causal relationship between these variables: those who remain active are more likely to be healthy and happy, and vice versa.

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