Activity Theory Basics
The common-sense idea behind many programs and services for older adults rests on the proposition that activities in and of themselves have important benefits and that they contribute to increased life satisfaction for everyone. No one had tested this notion scientifically until the early 1970s when Dr. Vern Bengtson of the Andrus Gerontology Center, University of Southern California, and others developed a formal activity theory that could be used as the foundation for systematic research on the effect of activities on the well-being of older people.
Activity theory holds that people construct ideas about themselves from two major sources: the things that they do and the roles that they fill in life. According to activity theory people give up many roles as they age-they retire from work, become widows or widowers, drop out of professional and other organizations, leave clubs and unions, and so on. These changes challenge the ideas that people hold about themselves; they may create a reduced sense of identity; and they sap the strength of one's inner "self." For this reason people need to, and most actually do, engage in activities that develop substitute roles for those that have been abandoned. Hence, activities in late life are essential to restore one's "self" and boost one's sense of well-being.
Activity Theory vs. Disengagement Theory
Thus, the activity theory is a strong counterpoint to disengagement theory, claiming that successful old age can be achieved only by maintaining roles and relationships in society. In contrast to disengagement theory, this theory implies that the more active elderly people are, the more likely they are to be satisfied with life.
The Activity Theory makes the following certain assumptions:
- There is an abrupt beginning of old age.
- The process of aging leaves people alone & cut-off.
- People should be encouraged to remain active & develop own-age friends.
- Standards & expectations of middle age should be projected to older age.
- Aging persons should be encouraged to expand & be involved.
Testing the Theory
Research developed to test activity theory has shown that most people do indeed benefit from a high level of activity in age. For instance, the General Social Survey (an annual sampling of the American population designed by professors Jim Davis of Harvard University and Tom Smith of the University of Chicago, and conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago) shows a much higher level of happiness among those who are most active at all stages of life. But, investigators have also discovered other things-that new activities are not necessarily substitutes for previous activities and that the quality of an activity is also important. Activity carried on merely for the sake of being "active" may even have negative effects.
To be worthwhile, activities must have meaning to the participant: They can be solitary (gardening, knitting, reading, solo visits to museums); informal (chatting with friends on the telephone, greeting fellow shoppers at the supermarket); or formal (joining an AARP club, SCORE, or RSVP). A few individuals may actually prefer and benefit most from inactivity, but most find that hobbies, crafts, volunteer work, housework and home repairs, caring for pets, sharing life with family and friends, and generally getting out and about, have the greatest value for a positive sense of well-being.
Weakness of the Activity Theory
Some aging persons cannot maintain a middle-aged lifestyle, due to functional limitations, lack of income, or lack of a desire to do so. Many older adults lack the resources to maintain active roles in society. On the flip side, some elders may insist on continuing activities in late life that pose a danger to themselves and others, such as driving at night with low visual acuity or doing maintenance work to the house while climbing with severely arthritic knees. In doing so, they are denying their limitations and engaging in unsafe behaviors.
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