Friday, August 16, 2013

What Theory Do You Use to Describe Aging?

Photo by Martin LaBar.
The photo above shows a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Behind them is a second photo of them on their wedding day--decades prior.

I look at them and wonder, "How are they adapting to the aging process?" They have a lot of choices in how they behave, think and feel about aging.  And we have a lot of choices in how we perceive them.  Also, their unique life experiences might make some theories fit better than others.

Gerontologists in particular have a lot of theories for explaining the aging process.  Some of these theories are quite complex and/or are supported with data that only other experts can understand. Nevertheless, don't let the word "theory" send you running for the hills.

The average person employs a theory (a set of assumptions and concepts) for explaining aging--even if he or she isn't aware of it. Unless people make an effort to examine the complexities of aging and the diverse ways in which people age, it's easy to use stereotypes.

As a gerontologist, it's important for me to examine the theoretical frameworks used to describe and interpret aging.  I also need to remain open and flexible to adopting new theories.  I am not going to be comprehensive or thorough here. Aren't you glad?

But I do want to gesture to multiple frameworks.

Using myself as an example, I was first motivated to study aging because of the perception that older adults grow increasingly frail and dependent.  In short, I was afraid. I soon learned my perceptions were filtered through a couple of models: biological degeneration (our bodies fall apart), exchange theory (we loose clout), and disengagement theory (resigned to our physical and social decline, we detach).

However, once I started working directly with older adults, I could better see through other theoretical filters.  I next employed the activity model (people benefit from being socially and physically active for almost their entire life time), the social strata model (older adults create their own subculture to avoid the affects of ageism and to enjoy support from peers), and the cumulative advantage / disadvantage model (the rich old have a much different experience as they age than the poor old).

But the three models that most interest me currently are these:

* Continuity Theory - We basically hold the same goals, values and personality over time. Student video.

* Selection, Optimization and Compensation (SOC) - As we experience roadblocks, we find ways to focus on what we're good at, maximize our strengths, and adjust to limitations.

* Gerotranscendence - We learn to accept losses, rise above the concerns that preoccupy us and focus on the benefits of life that transcend physical strength, financial gain, social status, fame, etc.

There are numerous examples of these theories, but let me use three books about midlife / late life aging issues as examples.

Jimmy Carter was forced into retirement when he failed to be re-elected.  He was a relatively young man at the time, only 57.  His book The Virtues of Aging documents his approach to aging, which shows how he continued to be interested in family, education, faith, community service, and political causes in the 17 years between leaving the White House and publishing this book. (At the writing of this post, he's continued another 15 years, making that 32 active years post-presidency.)  The activity theory and the continuity theory can be applied to his experience of aging.  Review.

Diane Ackerman and her husband Paul West are writers. Their lives are calibrated to the literary world. So is their marriage--as is mine. So when he suffered a severe stroke that left him with aphasia (absence of speech), it threatened not only his health, but also his life's work, his identity and his marriage. Ackerman describes how she worked with medical professionals to a degree, but how she created a speech therapy program for Paul, tailored to his own language preferences.  He now speaks and writes again, but in ways that differ from prior to his stroke. This book is a good example of a person using selection, optimization and compensation as well as continuity.  Review.

Ram Dass was a psychology professor at Harvard, but he quit his job to pursue more nontraditional paths of spiritual enlightenment. For decades, he's been on a religious quest and supporting others in their quest.  In 1997, he suffered a stroke.  In his book Still Here, Dass describes his stroke as an act of grace that helped him transcend the trappings of mortality.  He offers this insight to others struggling with age-related challenges. His book is a good example of continuity and gerotransendence.  Review.

And even as I challenge you to examine your own theoretical frameworks, I also recognize the importance of just doing and being with other people. Yes, sometimes after a lot of research, I throw it all out the window and just laugh, sing, dance and embrace others. Gerontology for me is about a employing a good mix of knowing, doing and being.


Books about Aging
Late Adulthood: A Time to Bless


  1. That is a very deep subject! I have begun to look forward to aging along with my husband. We have had a few conversations about aging and how we should focus on our health and family. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Bonnie: I wrote this post in part to serve as a reference for my students when they analyze films about aging. I thought that I'd make it available to my blog readers and not keep it hidden behind the university firewall. It is a little academic! But sometimes people who are not formally taking classes like to dig around a little. Almost EVERY textbook about aging covers all of this information, so it's a good preview of what someone would study if they majored in gerontology (aging studies) or if they got a minor in it with nursing, psychology, sociology or social work. Welcome to my field!

  3. I agree activity is one of the key factors in helping us age gracefully. Ones general health is yet another factor that we as humans are not always in control of. This is when I turn to God.

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