Theoretical Perspectives on Aging

Functionalism

Functionalists analyze how the parts of society work together. Functionalists gauge how society’s parts are working together to keep society running smoothly. How does this perspective address aging? The elderly, as a group, are one of society’s vital parts.

Functionalists find that people with better resources who stay active in other roles adjust better to old age (Crosnoe and Elder 2002). Three social theories within the functional perspective were developed to explain how older people might deal with later-life experiences.

An elderly man and woman are shown from behind sitting on a bench. The man is shown wrapping his arm around the woman’s shoulders.
Does being old mean disengaging from the world? (Photo courtesy of Candida Performa/Wikimedia Commons)

The earliest gerontological theory in the functionalist perspective is disengagement theory, which suggests that withdrawing from society and social relationships is a natural part of growing old. There are several main points to the theory. First, because everyone expects to die one day, and because we experience physical and mental decline as we approach death, it is natural to withdraw from individuals and society. Second, as the elderly withdraw, they receive less reinforcement to conform to social norms. Therefore, this withdrawal allows a greater freedom from the pressure to conform. Finally, social withdrawal is gendered, meaning it is experienced differently by men and women. Because men focus on work and women focus on marriage and family, when they withdraw they will be unhappy and directionless until they adopt a role to replace their accustomed role that is compatible with the disengaged state (Cummings and Henry 1961).

The suggestion that old age was a distinct state in the life course, characterized by a distinct change in roles and activities, was groundbreaking when it was first introduced. However, the theory is no longer accepted in its classic form. Criticisms typically focus on the application of the idea that seniors universally naturally withdraw from society as they age, and that it does not allow for a wide variation in the way people experience aging (Hothschild 1975).

The social withdrawal that Cummings and Henry recognized (1961), and its notion that elderly people need to find replacement roles for those they’ve lost, is addressed anew in activity theory. According to this theory, activity levels and social involvement are key to this process, and key to happiness (Havinghurst 1961; Neugarten 1964; Havinghurst, Neugarten, and Tobin 1968). According to this theory, the more active and involved an elderly person is, the happier he or she will be. Critics of this theory point out that access to social opportunities and activity are not equally available to all. Moreover, not everyone finds fulfillment in the presence of others or participation in activities. Reformulations of this theory suggest that participation in informal activities, such as hobbies, are what most effect later life satisfaction (Lemon, Bengtson, and Petersen 1972).

According to continuity theory, the elderly make specific choices to maintain consistency in internal (personality structure, beliefs) and external structures (relationships), remaining active and involved throughout their elder years. This is an attempt to maintain social equilibrium and stability by making future decisions on the basis of already developed social roles (Atchley 1971; Atchley 1989). One criticism of this theory is its emphasis on so-called “normal” aging, which marginalizes those with chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The Graying of American Prisons

Two levels of empty prison cells are shown.
Would you want to spend your retirement here? A growing elderly prison population requires asking questions about how to deal with senior inmates. (Photo courtesy of Claire Rowland/Wikimedia Commons)

Earl Grimes is a seventy-nine-year-old inmate at a state prison. He has undergone two cataract surgeries and takes about $1,000 a month worth of medication to manage a heart condition. He needs significant help moving around, which he obtains by bribing younger inmates. He is serving a life prison term for a murder he committed thirty-eight years—half a lifetime—ago (Warren 2002).

Grimes’ situation exemplifies the problems facing prisons today. According to a recent report released by Human Rights Watch (2012), there are now more than 124,000 prisoners age fifty-five years or older and over 26,000 prisoners age sixty-five or older in the U.S. prison population. These numbers represent an exponential rise over the last two decades. Why are U.S. prisons graying so rapidly?

Two factors contribute significantly to this country’s aging prison population. One is the tough-on-crime reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, when mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes” policies sent many people to jail for thirty years to life, even when the third strike was a relatively minor offense (Leadership Conference, n.d.). Many of today’s elderly prisoners are those who were incarcerated thirty years ago for life sentences. The other factor influencing today’s aging prison population is the aging of the overall population. As discussed in the section on aging in the United States, the percentage of people over sixty-five years old is increasing each year due to rising life expectancies and the aging of the baby boom generation.

So why should it matter that the elderly prison population is growing so swiftly? As discussed in the section on the process of aging, growing older is accompanied by a host of physical problems, like failing vision, mobility, and hearing. Chronic illnesses like heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes also become increasingly common as people age, whether they are in prison or not. In many cases, elderly prisoners are physically incapable of committing a violent—or possibly any—crime. Is it ethical to keep them locked up for the short remainder of their lives?

There seem to be a lot of reasons, both financial and ethical, to release some elderly prisoners to live the rest of their lives—and die—in freedom. However, few lawmakers are willing to appear soft on crime by releasing convicted felons from prison, especially if their sentence was “life without parole” (Warren 2002).