Symbolic Interactionist Perspectives on Aging
Symbolic interactionist perspectives examine the connection between personal satisfaction in a persons later years and a high level of activity. Activity theory.
stales that people tend to shift gears ill late middle age and find substitutes for previous statuses, roles, and activities (Havighurst, Neugarten, and Tobin, 1968). From this perspective. older people have the same social and psychological needs as middle-aged people and thus do not want to withdraw unless restricted by poor health or disability. Whether retired persons invest their energies in grandchildren, traveling, hobbies, or new work roles, their social activity is directly related to longevity, happiness, and health (Palmore, 1981). Psychologist and newspaper columnist Eda Anshan observed a difference in the perceptions of people who do and do not remain active: ‘The Richardsons came for lunch: friends we hadn’t seen fur twenty years and Marlin had owned and worked together in a very fine women clothing shop …. Having some mistaken notion they were getting too old and should retire and “enjoy themselves,” .they sold the business ten years ago. During lunch, Larry and Realized we were dealing with two seriously depressed people, in excellent health but with no place to go. When Larry asked Helen what she’d been doing, she replied bitterly, “Who has anything to do?” Martin said sadly he was sorry he gave up tennis ten years ago; if he’d kept it up he could still player We were embarrassed to indicate we were still so busy that we couldn’t see straight. They seemed genuinely shocked that we had no plans to retire at seventy-one and seventy-four. (LeShlflol,1994: 221-222)
Studies have confirmed LeShan’s suggestion that healthy people who remain active have a higher level of life satisfaction than do those who are inactive orin.ill health (Havighurst, Neugarten, and Tobin. 1968).: Among those whose mental capacities decline later in life. deterioration is most rapid in people who withdraw from social relationships and activities. A variation on activity theory is the concept of continuity-that people are constantly attempting La m intain their self-esteem and lifelong principles and practices and that they simply adjust to the feedback from and needs of others as they grow older (Williamson.Duffy Rinehart. and Blank. 1992). From this perspective, aging is a continuation of earlier life stages rather than a separate and unique period. Thus, values and behaviors that have previously been important to an individual will continue to be so as the person ages. People may also turn to their ethnic culture tohelp th m deal with physical changes, role changes. and bereavement issues in their later years. For example. studies have found that the church serves animportan function in reducing loneliness. providing support systems. and enhancing self-image in older African Americans (Gelfand. 2003). Other symbolic interactionist perspectives focus on role and exchange theories. Role theory poses this question: What roles are available for older people? Some theorists have noted that industrialized, urbanized societies typically do not have roles for older people (Cowgill. 1986). Analysts examining the relationshtp between race/ethnicity and aging have found that many older persons are able to find active roles within their own ethnic gro p. Although their experiences may not be valued in the larger society, they are esteemed within their ethnic subculture because they provide a rich source of knowledge of ethnic lore and
history. For example. Mildred Leghorn. an 80-year old Native American woman. passes on information to younger people by the use of dolls:I decided … to show that we were all not the same, by making dolls that said we were just as different as
our clothes arc different.I mad four dolls in Kansas,representing the four tribes there-then seven more here in Oklahoma for the tribes living here. Now,over the years. 1 have a collection of forty-one fab Cleghorn’s unique knowledge about the. various Lenitive American nations has been a valuable source of information for young people who otherwise might be unaware of the great diversity found among Native Americans. According to the gerontologist Donald E. Gelfand (2003), older people can “exchange” their knowledge for deference and respect from younger people. The reverse is also true: Younger people can and do provide assistant to many older people (see Box 12.4).