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, oles, 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 ant to withdraw unless restricted by by poor health or disability. Whether retired persons invest their energies in grandchildren, raveling, hobbies, or new work roles, their social activity is directly related to longevity, happiness, and health (Palmore, 1981). psychologist and newspaper columnist Eda LeShan 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 hadn't seen for twenty years .... Helen 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 I Realized we were dealing with two seriously depressed people, in excellent health but with no place to go. When Larry
disengagement theory the proposition that older persons make a normal and healthy adjustment to aging when they detach themselves from their social roles and prepare for their eventual death. activity theory the proposition that people tend to shift ears in late middle age and find substitutes for previous statuses, roles. and activities.
asked Helen what she'd been doing, she replied bitterly, "Who has anything to do?" Martin said sadly he was sorry he gave up ennis en years ago; if he'd kept it up he could still play.... We were embarrassed to indicate we were still so 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- 22)
Studies have confirmed LeShan's suggestion that healthy people who remain active have a higher level of life satisfaction than do hose who are inactive or in.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 maintain 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. hus, values and behaviors that have previ important too important to an individual will continue to be so as the person ages. People may also turn to their ethnic culture to help them deal with physical changes, role changes. and bereavement issues in their later ears. For example. studies have found that the church serves an important 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 ave noted that industrialized, urbanized societies typically do not have roles for older people (Cowgill. 1986). Analysts examining he relationship between race/ethnicity and aging have found that many older persons are able to find active roles within their own ethnic group. 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 Cleghorn. 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 at the same, by making dolls that said we were just as different as our clothes arc different.I made 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 fabric ricric dolls, all different triF:;. The trouble is there are
thirty-two more to go! (qtd. in Mucciolo, 1992:23) Cleghorn's unique knowledge about the. various Niltive American nations has een a valuable source of information for young people who otherwise might be unaware of the great diversity found among ative Americans. According to the gerontologist Donald E. Gelfand (2003), older people can "exchange" their knowledge for deference nd respect from younger people. The reverse is also true: Younger people can and do provide assistance to many older people see ox 12.4).