First Advisor

Leonard D. Cain

Term of Graduation

Spring 1977

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Urban Studies


Urban Studies and Planning




Aging -- Psychological aspects, Older people -- Psychology, Urban sociology



Physical Description

1 online resource (3, ix, 254 pages)


This dissertation reevaluates the controversial Disengagement Theory of aging introduced by Elaine Cumming and William E. Henry in their book, Growing Old (1961), with particular emphasis on aging in the city.

Disengagement theory embodies the antithesis to the traditional activity theory of aging based on a work ethic. Disengagement theory holds that normal aging is an inevitable mutual withdrawal or disengagement between the aging person and others in the social system, that it is universal, and that, by impl ication,it is a mutually satisfying condition since it results in a new equilibrium between society and the aging individual. The theory proposes that withdrawal happens automatically in the aging person because of ego changes which are "programmed" into the human organism.

Activity theory, on the contrary, claims that maintaining physical, mental, or social activity is a prerequisite to successful aging. It implies that a meaningful social role is necessary to self-esteem, and that, allowing for biological impairments, the psychological needs of older people are not much different from those of middle-aged persons.

Since the United States population aged 65 and over has a net annual increase of over 300,000 people, the questions as to whether they tend to be engaged or disengaged, and whether they should be integrated in or separated from the rest of society, become very important. According to the 1970 Census, over sixty percent of persons sixty-five and over live in metropolitan areas. Therefore their housing, transportation, medical care, and other needs have to be considered in urban policies. In planning services for older people it is imperative to know what kind of services are needed, and hence engagement or disengagement becomes a crucial question. It is the assumption in this research that the city and its older population have an investment in one another, and that the city is interested in the welfare of its older citizens.

Theoretically, the study was guided by the principles of symbolic interactionism. Several methods were used in the approach to the research problem because it is believed that what is known as a "triangulated" perspective can come closest to revealing the various aspects of empirical reality. Specifically, the methods employed were the social survey, the depth interview, participant observation, unobtrusive observation, and the case study and life history technique. This research has used especially Weber's method of Verstehen or empathic understanding.

Three hypotheses guided the research:

  • Hypothesis One: Disengagement is not an intrinsic or inevitable phenomenon. If it occurs, it can be traced to various causes other than aging per se, such as ill health, personal misfortunes (such as widowhood), or social pressures (such as forced retirement).
  • Hypothesis Two: Older people do not enjoy a disengaged state. There is continuity in personality and life style, and if older people choose nonengagement, it is a continuation of former habits.
  • Hypothesis Three: A livable urban environment is a determinant in the life satisfaction of the aged.

These hypotheses were tested empirically, using both qualitative and quantitative data; and our hypotheses have been confirmed by prevalence and recurrence of expected patterns in the behavior of our samples. The use of the inductive method has given consistent results in that no instances of intrinsic disengagement were discovered. We have been able to show that other causal factors were responsible for relative nonengagement if it occurred. The dissertation also reports many suggestions which were received on how the urban environment could be improved and how the city could help older people lead better lives.


© 1977 by Melvina Somers

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A dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Urban Affairs in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

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