Reflections on Aging and Social Disengagement

Aging is of interest to me because I suddenly and surprisingly find myself among the oldest ten percent of Americans.

I also find myself among the more solitary of Americans. My wife and I rattle about in a house that could comfortably accommodate a family of six, with plenty of space in which to have sizeable gatherings (which we no longer do). But I am not lonely in my solitude, for it is and long has been of my own choosing. Lockdowns and self-isolation haven’t affected me a bit. Life, for me, goes on as usual and as I like it.

This is so because of my strong introversion. I suppose that the seeds of my introversion are genetic, but the symptoms didn’t appear in earnest until I was in my early thirties. After that I became steadily more focused on a few friendships (which eventually dwindled to none) and decidedly uninterested in the aspects of work that required more than brief meetings (one-on-one preferred). Finally, enough became more than enough and I quit full-time work at the age of fifty-six. There followed, a few years later, a stint of part-time work that also became more than enough. And so, at the age of fifty-nine, I banked my final paycheck. Happily.

What does my introversion have to do with my aging? I suspected that my continued withdrawal from social intercourse (more about that, below) might be a symptom of aging. And I found this, in the Wikipedia article “Disengagement Theory“:

The disengagement theory of aging states that “aging is an inevitable, mutual withdrawal or disengagement, resulting in decreased interaction between the aging person and others in the social system he belongs to”. The theory claims that it is natural and acceptable for older adults to withdraw from society….

Disengagement theory was formulated by [Elaine] Cumming and [William Earl] Henry in 1961 in the book Growing Old, and it was the first theory of aging that social scientists developed….

The disengagement theory is one of three major psychosocial theories which describe how people develop in old age. The other two major psychosocial theories are the activity theory and the continuity theory, and the disengagement theory [is at] odds with both.

The continuity theory

states that older adults will usually maintain the same activities, behaviors, relationships as they did in their earlier years of life. According to this theory, older adults try to maintain this continuity of lifestyle by adapting strategies that are connected to their past experiences [whatever that means].

I don’t see any conflict between the continuity theory and the disengagement theory. A strong introvert like me, for example, finds it easy to maintain the same activities, behaviors, and relationships as I did before I retired. Which is to say that I had begun minimizing my social interactions before retiring, and continued to do so after retiring.

What about the activity theory? Well, it’s a normative theory, unlike the other two (which are descriptive), and it goes like this:

The activity theory … proposes that successful aging occurs when older adults stay active and maintain social interactions. It takes the view that the aging process is delayed and the quality of life is enhanced when old people remain socially active.

That’s just a social worker’s view of “appropriate” behavior for older persons. Take my word for it, introverts don’t need it social activity, which is stressful for them, and resent those who try to push them into it. The life of the mind is far more rewarding than chit-chat with geezers. Why do you suppose my wife and I will do everything in our power to stay in our own home until we die? It’s not just because we love our home so much (and we do), but we can’t abide the idea of communal living, even in an upscale retirement community.

Anyway, I mentioned my continued withdrawal from social intercourse. A particular, recent instance of withdrawal sparked this post. For about fifteen years I corresponded regularly with a former colleague. He  has a malady that I have dubbed email-arrhea: several messages a day to a large mailing list, with many insipid replies from recipients whose choose “reply all”. Enough of that finally became too much, and I declared to him my intention to refrain from correspondence until … whenever. (“Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”) So all of his messages and those of his other correspondents are dumped automatically into my Gmail trash folder, and I no longer use Gmail.

My withdrawal from that particular node of social intercourse was eased by the fact that the correspondent is a collaborationist “conservative” with a deep-state mindset. So it was satisfying to terminate our relationship — and devote more time to things that I enjoy, like blogging.