A Theory of Aging
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 8, 2022
Life is a series of starts and stops. According to developmental theories, we move through identifiable stages, each phase requiring age specific tasks. Through wonderful and strenuous travels we arrive at old age. While roles may change, life doesn't end. We continue. Certainly, this latter stage of life throws many new challenges at us; but every stage of life has done that.
In these later years, we do what we always have done. we adapt. We use skills, sense of identity, familiar practices, and accumulated social resources to face the new challenges of physical, social, and mental changes. Hopefully, by this stage in life, we are accustom to change, and smoothly work our way through the obstacles.
Continuity theory emphasizes the natural flow from early stages of life to the later stages. We don't engage late life challenges as a new person, but as the person we have slowly transformed into over a life time of experience.
Rhonda G. Parker, PhD. explains that we don't stumble on realization of our 'true self' in old age. She writes that "rather than achieving ego integrity, it is possible that older individuals work to maintain a sense of self they have possessed throughout their lives, their goal is not to achieve some mystical 'final state,' but to merely to continue their lives as they proceeded before" (1995, p. 521).
Continuity Theory proposes that middle aged and older adults make adaptive choices by preserving a continuity of existing internal self narratives and external social structures. Aging individuals adapt to mental, physical, and social changes inherent to the aging process, not through disengaging from the past, but utilizing their personal history of habits, commitments, preferences, and other personal dispositions that are part of their personality.
Development of Continuity Theory
During the fifties and sixties, longitude studies were providing beginning to provide decades of information. A study of particular interest for research on aging was the Kansas City study.
In 1961, Elaine Cumming and William Henry developed disengagement theory from data they collected from the six-year Kansas City study of adult life that followed 275 persons aged 50 to 90 years of age (Murphy, 2022).
Robert Havighurst, an instrumental figure in the development of the earlier activity theory of aging, examined data from the Kansas City study, comparing activity and psychological wellness. He discovered an inconsistently between activity, disengagement and the subjective wellbeing of older people.
Havighurst described his findings this way, "the results of this study indicated that neither the activity theory nor the disengagement theory was adequate to account for the observed facts. While there was a decrease of engagement in the common social roles related to increasing age, some of the people who remained active and engaged showed a high degree of satisfaction."
Havighurst concluded that there needed to be a personality dimension included "since it is an empirical fact that some people are satisfied with disengagement while others are satisfied with a high degree of social engagement, it is clear that something more is needed to give us a useful theory of aging" (Havighurst, 1968, p. 21).
Havighurst speculated that "the relationship between life satisfaction and activity was probably influenced by personality type." From his studies, Havighurst discovered "in normal men and women there was no sharp discontinuity of personality with age but rather an increasing consistency" (Burbank, 1986, p. 78).
Bernice Neugarten was intimately involved in the reevaluations of data from the Kansas City study research. She describes the new methods for measuring life satisfaction and the conflicting diversity among participants in the study. In new calculations, the researchers compared three variables: social interaction, degree of life satisfaction, and personality types. By adding personality type to the data they discovered a pattern.
Neugarten explains their findings, "certain personality types, as they age, slough off various role responsibilities with relative comfort and remain highly content with life. Other personalities show a drop in role and in social interaction and show a drop in life satisfaction" (1972, p. 11).
Patricia Burbank in her research drew these three main points from Havighurst, Neugarten and Tobin (the primary influencers behind continuity theory):
Integration; Not Reinvention
We don't completely rewrite personal narratives because we are old. Aging is a gradual process of changes. Our golden years are not magically thrust upon us but begin to form during the early stages of development and throughout the remainder of our lives.
Continuity theory differs from activity theory of aging. Activity theory suggests that the aging individual actively replaces lost roles while continuity theory does not assume roles need to be replaced. Aging requires a slow integration of changes as they occur.
In explaining continuity theory Herbert C. Covey, PhD. writes "the label 'continuity' is attached to this perspective because old age is not seen as a separate period of life but as a continuation of many patterns set earlier." He continues, "there are certain 'carry-overs' from earlier life patterns. therefore, people with well defined patterns of lifestyle in certain areas of society are more likely to carry these activities, roles, and patterns into old age" (1981, p. 629).
We Desire Sameness
Throughout our lives, we find homeostatic balance in sameness. We change as we develop but not everything at once. Even the major life transitions of aging often are incremental. Not every child leaves the home at the same time. College students periodically return. Retirement often occurs in stages, we may slowly psychologically disconnect from work over a period of years rather than a shocking, unexpected forced retirement. Our bodies and minds don't crash from highly functioning to barely functioning, but gradually decline.
Parker wrote that "individuals who are adapting to the process of normal aging are motivated toward inner psychological continuity as well as outward continuity of social behavior" (1995, p. 521).
The changes occurring within the aging process must be examined not as isolated events but from the wider perspective of the entire life process of the individual experiencing the change. Covey wrote that "continuity theory holds that the individual's reaction to aging can be explained by examining the complex interrelationships among biological changes; the person's habits, preferences, and associations; situational opportunities for continuity; and actual experience." Covey adds, "the person's lifelong experience thus creates in him certain predispositions that he will maintain if at all possible" (1981, pp. 628-629).
In 2019, T. Franklin Murphy argued against the comfort of sameness, writing:
Every once in a while an event pokes us to our sensibilities. We see the wrong in our ways and want change. We recognize the mess and begin the work of cleaning up. But our momentary forays into the unknown are fraught with sorrow, we long for the past, the ease of following a comforting pattern, without the nasty interferences of forced change. We long for sameness.
Continuity theory is not advocating or suggesting stagnation in old age. Robert C. Atchley, PhD. clarifies the meaning of continuity within continuity theory. He writes, "continuity is an illusive concept. On the one hand, to exhibit continuity can mean to remain the same, to be uniform, homogeneous, unchanging, even humdrum. This static view of continuity," he explains, "is not very applicable to human aging." Atchley continues, "On the other hand, a dynamic view of continuity starts with the idea of basic structure which persists over time, but it allows for a variety of changes to occur within the context provided by the basic structure" (1989, p. 183).
Of course we change in our later years, but we change within the framework of our personalities. Our sense of identity may shift slightly as we integrate new roles, or continue old roles with slightly less vigor or with moderate adjustments necessary to accommodate our age. Our strengths and pathologies continue. Sometime age may help, other times may exaggerate our unique composition of personality advantages and flaws.
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Atchley, R.C. (1989). A Continuity Theory of Normal Aging. The Gerontologist, 29(2).
Burbank, P. (1986). Psychosocial theories of aging. Advances in Nursing Science, 9(1).
Covey, H.C. (1981). A Reconceptualization of Continuity Theory: Some Preliminary Thoughts. The Gerontologist, 21(6), 628-633.
Havighurst, R.J. (1968). Personality and Patterns of Aging. The Gerontologist, 8(1_Part_2), 20-23.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022) Disengagement Theory. Flourishing Life Society. Published 7-31-2022. Retrieved 8-8-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2019). The Lure of Sameness. Flourishing Life Society. Published 1-2019. Accessed 8-8-2022.
Neugarten, B.L. (1972). Personality and the Aging Process. The Gerontologist, 12(1_Part_1), 9-15.
Parker, R.G. (1995). Reminiscence: A Continuity Theory Framework. The Gerontologist, 35(4),