Aging in America


UNIT 4 Productive Aging and the Environment ___________________________________________________________________________________

LESSON 4.1 The Human Environment ______________________________________________

LEARNING OUTCOMES __________________________________________________________________

In this lesson, you will:

1. Analyze relationships between numbers and types of roles held by people and their chronological ages.

2. Apply a selected theory to evaluate the human environment of an aging person.

3. Critique the theory you have selected for its usefulness and credibility.


You have learned how Person-Environment Fit determines personal competence. This

lesson examines the environmental piece of that equation—specifically, its human

component. Gerontologists have studied how older individuals interact with the human

environment, and have come up with a number of descriptions of what happens. Some of

these are described below.

Role theory describes society’s expectations about how people should behave and what

they should do. These expectations are based on a wide variety of factors, including age.

A role is like a part a person plays, with a script that is written jointly by society and the

person who takes on the roles (in some cases the two negotiate the details, in others

behavioral rules are black and white, and anybody who breaks them is considered an

“oddball”—or, perhaps even mentally ill or a criminal).The pressure put on people to

conform to expectations is part of the process of socialization.

Some societies and cultures have more rigid roles than others. Roles may include those of

male, female, student, parent, employee, businesswoman, husband, wife, son, patient,

doctor, etc. Obviously, most of us hold a number of roles at any given time; some, we

hold for a lifetime, some are brief, and others change over years. Many roles are

associated with a certain age or stage of life, or “age-graded.” Age-grading is the

expectation that people will adjust their behavior by modifying, adding or dropping roles

to match what others believe they should do at a given age. For example, a 14 year old

girl is, in most Western cultures, considered to be too young to be a mother (in other

cultures, however, motherhood may be within the age-normative expectation for that age

group). In the classic picture of age-grading, roles are added gradually as we grow up,

and increase in number throughout our middle-years. At some point, role loss may occur

as children leave home, we retire from work, family members and friends die, and some

hobbies and interests are abandoned. Theoretically, if society pushes an older person to

drop unapproved roles, and no new roles are added, they can be left with only one role—

“Old Person.”

There are a number of other theories about how and why people change their

relationships with others as they age. The earliest (and most commonly applied) include

Activity, Disengagement, and Continuity theories. Each of these is briefly described

below. In addition to these three theories, a number of others have been proposed, and are

described in your text. You will notice that some of these theories focus on individual

behavior while others focus on social systems.

Activity theory sees age-related changes as leading us to adjust to the loss of old ties as

we age. It says that normal adaptation includes finding new, and perhaps even a greater

number, of interests to replace the dropped ones. New activities are chosen freely and can

include volunteering, church involvement, and fun leisure pursuits like traveling or golf

(perhaps even bungee jumping). This may explain why some retired people say that they

are busier in retirement than they were while working. You will notice that activity

theory emphasizes that the responsibility for staying active rests with the individual rather

than resulting from of a push from society. Role theory, on the other hand, describes

society as the party that calls the shots.

Like Role theory, Disengagement theory describes the loss of roles as a process that is

enforced by society. As one after another role is lost, power is gradually transferred from

older to younger individuals. Disengagement leads older adults to move gradually into

passive roles with fewer and more superficial interactions with younger members of

society. The positive consequences of disengagement, for both the individual and society

as a whole, is that the elder gets to take it easy and prepare for death, and that valuable

resources and responsibilities get passed on to the new generation. There is no research to

support the idea of Disengagement as a normal stage of life. Unfortunately, some people

still think that it is normal for older adults to retreat into their good memories of the past,

and withdraw from the world. Disengagement, as a picture of “normal aging” should be

actively rejected. In fact, an older person who looks and acts increasingly disengaged

should be assumed to have a health problem that needs diagnosis and treatment.

Finally, Continuity theory was developed to reflect findings of the Kansas City

Longitudinal Studies. This research revealed that people do not change dramatically with

age (no surprise, as we found earlier that personality does not usually change

dramatically either). But, critics of this theory note that it “overlooks the role of external

social factors in modifying the aging process” (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2005, p. 289). While

it is reasonable to assume that society changes its demands and expectations constantly,

and that people must adapt to those changes, we have pretty good evidence that aging

individuals seem to maintain their identities as they adapt. A comprehensive theory

would have to look at both sides of the equation. Until we have a perfect theory that

explains everything, the existing theories are very useful tools that stimulate us to observe

more closely and ask important questions.


The human environment includes family, friends, neighbors and members of the larger

community. Your text offers detailed descriptions of how relationships within each of

these groups influence aging, and is influenced by its aging members. We will review

some of the high points in these notes.


We begin life within our family of origin, joining its newest generation. From this

background, many of us move out to form a nuclear family group, usually in partnership

with another adult, and a third generation may grow out of the partnership. With the

unfolding of new generations, new relationships and obligations of importance to

individuals and society are forged.

Kin relationships in modern America are shaped by our history as an immigrant nation, in

that most of us tend to have fewer layers of kinship recognized as “close family” than

those in older cultures. Riley and Riley (1996) add the following elements to the

description of the “classic” American family: 1) because parents and children are living

much longer, they are closer to being equal in status; 2) property transfer is no longer the

main reason for formal ties between generations; 3) most older adults are quite healthy

and independent; 4) modern families are becoming more and more diverse in age because

of the creation of blended families through divorce and remarriage, and; 5) modern life

offers many alternative types of relationships that compete with the traditional one of


It is important to remember that, even though American culture seems to shape most of

our lives, many cultural variations exist and that, within these variations, the notion of

“family” and quality of family relationships differ widely from what is described as the

American “norm.” In fact, it has not been uncommon in the U.S, since its beginnings, to

see cultural variations within the generations of one family, or parts of one community.

Most often, the younger generation is seeking to move away from family traditions and

integrate into the larger culture while the older generation is trying to maintain it. You

can reference specific facts about some of the major U.S. “minority” cultures in your text.

Spouse and partner relationships are built on love. Sternberg (1986) researched people’s

idea of love and how it is manifested. Based on his research, he developed a theory of

love based on three components: 1) passion—an intense physical attraction; 2 intimacy—

the feeling that one can share thoughts and actions with the other; and, 3) commitment—

the willingness to stay with that person through good and bad times. Based on these

components, he identified seven forms of love:

1. Liking: Intimacy is present, but no commitment or passion 2. Infatuation: Lots of passion, no intimacy or commitment 3. Empty love: Commitment only 4. Romantic love: intimacy and passion, but no commitment 5. Fatuous love: passion only 6. Companionate love: intimacy and commitment, no passion 7. Consummate love: all three components are present (the ideal)

Increasing numbers of younger adults are choosing not to marry early, and some never

marry. Although men marry later than women, the age at which both marry today is

higher than it has been in recent history, with the average age of men being 26.3 and

women 25.1 for first marriages occurring during the year 2000. The number of cohabiting

couples at all ages has increased significantly in the past few decades. Cohabitation of

older adult couples is often motivated by financial and family concerns, since a deceased

husband’s pension often provides for his widow only as long as she remains unmarried,

and because some parents bow to their adult children’s disapproval of their remarriage.

Gay or lesbian partners also form partnerships, and experience similar patterns of mutual

support and satisfaction as do heterosexual couples. But, unless they live in a state where

legal recognition of their partnership is possible, they often have difficulties with

adoption of children, inheritance, legal guardianship, and ability to make health-care

related decisions for each other in health crises. Mourning the loss of a partner is also

more difficult, as society does not generally accept the closeness of these partnerships.

Maturity of both partners at the time of marriage and a similarity of values and interests

lead to satisfaction. Satisfaction with love relationships is highest at the beginning of the

relationship and after retirement, with the rock-bottom tending to occur at midlife.

Divorce is the legal dissolution that ends a marriage, and the divorce rate among older

adults has gone up recently; whether this is a cohort effect or merely a greater overall

acceptance of divorce than was true in the past is unknown.

Death of a partner occurs for women more frequently than it does for men, as women

tend to marry older men, and to live longer. Men who experience divorce or widowhood

remarry at a significantly higher rate than women do. The average age of widowhood is

66 for women and 69 for men. Considering that women live about 5 years longer than

men, and tend not to remarry after the death of a spouse, most of them are widows for

about 15 years. Among the oldest-old, widows outnumber widowers 5:1, and that

proportion is double in women of color because they are widowed earlier—this is due to

a lower average life expectancy for men of color.

Many Adult Children continue to receive financial support, and most obtain emotional

support from their parents after they leave home. In fact, many adult children return there

when circumstances require them to seek additional assistance. After adult children are

stable and on their own, most maintain frequent communication with their parents over

the years, and often despite geographical separation. Eventually, most parents turn to

their adult children when they need support or care.

Thanks to our increasing life-span, families can include as many as four or five

generations, with older adults sometimes caring for their even older parents. Next to

spouses, adult children provide the most care to older adults. It is notable that the

financial value of informal care-giving in the United States, most of it given by spouses

and adult children, is valued at $200 billion dollars a year (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2005).

Not only do children receive assistance from their parents, and also help them, but an

increasing number of elders are responsible for their grandchildren in “skipped

generation households.” It has been estimated that 800,000 older adults are doing this. Of

these, 47% are of European-American, 36% of African-American, and 15% are Hispanic-

American. This is a particularly stressful job, since there is little legal protection, and

often limited financial support for grandparents who must navigate health care and school

issues for their charges. Fortunately, a 2003 Supreme Court decision has supported the

awarding of foster care benefits to grandparents (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2005).

Grandchildren: With increasing life-spans, not only can one be a grandparent for 30-40

years, but also a great-grandparent. Some grandparents are formal and distant, and others

take on direct parental responsibilities, but most fall somewhere in between the two

extremes. The high value many grandparents put on their relationships with

grandchildren has been explained by the “Generational-Stake Hypothesis” which

explains that, although grandchildren are eagerly looking ahead to building their own

place in the world, grandparents see that generation, and those to follow, as their legacy.

An interesting idea, don’t you think?

Sibling relationships can last for a lifetime. Siblings share family history, and have a

genetic structure more similar to each others’ than anybody else can have (even a parent).

For these, and many other reasons, this relationship is special. The strength of sibling

relationships varies with stage of life and gender. In younger years, siblings may be rivals

or hold grudges about past squabbles, but these tend to be forgotten with age. Gender

influences the strength of relationships, with two sisters being the closest, brother-sister

pairs next, and brothers being the least close. Relationships tend to intensify among

siblings at crucial times in their life histories—marriages, births, and death of their

parents and spouses, when support can come from the sharing of common memories.


Friends are important to all aging adults, but particularly those who live alone.

Friendships tend to be a place where women share primarily emotional content, and men

share primarily interests and common activities. Interestingly, women tend to have more

friends than men do, and many married men perceive their wives to be their “best

friends.” People tend to have more friendships in their younger years, and these friends

are often selected because they connect individuals to ideas, places, and new

opportunities. By old age, many friendships have been lost due to death, or changes in

interest or location, and fewer new ones are made. But friends in the older years are very

important, and most people over age 85 still actively maintain friendships. Old friends

tend to have been around for awhile and are valued for being trustworthy and loyal. The

main purpose of these friendships is to provide opportunities to bounce ideas off

somebody who will not judge or misunderstand. Adult children offer support, but friends

can do so without any motive other than mutual liking (and they remember events and

ideas in the same context as the elder because they often come from the same cohort).

This type of relationship provides a safe and gratifying outlet. Having close friends is

important, and the presence of at least one friend in whom one can confide has been

shown to predict a higher level of life satisfaction in older adults (Antonucci, 1985).


Neighborhoods represent the smallest level of community. Having close neighbors and

frequent contact with them is particularly important if family ties are not strong, or if

family is at a distance. Friendships can develop and bloom within neighborhoods, as well.

This easily navigated space can also provide an opportunity for the older adult to be with

people of various ages, including children, and share their wisdom and talents with

others. Older adults seem to have varying ideas as to what type of neighborhood to

choose. Some prefer a carefully planned and safely gated place where people are of

similar ages to theirs, while most prefer mixed-age neighborhoods (AARP, 1996). Older

adults tend to prefer to age in place, in homes where they have lived for years. Overall,

76% of older adults are satisfied with their neighborhoods, and even those in poorer

quality neighborhoods report a 71% level of satisfaction (HUD, 1999).


The human environment is made up of social networks composed of people interacting

with one another. The amount of interaction determines a person’s social integration.

There are obvious benefits to being able to get help from other people. But there are more

subtle benefits to two-way integration. We know that the process of giving and receiving

assistance (reciprocity) is desirable for older adults and improves their function and self-

esteem. Integration also makes social support available to older adults.

Unfortunately, some of the negative events that are normative (expected) for older adults

also change network composition, thereby lessening contact with others. For example,

couples seem to drift away when widowhood occurs, children may visit less frequently

when older adults move into age-restricted housing, or if either adult children or the older

parent makes a geographical move. It is also important to note that loss of ongoing

contacts with groups that are oriented to higher levels of activity occurs when an older

adult is homebound due to illness, or is no longer able to drive. In fact, even though less

healthy elders probably need the benefits of greater social integration most, social

selection seems to encourage healthier elders to join the most active groups and expand

their networks, while their less healthy companions drop out of relationships that they

cannot cope with.

Social support is defined by Sidney Cobb (1976) as occurring when an individual

believes that one or more other people exist who would provide: 1) caring and concern,

2) love and affection, and 3) instrumental support. We have already discussed the value

of friendships, the importance of confidants, and how older adults benefit greatly from

maintaining reciprocal relationships with others in their social environment. Social

support is a very special kind of benefit related to, but not identical to other human

contacts. In fact, it can come out of and occur along with additional benefits from

relationships. Social support can help buffer normative events such as illness,

widowhood, loss of employment, and the death of friends and family members that occur

with aging. For example, Dean et al (1989) found that social support from adult children

reduced depressive symptoms in their older parents.

Social support has been shown to have two important specific effects: First, it has a

direct effect of reducing stress—that is, a person can cope with a lot more stress without

harm if there is also some social support available at the same time as the stress is bearing

down; this applies to both physical and psychological stress. Amazingly, research has

shown that people with severe asthma, for example, need fewer drugs to control their

disease if they have social support available to them. Secondly, the presence of social

support seems to have an indirect effect on health status by influencing people to follow

through with health treatments that have been recommended.

Social support can also come from any other person in the human environment, including

health care providers, and others including hairdressers, barbers, mail carriers, and other

people with which one interacts with in the community. It is vitally important for people

of all ages, but particularly for aging adults, to maintain social integration and its

associated benefits.