Disengagement theory is a model originally proposed in 1961 by William Henry and Elaine Cumming, two social scientists interested in studying aging and the way interactions with other people change as people grow older. According to their theory, as people age, they tend to withdraw from society, and this can be mutual, with society being less likely to engage with and include older people. They argued that this was a consequence of people learning their limitations with age and making way for new generations of people to fill their roles. In modern gerontology, the study of aging and society, disengagement theory is controversial, and many people do not agree with it.
Under this theory, as people age, they tend to grow more fragile and their social circles shrink as they start to pull away and be less actively involved. Critics point out that often this disengagement is enforced, rather than voluntary; someone who needs to move to a nursing home, for example, experiences a curtailment of her social circle as her friends may not be able to visit, and may start to die, leaving her with fewer connections.
When disengagement theory was popular, supporters believed that it explained how people prepared for death. By slowly letting go of society, older adults were supposedly getting ready to let go of life as well. Researchers posited that disengagement was also beneficial to society, as people moved through different roles in life and created spaces for younger people to grow into those roles. Entering retirement, for example, allows other people to enter the job market. As social networks shrink for older adults, younger people build up their own new networks and connections.
Critics of this theory do not support certain conclusions and aspects of the theory. It could be viewed as an excuse to explain why society is less welcoming to older adults, and justifies the barriers to participation in social activities for older people. A person who must stay at home with a broken hip, for example, may not actually want to be isolated, but may be forced into being alone because people may not be able to visit since they have their own health problems, and the individual may not have access to an assistant to help him get out and about. Likewise, older adults may not want to leave community organizations, but may have to because their planning does not accommodate the needs of older members.
The history of caring for aging people differently in diverse societies also argues against the disengagement theory. At the time people were developing this theory, a centuries-old tradition of allowing older people to age at home with their families was shifting into a tendency to place them in assisted living facilities and nursing homes, separating them from friends, family, and community. The idea that this separation might be mutually beneficial has been challenged by elder rights activists, as well as sociologists who see flaws with the disengagement theory.