Continuity theory of aging: Definition, Examples & Criticism

continuity theory of aging

The continuity theory of aging is a psychosocial conceptual framework to study explaining how people develop in old age. 

According to the continuity theory of aging, older adults tend to engage in the same activities, behaviors, and relationships as in their earlier life.

Τhe theory holds that older people seek to preserve a continuity of living and behaving by adapting strategies learned and applied in the past.

Along with disengagement theory and activity theory, continuity theory is one of the key three psychosocial theories of late adulthood.

It modifies and builds upon activity theory, by adopting a life course viewpoint to define normal aging.

The continuity theory is a micro-level sociological theory because it focuses more on individual actions and experiences.

Origins of Continuity Theory of Aging

Here’s a timeline of the development of the theory

1968George Maddox observed that older people engaged in similar activities to those of their previous life. He used the concept of continuity to explain the behavior of aging individuals.
1989Robert Atchley is considered the “father” of continuity theory. In his article tilted A Continuity Theory of Normal Aging, he understood the process of aging as shaped by one’s personal history, values, and social interactions.
1999In his book, Continuity and Adaptation in Aging: Creating Positive Experiences,Atchley further developed and bolstered his theory. He perceived continuity in aging as a dynamic and developmental process. Simply put, older people grow and change, but their adaptation to new circumstances is linked to their past experiences and long-held values,

Textbook Definition of Continuity Theory

Continuity theory holds that:

“in making adaptive choices, middle-aged and older adults attempt to preserve and maintain existing internal and external structures; and they prefer to accomplish this objective by using strategies tied to their past experiences of themselves and their social world.

Change is linked to the person’s perceived past, producing continuity in inner psychological characteristics as well as in social behavior and in social circumstances.

Continuity is thus a grand adaptive strategy that is promoted by both individual preference and social approval.”

(Atchley, 1989)

Activity vs continuity theory of aging

Activity theory of agingContinuity theory of aging
According to the activity theory of aging, successful aging occurs when older adults remain active and maintain social interactions.According to continuity theory, both development and adaptation occur continuously, cumulatively, and incrementally throughout life. Learning, acting, and adapting in later adulthood are based on prior experience (Diggs, 2008).
The more “active” one person is, the better they age.An individual’s activities should be reflective of previous activities, learning, and associated tasks.

Both theories describe psychosocial mechanisms for positive aging. Continuity theory built upon activity theory. It took a more nuanced approach to normal and positive aging. For example

  • Activity theory would try to get old people necessarily involved in social activities
  • Continuity theory would recognize that outgoing people are bound to enjoy active group tasks. Reserved people might prefer silent, solitary activities instead.

Internal and external structures of continuity

According to Atchley (1971; 1989), there are internal and external structures of continuity. They both help people adapt to the changing context of their lives and set objectives.

Individuals’ internal structures, such as personality traits, ideas, emotions, and beliefs, remain unchangeable throughout their lives. This allows the person to make decisions for the future based on their personal history building a connection to their past.

Individuals’ external structures, such as relationships, activities, and social roles, help them preserve an unwavering self-concept and way of living.

Examples of continuity theory of aging

We’ll discuss examples of both and external structures of continuity

Examples of Internal Structures of Continuity

  1. When solving a problem (e.g., how to set up a new TV), a person is likely to be able to apply decades of life experience to the task. A spontaneous and confident person will try to set it up right away, while a more insecure and organized person will read the instruction manual to the letter (Onega & Tripp‐Reimer, 1997). 
  2. A person with anger issues throughout their life is very likely to get angrier and grumpier as they get older and are faced with the loss of friends and their impending deaths.
  3. A devoted Christian since a young age is likely to continue practicing religion and going to the church when they get older, despite being more fragile
  4. A When a hard-working and success-oriented person phases out of employment, they’re likely to continue to value an active and productive lifestyle.

Examples of External Structures of Continuity

  • A man who has always enjoyed reading poetry at a younger age will continue doing this when growing older.
  • A woman who has enjoyed cooking for her family throughout her life, will continue hosting family dinners when she gets older.
  • A person who has been outgoing and has a large circle of friends will engage in outings at an older age. These will now be tailored to his lifestyle—he won’t be going to rave parties but to house gatherings.
  • A person who has been an avid chess player since their youth, is likely to join their local chess club and spend even more time playing chess after getting retired.
  • An introverted person is more likely to engage in solitary activities, like reading or listening to music as they grow older.

Key Features

1. Continuation of activities and relationships

Continuity theory posits that late adulthood is not the end of one’s life. It’s the continuation and adaptation of one’s life as before.

This means that outgoing people who have always enjoyed spending time with friends and family are likely to thrive in active group tasks and social gatherings.

This does not apply to more reserved people who, potentially, never made a family and prioritized solitary activities when they were younger.

When they get older, introverts may prefer to maintain their quiet activities, such as listening to soft music and reading.

This means that maintaining the same activities and habits is the most common adaptation strategy for older people, as it preserves existing internal structures.

2. Maintaining the same beliefs and thought patterns

An individual’s internal aspects, e.g., beliefs and ideas, can be relatively stable but may also be subject to adaptation.

Imagine a person who has been a socialist their entire life, believing in a society where everyone would be equal and have access to decent pay and work.

They’re likely to preserve this ideological tenet at an older age. They might preach about this to their grandchildren or moan about the deteriorating state of humanity under advanced capitalism.

That’s because internal continuity helps people connect to their past and maintain inner stability and peace.

3. Continuation of decision-making/ personality traits

According to the continuity theory, an individual’s personality traits remain relatively constant throughout their lifetime.

This means that people cope with difficulties and challenges using the same mechanisms they’ve used in the past.

For example, an optimistic and resilient person is likely to cope better with the loss of their partner when they get older. They’re used to taking a positive approach to challenges, seeking support from their children, and remaining hopeful for the future.

By contrast, an insecure and pessimistic individual is likely to go through a depressive phase if they experience a similar loss at an older age. They might self-isolate and trap themselves in negative thoughts about a gloomy future of loneliness.

This example shows how normally aging people respond to changes in line with their previous decisions and behaviors.

Criticisms of Continuity Theory of Aging

The continuity theory of aging has received three key criticisms:

  1. The theory’s main flaw is its definition of “normal” aging as opposed to pathological aging. For example, internal continuity, as explained above, is lost in Alzheimer’s patients. That’s because they lose awareness of themselves and their life history. Critics argue that continuity theory cannot account for the experiences of older adults with chronic illness (Quadagno, 2007).
  2. The continuity theory is criticized by feminist theories for constructing the concept of “normal” aging around a male model (Quadagno, 2007).
  3. The continuity theory fails to explain how social institutions and constructs influence people as they grow older.

Conclusion

The continuity theory of aging holds that older adults tend to maintain the same relationships, behaviors, personalities, and activities as they did when they were younger.

It is most closely associated with George L. Maddox and Robert Atchley. According to continuity theory, old age is not the dawn of one’s life. Instead, it’s a new phase of opportunity and strength.

Continuity theory emphasizes the natural progression of life from the beginning to the end. Individuals face late-life challenges as the people they’ve gradually evolved into over the course of their lives.

The continuity theory of aging It has been an influential sociological theory in the fields of psychology and social gerontology. There are two major criticisms: (i) its definition of normal aging and (ii) the framing of the theory around a male model of adulthood.

References

Atchley, R.C. (1971). Retirement and Leisure Participation: Continuity or Crisis? The Gerontologist, 11(1), pp. 13–17.

Atchley, R.C. (1989) A continuity theory of normal aging. Gerontologist. 29(2):183-90.

Diggs, J. (2008). The Continuity Theory of Aging. In: Loue, S.J., Sajatovic, M. (eds) Encyclopedia of Aging and Public Health, pp. 233-235. Boston, MA: Springer.

Lynch, K.M., Hanni, A.A., Reed, S.F., Olson, B.D. (2015). Continuity Theory. In Encyclopedia of adulthood and aging. Wiley Online Library.

Maddox, G.X. (1968). Persistence of Lifestyle among the Elderly: A Longitudinal Study of Patterns of Social Activity in Relation to Life Satisfaction. In Neugarten, B. L. (Ed.) Middle age and aging : a reader in social psychology. Chicago.

Quadagno, Jill (2007). Aging and The Life Course: An Introduction to Social Gerontology (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages

Onega L.L., Tripp‐Reimer T. (1997) Expanding the scope of continuity theory. Application to gerontological nursing. J Gerontol Nurs 23(6):29–35

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

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