Aging and Role Loss

One of the prominent theories in social aging is role theory. Role theorists have shown that feeling in control of life and having social power and prestige is associated with better health (Krause et al., 1992). One of the major components of role theory is role loss. This occurs usually as people age; they start losing roles as active parents, employees, and spouses. This often leads to feelings of loss of control over life. In addition, older people generally have less contact with others which in turn causes their social networks to shrink. This leads to poorer health (Moen, Dempster-McClain, & Williams, 1992).

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As people age they tend to lose social roles—whether as parents, employees, or spouses. This loss of roles can lead to social isolationism due to the decreased amount of social interaction. Research shows “that perceived social isolation [assuming that socially isolated people have few roles] is associated with a variety of altered physiological functions, such as blood pressure regulation…and immune reactions. A causal link in these relations was suggested…” (Berntson & Cacioppo, 2000, p. 9). Researchers also theorize the loss of roles as leading to loss of feelings of control and depressive symptoms, which are both components of overall well-being (Krause et al., 1992).

Van Willigen (2000) explains loss of control as composed of five different concepts: “powerlessness, isolation, self-estrangement, meaninglessness, and normlessness” (p. S309). She also explained that when people feel that they have power over their lives and are not socially isolated they generally have a greater psychosocial well-being. Consequently, when people do not feel in control of their lives and are isolated, they tend to have lower life satisfaction and well-being. These factors are in turn correlated with lower health and longevity (Hunter & Linn, 1981; Musick et al., 1999).

Rook and Sorkin (2003) posit a slightly different reason why role loss has negative consequences on older adults. They state:

For many older adults…dual ‘receiving and giving’ functions are readily available in their close relationships with other people…. For others, however, opportunities to express one or both functions may be missing. Widowhood, retirement, and other social role losses that affect the elderly may limit opportunities for maintaining and developing close relationships that involve reciprocal exchanges of support (p. 314).

They view roles as tied to reciprocal relationships and so without those roles they do not have others from which to benefit. While there is variation in explanations why role loss leads to poorer health, I did not address that with this post. I simply wanted to introduce one part of a social theory of aging.


Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2000). Psychobiology and social psychology: Past, present, and future. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 3-15.

Hunter, K., & Linn, M. (1980-1981). Psychological differences between elderly volunteers and nonvolunteers. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 12, 205-213.

Krause, N., Herzog, A. R., & Baker, E. (1992). Providing support to others and well-being in later life. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 47, P300–P311.

Moen, P., Dempster-McClain, D., & Williams, R. M. (1992). Successful aging: A life-course perspective on women’s multiple roles and health. The American Journal of Sociology, 97, 1612–1638.

Musick, M. A., Herzog, A. R., & House, J. S. (1999). Volunteering and mortality among older adults: Findings from a national sample. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 54B, S173–S180.

Rook, K. S., & Sorkin, D. H. (2003). Fostering social ties through a volunteer role: Implications for older-adults’ psychological health. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 54, 313-337.

Van Willigen, M. (2000). Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 55B, S308–S318.

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