Social Psychology




  • Be able to identify and discuss the role of the older adult in society
  • Understand the role of social structure and institutions and their impact on older adults
  • Understand the impact of older adults on social structure and institutions
  • Examine and understand the changing contexts of family, work, state, and religion over the past century

Note: This week focuses more on the major social structures that influence and shape aging in a social context, and it will be followed next week by a more detailed look at the context of aging families and social support networks.






Sociological perspectives on aging emphasize the importance of group membership and the effects of historical events on the experiences of later life. Consider a seventy year old woman being admitted for psychological evaluation. What if anything can we know about her based solely on her age and personal experiences? Is turning seventy a significant milestone or a common occurrence? Is she likely to be in good health? What avenues are available to her for financial support? Is she embedded in a social network? What opportunities were available to her over the life course? What historical events on a societal level shaped her life? What more do we know about her if we have information on her ethnicity, social class and education level?

Situating individuals in social contexts is essential if we want to understand the lives of older people. Many scholars acknowledge this, but may not recognize how it applies at a broad societal and historical level. It is all too easy to stereotype older people from the perspective of our own class background and the current historical period. When we recognize the importance of broad-level social contexts, we can better understand the diversity of experiences of aging across time and location.

In this chapter we explore how social structures shape the lives and problems of older individuals. While there are many types of sociological approaches that can be used to understand aging, we will focus here on family, work, the state, and religion - four significant contexts which have changed greatly over the past century. By understanding these changing contexts, professionals can better understand the lives of older individuals.



Social Structures

Individuals live and interact in social contexts that affect their everyday lives. These contexts can be understood as social structures-- large scale patterns of behavior that are ordered across time and location and reflect accepted patterns of values and beliefs. Social structures can operate at two levels: those of whole societies and those representing integral components of society (Connell, 1987). At the latter level, commonly recognized social structures include family, work, the state, religion, the legal system, and education.

Social structures shape individual practices in marked ways through the establishment of social rules - norms - and the distribution of resources - power. These rules and resources govern practices such as entry into school, the timing of marriage, exit from the paid labor force, and receipt of government-sponsored health care. Through rituals, individuals celebrate these accepted life transitions and use them to give meaning to their lives.

At the same time, people shape change in social structures in direct and indirect ways. Individuals and groups can challenge social structures directly through organized resistance to dominant ideology and indirectly through non-adherence to social norms. The interplay between individuals and social structures provides the vital force that brings about social change.

The pace of change between individual lives and social structures is often uneven. Because of the routinized nature of social structures, structural norms are slow to change. In contrast, people can change their lives very rapidly to meet their individual needs. Thus, social structures "lag behind" individual lives (Riley, Kahn & Foner, 1994). When individuals are faced with an increasingly out of date social structure, they sometimes develop creative adaptations for their personal lives and may challenge the social structure itself. For example, in the past few decades, middle aged women from the middle and upper classes have returned to school when caregiving responsibilities have lessened in the home. These women directly challenged notions of "student" and "experienced" worker by adapting their unpaid homeworking skills for use in the paid labor force.

The goal of this chapter is to highlight selected social structures which influence the lives of aging individuals and to describe these changing contexts as we approach the 21st century. We have chosen to focus on the social structures of family, work, state, and religion because of their widespread significance in older people's lives.



The boundaries of "family" are hotly contested by politicians, academics and the public (Stacey, 1996). Family can be thought of in several ways; its meaning has changed over time, across cultures, and differs by context within cultures. How "family" is defined legally has implications far beyond the home - for insurance coverage eligibility, tax bracket status, pension levels and distribution, child custody decisions, probate outcomes, decisions about medical intervention, and immigration options (Weston, 1991). In this section we will focus on family as a social structure. Next, we will examine (1) historical change in family structures and definitions, (2) increased diversity in the experiences of family, and how these shape the lives of older individuals.


Family as a Social Structure

As a social structure, families represent a symbolic context in which individuals' needs for love and support are met and reciprocated. Family members exchange significant levels of help and support throughout the life course (Cicerelli, 1990; Silverstein, Parrott & Bengtson, 1995). They help each other in many ways, providing assistance with regular tasks, financial support and advice. They share companionship, love and leisure time. They experience shared history that comes from long term relationships with kin who recognize their multiple facets. Many experience pride in seeing the continuation of their family lines in younger generations.

Here we mainly emphasize the positive potentials of family life, and it is important to add that family conflict can play a real and serious role in the lives of older people. While conflict, disagreement and competition can coexist with affection and support in families (Bengtson, Rosenthal, & Burton, 1996), it can also lead to negative memories and decreased willingness to help in times of need (Whitbeck, Hoyt, & Huck, 1994). Thus, while we acknowledge that families' interactions reflect the imperfections of their members, we emphasize that despite this, the social structure of family remains powerfully important.


Children of Aging Parents

Familial responsibilities often go beyond emotional and social support. Sometimes, one must investigate outside resources and possibilities for a loved one. While this can seem overwhelming, often it is merely a matter of knowing where to turn for information.




Exercise: Finding Assistance for Aging Family

Historical Change in Family Structures and Definitions

One of the most profound changes that has influenced our understanding of family over the last century is the lengthening of average life expectancy. Improved sanitary conditions, better nutrition, and medical advances have lowered levels of infant and child mortality and increased average life expectancy at birth. In 1900, the average life expectancy of a child born in the United States was 47 years. Ninety years later it was 75.4 years (Treas, 1995). For older individuals, having longer lives means having increased time in family roles. For example, the average duration of relationships between parents and children has increased dramatically. On average adult children today experience twice as much shared time with a living parent as their counterparts in 1800, and triple the amount of time with both parents living (Watkins, Menken & Bongaarts, 1987). This means that adult children have more potential for contact and support from parents, but they may also have more responsibility for aging parents throughout the life course. Beyond parent-child relationships, higher average life spans have increased the potential for extended intergenerational relationships. Grandparenting and great-grandparenting, which were less common in 1900, have become enduring life roles for many as we approach the year 2000. Many grandparents have a lot to offer to younger generations, and this interaction can also provide older individuals with an increased sense of purpose (Robertson, 1995).

Example 1
Below is the diagram of a nuclear family. It represents a traditional family structure.

In each family the circles represent women members, and the squares represent men members. The three shades of yellow represent different generations. Generation 1 means grandparents; generation 2 means parents; generation 3 means children; and, generation 4 means grandchildren.

Left to right lines represent within generation relationship, like marriage or /sisterhood brotherhood. Down lines represent relationships between generations, like mother or father to daughter or son.

In addition to intergenerational ties, the potential for long-term relationships between siblings and cousins of the same generation has grown. For example, the longevity and indissolubility of many biological and adoptive sibling relationships make them vital to a sense of security in old age. Siblings are more likely to be companions than other types of relatives, and are better at maintaining active long-distance relationships than are friends (Bedford, 1995).

Recent decades have shown a decrease in marriages that result in lifelong relationships. Since 1800 the average number of years spent in marriage has increased, but at a far lower rate than its potential (Watkins, Menken & Bongaarts, 1987). People are more likely to marry later, have fewer children, have children outside of marriage, cohabit outside of marriage, divorce, belong to step- and blended families, live in non-family households, and are less likely to remarry after divorce than they were a few decades ago (Stacey, 1996; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). These trends are generally evident throughout the Western World, despite some variations across different racial and social class groups, and different age groups (Stacey, 1996; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). One in two marriages in the U.S. is now expected to end in divorce. While a significant proportion of divorced individuals remarry, many do not (Cherlin, 1992).

Example 2
Below is the diagram of a more complex family. It represents a family structure that is more common in the recent decades as divorce and four generation families have become more prevalent. Click on the image to enlarge a section of it.

This example shows a more complex family which consists of deceased members (those crossed by a red X), of divorced members (those that have their left-right line crossed by 2 lines at an angle), and of remarried members (those that are connected to another members once they have divorced).

New forms of chosen partnerships are becoming increasingly socially acceptable. These most commonly take the form of cohabitation without legal marriage and homosexual partnerships that may or may not be legally sanctioned. Although these forms of partnerships have been found among most cultures for centuries, in the past few decades societies have begun to recognize these partnerships as legitimate alternatives to marriage. Cohabitation has become extremely common in the US Among the formerly married, declining rates of remarriage are more than offset when those who have substituted cohabitation for remarriage are incorporated (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1994). In addition, some individuals cohabit as a precursor to marriage. Recent US data indicate that about 90 percent of cohabiting relationships at any age result in marriage or break up within five years (Cherlin, 1992). For the remaining 10%, long term cohabitation may be due to ideological beliefs or financial necessity. For example, two romantically involved elderly individuals may choose not to marry in order to maintain higher pension levels.

The increased acceptance of homosexual partnerships is evident in the increased political dialogue around the rights of homosexual partners to legally marry. In some countries, gays and lesbians have gained ground in their rights to claim a legally sanctioned form of marriage. Denmark, Norway and Sweden have legalized a form of gay marriage called "registered partnerships" (Stacey, 1996). In Canada, legislation is before the supreme court that would, if passed by parliament, redefine marriage to include homosexual unions. Until quite recently homosexual partners were uniformly denied familial rights commonly given to heterosexual spouses. These include the right to co-parent children, co-own property and to receive benefits from a partner's employment. These rights continue to be challenged in many countries.

Below is the diagram of an even more complex family. It represents a more contemporary type of family structure. Click on the image to enlarge a section of it.

This example shows a more complex family which consists of deceased members (those crossed by a red X), of divorced members (those that have their left-right line crossed by 2 lines at an angle), and of remarried members (those that are connected to another members once they have divorced).


Ambiguous Relationships

Looking back at both Examples 2 and 3 of Genograms, what might be some of the "ambiguous" relationships that could occur?

The tenuousness of marriage and the increased visibility of alternative partnerships lead to several implications for older individuals. One is that while older individuals today may not experience the same high levels of divorce, cohabitation, and publicly open homosexuality as their younger counterparts, they are affected by these practices in their children and other younger relatives. They will need to make decisions about how to negotiate their changing kinship networks. A second implication for older individuals is that more in the future are likely to enter old age while divorced or in short term remarriages/ cohabitations. Ex- and short-term spouses may not be as likely to provide the depth of personal care that long term spouses typically gave in the past. As a result, it may fall more to children, siblings and other long term family members to supplement relatively weak spousal support systems. Older men who are divorced may also lose contact or closeness with intergenerational kin, since they are less likely to enact strong kinkeeping roles than women (Hagestad, 1986). Older women who are divorced may face compounded economic problems with aging, since many have only been in the paid labor force sporadically, and their retirement incomes are only a fraction of men's. As new forms of chosen partnerships are becoming socially acceptable, the meanings of family life have become increasingly diverse. It is this phenomenon that we will explore next.


Diversity in Experiences of Family

Many researchers are now recognizing what much of the public already knows - that family and kinship are often not bounded by marriage, adoption, or biology. This has been stated in the past about specific subgroups such as African Americans (Stack, 1970), but is increasingly acknowledged for the majority of society. Regardless of family form, adult intergenerational relationships are structurally diverse (Bengtson, Rosenthal & Burton, 1990; Silverstein & Bengtson, 1997). Widespread changes in structural family forms and lived family lives have many important implications for aging individuals. Riley and Riley (1993) describe an emerging kinship structure they call a "latent matrix" of kin connections. This matrix consists of a large and complex network of kin relationships, that are flexible/voluntary, not constrained by age or generation in closeness and support, and latent in quality until they are called upon (Riley & Riley, 1993). The Rileys conceptualize the latent matrix as a network of kin that is continually shifting, allowing for the activation and intensification of close kin relationships. Boundaries are wide to encompass several degrees of stepkin and in-laws, single- parent families, cohabitation-related, adopted and other "relatives" chosen from outside the family.

This type of socially constructed family or opportune family (Johnson, 1995) includes individuals who are selectively accumulated through marriage, divorce and remarriage. These relationships are variable and negotiable for those of all ages, adding complexity to many family relationships. This complexity has influenced the role of grandparents (Giarrusso, Silverstein & Bengtson, 1996). For example, Johnson and Barer (1987) examined four different ways divorce or remarriage among family members altered kinship networks for grandparents: (1) when relationships with relatives of a child's divorce were retained, while new relatives were added with a child's remarriage; (2) when the divorces and remarriages of multiple children created several subsets of relatives; (3) when the divorces and remarriages of the grandparents added another set of step and in-law relations; and (4) when they retained relationships with former children-in-law after these children remarried.

Nearly half of the grandparents in Johnson and Barer's study experienced kinship expansion fitting the above criteria, during the three years following a child's marital separation. Those grandmothers who severed relations with former in-laws after their children divorced experienced a temporary contraction in the kinship system, which expanded again if the children remarried. Johnson and Barer's (1987) research highlights the voluntary aspect of relationships formed after divorce and remarriage. Like the grandparents in their study, a great number of individuals of all ages do and will face choices about kinship expansion and reduction throughout their lives. We can no longer assume that help and support are exchanged across only certain family structures.

The structural changes described above and the diversity of decisions people might make about them can bring a great deal of ambiguity into the lives of older individuals. Boss and Greenberg (1984) describe a state of boundary ambiguity, in which individuals can feel a lack of clarity about who is in or out of a family system at any given time. Steprelatives, cohabiting partners of relatives, and even biological relatives may be seen as physically present but psychologically absent, or as psychologically present but physically absent. In these cases, the family boundaries are ambiguous, contributing to confusion over the roles and tasks individuals perform. Should stepgrandchildren living with biological grandchildren be invited for the holidays and given comparable gifts? Should a child's cohabiting partner be included in a family portrait? Should former stepchildren be called on for assistance in times of need?

These and many other everyday decisions shape whether ambiguously-related family members are treated as integral, peripheral or negligible to a larger family system. Family members may disagree about who should be included and the level of inclusion or exclusion. This kind of conflict may be bewildering for older individuals, many of whom grew up during a time when family boundaries were perceived as more clear. While negotiable kinship provides more potential for emotional and financial support, it can also leave aging individuals in a precarious situation, since obligations between family members may also become more ambiguous.



The relationship between work, careers, and aging is changing. The 19th Century notion of work did not include retirement. People worked until they died or were physically disabled. By the end of the 20th Century retirement has become something that most workers expect to experience; yet changes in the structure of labor markets, economies, and societal attitudes have led to differential experiences of work. In this section we begin by discussing work as a social structure. We then explore how trajectories and transitions in work careers vary due to two main factors; (1) changes over historical time in labor markets and economies, and (2) diversity in the experience of work.


Work as a Social Structure

The social structure of work provides an opportunity structure of available occupations, norms about appropriate people for these occupations, and a reward structure related to these occupations. Like family, work can be thought of in a multitude of ways. It can incorporate many types and situations of labor. This labor can be physical or mental. It can be paid or unpaid. It may take place in the public sphere or inside a private home. Work can take the form of a recognized position in an established labor market or can be a marginal position in the underground economy. Workers can work full-time or part-time, they can be paid in salaries, hourly wages, by the job, or in exchange for other goods and services.

Here we focus on the context of the paid labor force and older people's relationships with it. Our understanding of work is based on patterns established in the paid labor force. Even with this caveat, the meaning and experience of work is extremely complex. Transitions in and out of work are not clearly delineated at any stage of life. For instance, many contemporary entry-level jobs require high levels of education. As a result, many young people are spending more years in education, and delaying entry into the paid work force. Similarly, the process of exiting the paid labor force is not simple. It involves not only individual choices but overall opportunity structures. Though retirement can be viewed as a separate social structure (Atchley, 1993), the boundaries between retirement and work are becoming increasingly permeable. The transition between work and retirement is blurred (Mutchler, Burr, Pienta & Massagli, 1997) and decisions to retire may not be final (Hayward, Grady & McLaughlin, 1988). Although the decision to exit or remain in the labor force is a very personal one, larger societal factors play a role by either pushing older workers out of work or pulling them into the labor force (Kohli, 1994).

Programs for Disadvantaged and Older Individuals


Historical Changes in Labor Markets and Economies

As labor markets change, work opportunities for older adults also change. A major indication of this is the changes to the overall availability of certain types of jobs. Service and high tech positions have replaced the large number of agricultural and manufacturing jobs available in the early 1900s. As the labor market has shifted to a post- industrial, service based economy, the types of jobs available are less likely to be the career jobs that contemporary elderly (middle class men) entered into as young adults. In the United States, corporate downsizing and restructuring in the past decade have also reduced the demand for senior workers. Instead the jobs available to many older workers are "contingent jobs" with no promise of lifetime employment or company loyalty (Henretta, 1994). Many of the skills of contemporary older workers are obsolete in today's marketplace, which emphasizes advanced technological skills. Another component of the changing workplace is that certain types of people are funnelled into certain jobs. For instance, only when the demand for labor is high, such as during World War II, have concerted efforts been made to retrain older workers (Kohli, 1994). Partly because of these factors, there has been a downward trend in labor force participation among men over 55 (Easterlin, Crimmins & Ohanian, 1984; Treas, 1995). This reflects a pattern of early retirement among a significant proportion of the male work force. This pattern has stabilized during the last quarter century, especially since the 1980's. Retirement trends for older women are more varied than for men - while some women fit the male pattern, others are entering the paid labor force in later life for the first time (Quinn & Burkhauser, 1994).

In addition, the size and skills of the available pool of younger workers influences the job opportunities open to aging individuals. When the size of younger cohorts is smaller, there may be more demand for older workers. Nevertheless, many employers will hire supplemental workers from the pool of women and immigrants before they will approach older workers (Kohli, 1994). In contrast, a rise in unemployment among younger workers can increase the push toward early exit for older workers.

Changes in economies can result in changes in the value of income. The more people depended on work for their preretirement income, instead of assets or savings, the more likely they are to return to work if their pensions and savings decrease in value (Hayward, Grady & McLaughlin, 1988). Part-time and self employment are increasingly common among older workers, the majority of whom are working part time by choice. "Bridge jobs," which are the part time jobs that workers obtain between careers and retirement, are becoming more prevalent among older workers (Quinn & Kozy, 1996).


Diversity in Experiences of Work

The work history of individuals influences their subsequent opportunities as they age. Diversity in careers by gender, race, and class can lead to differences in opportunities and marketability in later life. The establishment of seniority both within and between occupations is also diverse (Henretta, 1994). The type or prestige of an occupation influences individual decisions to remain in the labor force. For instance, high prestige jobs that focus on mental work may retain older workers who continue to find their work gratifying and whose expertise continues to be highly valued. For menial laborers, the situation is reversed. Remaining in a job may be less desirable for older workers whose skills are devalued. Ironically, these workers are more likely to be in need of additional income in old age.

Opportunity structures during primary working years affect opportunities and access to resources during retirement (Calasanti, 1993). For workers with a career of manual and low-paying jobs, exit from the workforce is often more about health issues and disability than gaining leisure time. Hayward, Friedman, and Chin (1996) found that in the United States, African Americans' unequal footing in the labor force persisted into retirement years with significantly higher rates of disability.

Women's work trajectories reflect the opportunities available to them in society, and deeply held beliefs about gender roles. Most occupations in the US remain sex-segregated, and most women continue to hold low-status, female-typed, dead-end jobs, earning much lower wages than men (Blum, 1991). Because women are more likely to spend time outside the paid labor force, they are even less marketable in later life.

Industrialization and workplace patterns encourage lives that are structured around age norms. Many Western notions of appropriate life activities have come to be organized around work (Kohli, 1986). Work has become more individualized historically, as it has been pulled away from community and family life.


The State

The state - or government - shapes older people's lives in profound ways. First, we want to provide a sociological perspective on the state as a social structure and how it influences the lives of aging individuals. Next, we will highlight how states/governments act as both (1) providers for the well being of older individuals; and (2) regulators of life course activities.


The State as a Social Structure

The state is the largest social structure and wields incredible power over individual lives. As a social structure, the state manages collective resources and maintains social order. Toward these ends, the state privileges some groups over others, and its programs and policies reflect the ideologies of those in control.

The state can be defined as a combination of "executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the military, the criminal justice system, educational institutions, and public health and welfare institutions" (Estes, Linkins & Binney, 1996, p. 347). Our perspective draws from the work of political economists who emphasize the social construction and value-laden nature of state activities (Estes, Linkins & Binney, 1996; Minkler & Estes, 1991).

As societies have become more industrialized, states have become increasingly complex in order to meet the needs of individuals. Through legislation, states establish rules about citizenship, employment, health care and many other things. Through funding, states facilitate research and development in the fields of science and technology.

State activities have played a major role in constructing what people think of as "old age". Since the 1930's in the US, "older people" were designated as all people over age 65. This was the age limit required for receipt of full Social Security benefits. Sixty-five as an age marker originated in Germany in the 1880s (Myles, 1984) with the introduction of the first social insurance program. Today, certain segments of society provide benefits for "seniors" at a range of ages. The US government has pushed the old age eligibility marker of 65 upward, with the planned increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67 (Torres-Gil, 1992).

Most people don't have a good idea of how their Social Security benefits will be figured upon retirement. The Social Security Administration offers all individuals the opportunity to request a Personal Earnings and Benefit Statement. The Statement estimates your benefits based on information you supply; for example, current and expected salary, planned retirement date,etc. Go to Social Security Administration's web site above and read about Social Security benefits. Then, click on Personal Earnings and Estimate (PEBES section) and enter your information. You will receive an estimate in approximately 4 weeks.

In its functions as manager of resources and maintainer of social order, the state shapes the lives of older individuals in two key ways. It provides for later life social welfare through programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and regulates activities at all stages of the life course.


The State as Provider

The term "welfare state" refers to government entitlement programs that distribute income, health care and social services (Myles, 1984; Schulz, 1996). It is this aspect of the state that most concerns us here, since states have taken on significant responsibilities for the economic maintenance of older people (Myles, 1984). As a result, older people depend on state policies more than people of other age groups (Estes, 1991a).

In recent decades across the industrialized world, government programs benefiting the elderly have expanded (Jacobs, 1990; Mayer & Schoepflin, 1989; Myles, 1984). Some describe the years 1930-1990 as the era of "Modern Aging", in which governments took on a major role in the provision of services and benefits for older people (Torres-Gil, 1992). This expansion has made the practice of retirement more accessible (Quadagno & Myles, 1991) and has led to an increase in independent living for those over 65 (Jacobs, 1990).

Nations differ from each other and across time in their provision of social welfare programs for the elderly. Cross-national variations can be linked to levels of industrialization, economic development, and political culture and values (Binstock & Day, 1996). For example, the U.S. is set apart from other nations in its focus on individualism and its resistance to government action (Binstock & Day, 1996; Parrott, Reynolds & Bengtson, 1997). As a result, only in the US is health care a part of the politics of old age (Estes, 1991b). Other capitalistic Western nations have health care for people of all ages.

While welfare state expansion has contributed to the economic well being of older people in general, certain groups of elderly remain at-risk under current systems. Disadvantaged groups include women, minorities, the poor, the frail, and those in rural areas (Torres-Gil, 1992). This can be explained in part by policies that benefit certain groups over others. For example, the application of Social Security in the US is not gender- neutral. Benefits based on spousal wages reinforce women's dependence on men. Women's prior economic dependence (resulting from societal norms of women providing the bulk of unpaid home care) has led to gender inequality in retirement income for men and women. Single women are particularly impoverished (Estes, Linkins & Binney, 1996).

Another issue is that the needs of older people exceed the programs available to fill those needs. Governments expect that much of the care that older people need will be provided by family members and other loved ones. But care is compromised when primary caregivers, often women, are unable to "do it all", and dependent elderly are shifted off into impersonal institutionalized forms of care, such as day care and nursing homes (Hochschild, 1995). Even if paid workers strive to give high quality care, it is doubtful that state provided care offers the same level of mental, emotional and physical attention to well being that someone with a long term emotional bond would give (Hochschild, 1995).

The size and scope of welfare state activities, including entitlement programs for older people, continue to be a matter of public debate. The state is now being framed as a social structure unable to handle the increasing needs of the elderly. Social policy discussions have shifted from a focus on improvement to one of crisis and budget cutting (Estes, 1991b). Three long-term developments challenge whether elderly income security can be maintained at current levels: (1) the accelerated rate of population aging; (2) anticipated rises in public expenditures; and (3) the trend toward early retirement (Quadagno & Myles, 1991). A basic question comes up again and again: "What should be the role of the public sector in caring for citizens in later life?" (Jacobs, 1990, p. 358). Although this question will continue to be a major one facing policymakers in upcoming decades, many argue that it is unlikely that there will be dramatic changes in governmental policies toward the aged in the near future (Parrott, Reynolds & Bengtson, 1997).

Exercise: Social Security Benefits


The State as Regulator of the Life Course

State policies regulate many aspects of life, including the structure of schooling, the legal marriage age, and the age of pension eligibility (Mayer & Schoepflin, 1989). In these and other ways, the state provides a structure for people to fit into as they live their lives.

One aspect of this regulation occurs as a by-product of welfare state provision. By providing age-based transfer incomes, states decrease older people's dependency on others and allow for decision making that might otherwise be impossible (Mayer & Schoepflin, 1989). For instance, in the past when people reached retirement age in the US, they forfeited income if they delayed retirement, since public pensions did not increase if receipt was delayed. This provided a strong incentive to stop working at age 65 for financial reasons. Age-based eligibility contributes to sharp life transitions that are arbitrarily and universally applied, rather than based on need (Neugarten & Neugarten, 1986) or individual preferences (Mayer & Schoepflin, 1989). "Whenever the state establishes rules, provides services, or offers monetary incentives, it is functionally rational for individuals to make use of such opportunities" (Mayer & Schoepflin, 1989, p. 202).

Other regulation of older people occurs through general legislation that shapes decision-making. Certain laws have a particularly strong impact on older people. One example is "right to die" regulation. This has become an issue in many industrialized countries, and encompasses various forms of euthanasia and assisted suicide (Glick & Smith, 1993).

Another example of regulation that is extremely relevant to older people is legislation surrounding "autonomy" and "competency". When an individual becomes unable to make his or her own decisions about medical treatment or health care, others must be brought in to help make these decisions. A variety of options exist in this realm, depending on the specifics of the situation (Wilber & Reynolds, 1995). States are involved in regulating the practices of surrogacy and guardianship, which in turn affect health care and financial outcomes in the lives of older people who have become incapacitated.

Due to state involvement, aging individuals experience a context that promotes transitions that are ordered yet are not individually motivated (Mayer & Schoepflin, 1989). This is a powerful force that students may want to consider - that externally and universally applied rules are shaping the lives of older individuals. Further, these rules do not evolve in a vacuum but in specific historical and political contexts.

Some groups, including gerontologists, have challenged the necessity of a life course segmented by age, arguing instead for an "age-integrated" society, in which individuals of all ages can move between educational, occupational, unpaid work, and leisure activities (Riley, Kahn & Foner, 1994). They argue that there is a lack of productive and meaningful role opportunities for the rising numbers of strong, healthy, and capable older people (Riley, Kahn & Foner, 1994). States may encourage continued productive roles in the future by raising the eligibility age of public pensions (Burkhauser & Quinn, 1994).

In sum, states, with their entitlement programs, age-based rules, and general legislation, act as major providers and regulators in the lives of older people. Their policies do not have an equal impact on all individuals--some are privileged and others disadvantaged under current systems. It is important to guard against seeing this as "natural"-- states have developed over time and location within specific historical contexts. They enable and constrict the lives of older people. They make some preferred decisions possible and others unattainable.



Organized religion plays a major role in the lives of billions of people worldwide. Taken collectively, the major world religions - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Taoism - condition the lives and belief structures of people of all ages. These religions have varying influences at multiple levels - some shape government policy and societal norms, while others have an influence primarily at a personal and small group level. This section will focus on 1) the role of religion in articulating a system of beliefs and values, and 2) religious institutions as locations of social interaction and support for older people.


Religion as a Social Structure

Religious organizations transmit values and beliefs to members of society. As mentioned above, they have varying influences on people's lives. Nevertheless, viewing religion as a social structure allows us to see how at a broad societal level, religion offers a context in which individual and collective needs for meanings are met through established beliefs and rituals.


Religion, in Articulating a System of Beliefs & Values

Religion seeks to define the spiritual world and give meaning to events that are difficult to explain or understand. Religious values, beliefs and rituals can integrate members of a community and provide a source of strength in difficult times. Religion can facilitate the process of older people making sense of their lives by providing hope, emotional strength, and coping strategies for dealing with death and suffering (Johnson, 1995; Koenig, 1994; Ellison, 1994). These can serve as resources for older individuals, even in the absence of tangible social support (Payne and McFadden, 1994). Religion acts as a source of continuity for many older individuals, but it can also be a source of conflict. Religious beliefs and meanings may clash with other aspects of people's lives, such as conventional medical practices, legal rights, and expectations at the workplace (O'Connell, 1994). Other times people's beliefs clash with the beliefs of others, leading to social conflict. This can result in generational conflict as younger members of a religious community seek to adapt rituals and values to contemporary society. On a more personal level, individuals might feel that they have not lived up to the expectations of their religion, leading to a sense of guilt or a fear of damnation, which may have an effect on psychological well-being (Moberg, 1983). Others may feel let down by a religion that could not prevent sorrow and loss of loved ones.


As Facilitator of Social Interaction and Support for Elderly

Religion provides a meeting ground for its members. These meeting grounds can be physical spaces such as temples and shrines or social spaces such as prayer groups and religious festivals. Older individuals who are lonely or depressed may be particularly comforted by the social opportunity provided by religious participation. Religious communities enable the creations of social networks and the exchange of support in times of need (Ellison, 1994). Since people of older ages are currently more likely to be involved in religion than those of younger ages (Payne and McFadden, 1994), religious activities may provide important sites for peer interaction among older individuals and comfort in the face of losses of family and friends. The interaction and support provided by religion also affords additional benefits. Increased social support and stronger social networks provided by religious involvement are correlated with better health. Religion promotes a sense of intimacy and a feeling of belonging among older individuals (Johnson, 1995). The mental health benefits of religious involvement are consistent over the life course (Levin, Chatters and Taylor, 1995). Recently researchers have been careful to point out that health benefits are not simply due to religious participation, but are a result of related factors such as social support (Atchley, 1997). In the U.S., African American churches have been shown to provide the kind of social and psychological support that links older people with health communities (Levin, Chatters and Taylor, 1995). While the support and interaction that comes with religion can be a major support for older individuals, it can also have some negative effects. Non-compliance with religious norms may lead to social stigma within a religious community, or meddling on the part of "well-meaning" religious members.


Implications for Professionals Who Work with Elderly

Understanding aging individuals in the context of social structures is important for professionals because social contexts define and shape the lives of the elderly. As Mills (1959) stated in The Sociological Imagination, "neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both" (p. 3). Older people who benefit from the services of professionals are living in an increasingly complex world. Social contexts condition the opportunities and social support available to them. The rapid changes to social institutions that have occurred across the 20th century can be hard to continually adapt to, and older people may find themselves increasingly alienated, confused, and even estranged from the society in which they live. By recognizing the historically changing structural diversity of their clients' lives, professionals can adapt their services to best fit clients' particular life situations.

Older people have many needs and a variety of professionals play a critical role in helping them adjust to the changes of later life. Many of these changes can be linked to broader trends in society that vary across time and location. Recognition of these broad trends enables professionals to anticipate issues and to develop programs to better meet the needs of the older people they serve. In addition, geroprofessionals can influence the social context in which their clients live by sharing their expertise with the larger community. For instance, by serving on civic, educational or religious organizations, professionals can help their community adapt to the needs of older individuals. By recognizing and incorporating the structural contexts discussed in this chapter, geroprofessionals can develop services that help older individuals cope with their changing worlds.

Each social structure discussed in this chapter has been linked to the lives of aging individuals. The changing family context can lead to ambiguity in terms of older family members' responsibility toward younger family members. By providing older individuals with information on (grand)child custody and visitation, estate planning, and strategies to manage family conflict, those who work with the elderly can empower the lives of aging individuals negotiating family relationships. The changing work context can place older people, especially women, in precarious financial circumstances. Professionals can address these needs by creating programs which focus on job retraining, strategies for re-entering the work force, and retirement planning. The changing context of the state structures the lives of aging individuals. By developing services for them which emphasize political action, interpret new laws and regulations, and negotiate the health care system, professionals can help aging individuals recognize their own agency in dealing with the monolithic structure of the state. The changing context of religion can leave older individuals isolated from like-minded peers. Professionals can address these needs by encouraging religious organizations to reach out to the elderly population and by providing information to older clients about diverse religious communities that service elders.



It is all too easy to think of the elderly in individualistic terms. While this is important, it is incomplete because it ignores structural constraints and the power of social norms. The main thrust of this chapter has been to show the importance of four societal contexts to the lives of aging individuals. These four contexts - family, work, the state, and religion - are in constant flux, and a change in one area can precipitate changes in each of the others, which affects individual lives. A recognition of these broad level contexts enhances the understanding of behavior, and will contribute to a fuller understanding of the lives of older individuals.

Cyber Classroom


Key Points

  • Social structures shape individuals practices in marked ways through the establishment of social rules (norms) and the distribution of resources (power).
  • Historical changes in family structures and definitions of what a family is have changed. There is increased diversity in the experiences of family, and how these shape the lives of older individuals.
  • Changes in the types of jobs in the labor market, delayed entry and departure (retirement) from the work force, and multiple lifetime careers influence the experiences of older individuals.
  • State/goverment programs shape societal views about 1) who is "older"; 2) the way older individuals are provided for; and, 3) how people's lives are regulated all across the life course.
  • Religious involvement contributes to the well-being and social integration of older individuals.
  • The four societal contexts of family, work, the state, and religion are in constant flux. A change in one area can precipitate changes in each of the others, which affects individual lives.