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Disengagement and Reinforcement in the Elderly


  • Barbara S. Henthorn

    Corresponding author
    1. Dr. Barbara S. Henthorn is Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Nursing, Central State University, Edmond, Oklahoma.
    • Requests for reprints may be addressed to Dr. Barbara S. Henthorn, Department of Nursing, Central State University, 100 North University Drive, Edmond, Oklahoma 73034
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Misinterpretation of disengagement theory as the ideal way of aging has led to a laissez-faire attitude in some settings. The problem is to determine the extent to which disengagement may be related to situational factors, and thus be potentially reversible, rather than the extent to which disengagement may be related to aging per se. In this study, disengagement is conceptualized in behavioral terms as an extinction phenomenon. The relationship between the degree of disengagement exhibited by elderly persons and the self-reported reinforcement occurring in their lives was explored in a survey of two elderly groups. A disengagement index incorporating role-set counts, role participation, role importance, and perceived life space was administered to 50 nursing home residents and 50 community registered voters. A Reinforcement Survey Schedule was used to identify positive reinforcers, level of reinforcement, and anticipated reinforcement. A significant correlation (p < .001) was found between disengagement and reinforcement for both groups: the greater the degree of disengagement, the lower the reported reinforcement. The findings indicate that the application of social learning principles may be useful in retarding disengagement and promoting engagement of the elderly, particularly in nursing homes.