"The difference between a theory of disengagement and a theory that treats being old as an attributional role is that if we think of being old as an attribution, people are made free or unburdened by their ability to forego these engagements rather than only impoverished by them."
Old is a demographic category and as such is a role based on a noun, just as are the roles of mother and soldier. People are old when they are eligible for Social Security, which was set at sixty five when the Social Security Act was passed in 1935 and is moving up from there. Old is also when one has reached retirement age, which used to mean, in the academic community, reaching the age of seventy. Old is more imprecisely defined as when one's body shows the signs of aging to the point that it makes sense to prescribe drugs on the basis of protocols established for old people rather than protocols designed for adults. Age is not just a number but it is that as well. Ask a seventy year old whether he or she would rather be thirty.
Old, however, is also an adjective, a description of a particular condition which is turned into a role, like being tall, such people needing larger size uniforms if they enter the military or at the end of the line if children are set their place in line by their height. Old people are thence those who act old, which can mean blase or more crotchety or more resigned to their fates even if there are also old people who remain surprisingly young in that they are feisty, interested in the world around them, and with numerous projects to fill their lives. So being old is a state of mind whereby young people can be accused of being like old people because they are too rigid or circumspect or have a sense of the burdens of getting through everyday life. Old ladies are conforming to the role of being old when they do something that is mildly provocative, such as dyeing their hair purple and so violating convention, though not really.
Old becomes something more than an adjectival role when it is taken to be an attributional role, which means that the role can only be ascribed to them and it is up to them to prove worthy of the role, to live up to it rather than simply do the things they have been certified or otherwise trained to do, as is the case with accountants and bakers. Even already pretty women, for the most part, have to work at living up to being pretty-- or opt out of the task and so seek to dispense with that category as an applicable description. And so people infer that someone has become old, rather than simply adopted a trait to live by, that trait a kind of role to conform to, like being helped down a flight of stairs because one is now “frail”. Rather, being old is like being Macbeth. You have to work on your evil. As with other attributional roles, being old requires the adoption of a stance whereby one struggles to accomplish or accommodate a role,
A distinct quality of being old rather than is the case with many other attributional roles is that an old person works or falls into living down to a role rather than living up to it, which is the case with smarts and prettiness. People who are old get fewer and fewer demands made on them. People will excuse the shortcomings of old people in the way they will not excuse the shortcomings of adults. That ranges from trivial matters such as giving up seats on buses and trains to old people and lifting their luggage onto racks to more serious matters which include lapses in physical behavior, such as having tremors, to lapses in mental behavior, such as a tendency to forget names, a trait that would have been an annoyance in a younger person, calling forth an inference that the person forgetting a name is being disrespectful, to an understandable lapse in an older person, just one part of their failing condition, part of the challenge old people face in that being old is a kind of disability or disease brought on either by a specific disease state or just the inevitable aging process that impacts every aspect of one's physiological and mental condition, however much an old person may remain a rational or mostly functioning person until brought low by some disease condition or other.
Just as there are markers to suggest when a person has entered into an adult role, which happens, for one instance, when a person receives invitations to weddings in his or her own name rather than as part of his or her parents’ family because he or she is now living alone or with roommates or a live in partner, so too there are markers of when a person has become old. Neighbors offer to get milk or bread for a widow or widower when they would not have made that offer to a couple which was simply on the elderly side unless such an offer was made in recognition of a disability. Also, people offer their friendship so as to provide some companionship or old people become friends with one another only because they need companionship not otherwise available. There are even institutions, such as Meal on Wheels, which fulfill multiple functions for old people by providing a few minutes of companionship while the process of delivering meals takes place.
People who are old and so judged because they look old or can pull out an ID card that declares their state by providing a birthday, adapt to their condition by accepting, more or less, that they are not required to do all the things that were required of them as adults, finding it perhaps a relief that they get to go to the front of the line or no longer have to show up at work so as to engage in presumably useful employment that also provides them with a livelihood, that now provided by annuities, Social Security or children. It means taking advantage of a situation where one does not yet really need assistance, and so old people who can hold onto a subway strap nevertheless sit down in a seat offered to them by a younger person. Old people will have their opinions indulged in that people will listen to them politely though they no longer care whether the old person is speaking to the point or making a good point because the old person no longer has any institutional authority to back up a claim and is thought to be slowing down mentally whether or not that is the case, though it is also the case that old people may be more circumspect because they are now dependent upon the people they once nurtured and so learn to speak in a way that subdues the significance of their remarks. And so the dance goes on, in ever narrowing circles, old people catching up with the dispensations granted to them, the lack of cogency in an argument excused as the sign of a failing mind rather than because that person never made much sense anyway.
This view of the gradual lifting of responsibilities of an old person to be able to manage all the things which adults are expected to manage, whether their checkbooks or their medicines or their conversations, is a version of an old theory of aging. "Disengagement" was the term coined by Cummings and Henry in 1961 to describe a process which all or most old people undergo. They remove themselves from the extended world of acquaintances and work peers to a much narrower set of people with whom they interact and also absent themselves from the institutions which were important to them, whether those were professional associations or concert series or, most important, the work site where they had spent a good deal of time during the week and over the course of a lifetime.
The difference between a theory of disengagement and a theory that treats being old as an attributional role is that if we think of being old as an attribution, people are made free or unburdened by their ability to forego these engagements rather than only impoverished by them. Disengagement is a psychological failing while the leveling down of expectations and responsibilities of old people is just a fact of life, at least until medical science finds a way to extend the life course in significant ways, and so either just allows people to be adults for longer periods of time or creates a span of retirement that lasts long enough so that people can have multiple or new lives, perhaps everyone taking up new spouses after a term limit of fifty years is set on a marriage, or people engaging new careers they always dreamed about, as is offered in those advertisements where ex-executives are portrayed as so fulfilled by taking up woodworking. Were the problems of aging so easily addressed!