Activity Theory of Aging

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During this semester, we have delved into various psychological and social theories which include Vaillant’s concept of aging well, Erikson’s theory of life stages, and Leont’ev’s activity theory. The volume of knowledge to acquire and understand is vast. This essay will focus on the Activity Theory of aging, presenting valuable insights obtained through thorough research to enrich your comprehension.

Originally developed by Leont’ev in the 20th century in the former Soviet Union, Activity Theory (AT) aims to comprehend human activities (Leont’ev, 1978; Leont’ev, 1981a, 1981b). AT is a versatile theory that various disciplines can employ to gain insight into human behavior. Numerous programs and services for older individuals are based on the belief that engaging in activities yields valuable benefits and enhances life satisfaction regardless of age.

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According to an article in the Journal of Computer Science and Technology, activity involves a subject (either an individual or a group) moving towards an object to accomplish specific results. These objects can be physical entities like programs or abstract ideas. When individuals actively engage with their environment, they create tools that help them understand the object and improve communication and motivation among participants in the activity.

Leont’ev emphasized that although people engage in actions that do not directly fulfill a need, these actions do play a role in ultimately satisfying a need. Engaging in an activity involves consciously performing actions with a specific and immediate objective. Over time, these actions become routine and unconscious, transforming into operations. Lee and Markides conducted a study to test the hypothesis that all three types of activity are related to an individual’s life satisfaction. They collected data from a retirement community for this purpose.

It was discovered that only socializing informally with friends is correlated with life satisfaction. Older adults often attribute their long lives to their consistently high levels of activity. Aging typically brings about the relinquishment of various roles, such as work, marriage, and memberships in organizations, which can challenge one’s self-perception and weaken their inner resilience.

Continued role participation is necessary for successful adjustment in old age, and professionals advise older adults to stay active for their health (Reich, Zautra, and Hill, 1987).

AT, which has been an influential part of gerontological thought for over fifty years, influenced researchers in the field of social gerontology in the 1940s (Longino and Kart, 1982). AT is not strictly a “theory” but rather a set of basic principles that can serve as a foundation for more specific theories.

Activity Theory is based on five fundamental principles, which are: object-orientedness, internalization/externalization, mediation, hierarchical structure of activity, and development. Object-orientedness implies that humans exist in an objective reality, where entities possess both goal-oriented properties and socially/culturally-defined characteristics. The principle of internalization/externalization pertains to the distinction between mental processes and internal activities.

According to Activity Theory (AT), it is important to consider both internal and external activities together because they interact and change one another. AT also emphasizes the concept of mediation, stating that human activity is influenced by tools, which are created and shaped by the activity and carry the culture associated with it. The use of tools affects both external behavior and mental processes. Additionally, AT emphasizes a hierarchical structure for activities, consisting of three levels: activity, action, and operation. Figure 1 below illustrates Leont’ev’s structure of human activity.

Activities involve goal-directed actions that are consciously carried out in order to achieve a desired outcome. The Activity Theory emphasizes the various elements involved in an activity, which are not set in stone and can evolve as circumstances change. Development is a key principle within this theory, as it serves both as a subject of study and a research method. Unlike traditional laboratory experiments, research methods in Activity Theory focus on active participation and observing the developmental changes experienced by participants.

An activity system involves the interaction and ongoing transformation of all its elements. Studies examining the AT reveal that people of various age groups experience positive effects from engaging in high levels of activity. The General Social Survey, established by Harvard University professor Jim Davis and University of Chicago professor Tom Smith, and conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, demonstrates a noteworthy link between elevated levels of activity and heightened happiness across one’s lifespan.

Research has shown that engaging in new activities does not always replace previous activities and that the quality of an activity is crucial. Merely being active without any meaningful purpose can actually have negative consequences. In order for an activity to hold value, it must be personally meaningful to the participant. Lemon, Bengtson, and Peterson (1972) categorize activities into three types: informal, formal, and solitary. Informal activities involve social interaction with friends and relatives.

The diagram depicts the relationship between elements in an educational activity. The teacher acts as the subject, while the student and their learning process are the object. Mediating artifacts and tools like textbooks, audiovisual aides, and instructional strategies facilitate this educational activity. Rules governing this system include education laws, national curriculum, school and classroom rules, and schedules. The community involves students, teachers, administration, and the Parent Teacher Association (PTA).

The distribution of work among teachers, school subjects, units, tools, and methods is part of the division of labor. As part of the second phase of this task, an interview was conducted with a person who is 65 years old or older. The interview took place at St. Catherine’s of Siena nursing home in Smithtown, NY where there is currently an internship. To comply with HIPAA regulations on privacy laws, the name of the person interviewed has been changed to Rose. Rose is a divorced Caucasian Catholic woman who is 70 years old.

Originally from New Jersey, Rose was born in 1938 and moved to Brooklyn, NY with her family when she was five years old. Growing up, she attended Long Island City High School and eventually married her high school sweetheart immediately after finishing school. Nevertheless, their marriage faced difficulties which ultimately resulted in divorce six years later. Despite not having any children or remarrying, Rose never truly settled down and decided to move back to New Jersey after the divorce in order to be closer to her family. Additionally, throughout her life, Rose has held various jobs.

Initially, she worked as a bookkeeper at a bank before transitioning to the same role in a college bursar’s office. Eventually, she joined the dietary department at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Jersey. After leaving the hospital, she started working in the housekeeping department of a nursing home. Once her time at the nursing home concluded, she moved to Lake Ronkonkoma, NY and secured an affordable apartment. Following that, Rose was employed as a cashier at Kohl’s in Bayshore, NY.

Rose shared significant details about her family with me. She revealed having a younger brother who is five years her junior, but the two of them are estranged. Moreover, she disclosed the unfortunate history of abuse by her father towards the family members. Additionally, she mentioned her mother’s battle with severe depression, which ultimately led to her untimely demise at the age of 57 due to breast cancer. On a lighter note, Rose highlighted that her cousins in New Jersey are now parents themselves and their children are thriving. Though Rose lacks immediate family nearby, she considers the nursing home as her secondary family.

Rose has strong connections with individuals at the nursing home where she presently lives as well as a male companion named Bob, who visits her every day. Rose and Bob initially became acquainted while she was employed at Kohl’s. Prior to relocating to St. Catherine’s nursing home, Rose enjoyed independence but experienced an incident in August 2008 that resulted in unconsciousness and significant head injuries. This occurrence consequently led to the diagnosis of Hydrocephalus, characterized by an abnormal buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain’s ventricles.

Rose’s cognitive and motor functions were negatively affected by an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) caused by a blockage in the usual drainage channels, leading to increased pressure in her skull. To address this issue, Rose underwent two surgeries. The first surgery was unsuccessful, but the second surgery successfully implanted a ventricular peritoneal shunt in her head. Despite these interventions, Rose struggled with speech and needed rehabilitation after falling to regain her mobility.

Rose transferred to St. Catherine’s rehabilitation and eventually chose to permanently move to the nursing home due to the absence of adequate support and assistance at home. During her time in the program, Rose regained her ability to speak and now engages in regular conversations. However, she occasionally encounters difficulty as she searches for the correct words to communicate. When questioned about her experience of growing older, Rose expressed a dislike for contemplating it and mentioned that it would disturb her.

While Rose chooses to embrace each day and live her life, she sometimes feels sad because of her loneliness. Her main regrets stem from not getting remarried and not having children. Her Aunt, who happens to be her mother’s sister, had a major impact on how she was raised. She fondly describes her aunt as a person who is kind-hearted, compassionate, and affectionate – qualities that have always made Rose look up to her. Rose hopes that others will remember her the same way she will forever remember her beloved aunt: as someone who is loving, caring, and delightful.

Rose, an active participant in nursing home activities, imparted important life advice to me prior to commencing her own activity. She stressed the importance of continuously progressing and refraining from excessive rumination. Rose emphasized the fleeting nature of life and advocated for seizing each day completely. Additionally, she strongly believes that every person possesses inherent goodness despite their faults. Rose suggested directing attention towards people’s strengths rather than obsessing over their flaws.

She undergoes physical therapy and occupational therapy from Monday to Friday. Additionally, she devotes two hours per day to volunteer work in the laundry room, specifically folding towels, in order to keep herself occupied. Apart from that, Rose actively participates as a board member on the Residents’ Council, engages in a baking group, and thoroughly enjoys playing bingo. According to Rose, she believes being actively involved in enjoyable activities is crucial. She emphasized that these activities stimulate her mind and divert her attention from the stressors in her life. Through my interaction with her, I have come to appreciate Rose’s immense strength and intelligence.

During the interview on Wednesday, November 11, 2009, which lasted approximately an hour, I gained valuable insights from her. Notably, I will utilize the Activity Theory to comprehend Rose’s experiences. Moreover, I will explore another theory applicable to her case and highlight a significant aging issue. This theory is Leont’ev’s Activity Theory, which aligns with Rose’s remarks. Her active participation in various activities within the nursing home is evident.

According to Leont’ev, an activity is prompted by a motive, such as a need or a drive. Rose engages in various activities because she has a desire to feel valued and also a determination to keep her mind stimulated and engaged. Leont’ev further suggests that an activity consists of one or multiple actions that fulfill the initial motive. An action that fulfills Rose’s motive is the actual execution of the activity. For instance, if the activity is cooking, the action would involve putting on an apron, grabbing a spatula, and actively participating in the cooking process.

The idea that activities in and of themselves bring significant benefits and contribute to overall life satisfaction appears to hold true. Although this proposition is based on the experience of just one person, Rose, she mentioned how engaging in certain activities made her feel valued and necessary. As an example, she expressed a desire to volunteer in the laundry room to help with folding clothes, as she missed having that sense of independence. When Rose requested to volunteer her time, the housekeeping staff warmly embraced her wish and fulfilled her need to feel productive and needed.

Rose is an esteemed member of the Resident’s Council and has been selected by multiple residents to serve on the board. In this capacity, she advocates for fellow residents and ensures that any issues or problems are reported to the appropriate authorities for resolution. Additionally, Rose derives purpose and satisfaction from actively participating in various activities, effectively diverting her attention from the negative aspects of her life. However, as Rose has grown older, she has encountered several setbacks including retirement from her career, the dissolution of her marriage resulting in losing her wife role, and a decline in her ability to independently take care of herself.

The various roles that Rose assumed at the nursing home, including being a board member on Resident’s Council, an advocate, a patient, and a volunteer, serve as replacements for the roles she has abandoned in her life. Engaging in activities at the nursing home is crucial for Rose to regain her sense of identity and improve her overall well-being. Each of these activities holds great significance to Rose. She decided to participate in the cooking and bingo groups due to her genuine interest in them. Additionally, Rose derives satisfaction from assisting others and upholding moral values, which is why she became a member of Resident’s Council.

Rose longed for the sense of independence she had when she used to fold laundry in her youth. By volunteering to fold laundry of her own accord, she regained that feeling of independence. Rose participates in activities that allow her to be alone, such as sewing, reading, and folding laundry. She also engages in informal activities, like talking on the phone with her family and friends. Additionally, Rose participates in formal activities by becoming a member of the Residents Council.

Within the Object component, you would find the name of the group (cooking group). The Subject, or the individuals who will participate in the baking group, are known as the “Bakers”. The Rules consist of the recipe and directions that guide the cooking group’s activities. The Community is composed of residents, staff, administration, and families. The Division of Labor is shared between the bakers and the group facilitator. The Instruments (tools) employed in this context are baking supplies, a conventional oven, and the kitchen. Another relevant theory pertaining to Rose’s case is Role Theory.

The Role Theory, proposed by Cottrell in 1942, was an early attempt to explain how individuals adapt to aging. Role theory defines a role as a set of behaviors, characteristics, norms, and values associated with a person or position (Major, 2003; Thomas & Biddle, 1966). Sarbin further adds that a role is a structured sequence of learned actions or behaviors carried out by a person in a social interaction. Roles provide individuals with expectations for their own behavior and the behaviors of others. Throughout their lives, individuals take on various social roles.

Rose’s various roles in life include being a daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, student, wife, businesswoman, friend, advocate, and volunteer. These roles define a person as a social being and form the foundation of their identity. Roles are typically organized in a sequential manner, with each role being associated with a specific age or stage of life. For instance, the expectations placed on a 32-year-old mother differ greatly from those placed on her when she is 72. As stated in our textbook, the extent to which an individual successfully adjusts to the aging process is believed to depend on their ability to embrace the changes in roles that occur during later years.

Rose appears to have successfully adapted to the process of aging, as evident from her acceptance of the changing roles in her life. It is intriguing to ponder how Rose’s adjustment to these role changes would have been different or similar had she been a mother in the past. Rose is a remarkably resilient individual, displaying both insightfulness and a willingness to take on additional responsibilities to find fulfillment. During my interview with Rose last week, various aging concerns emerged that were relevant to her situation. Notably, I would like to discuss the issue of depression, which has a familial connection in Rose’s case.

Her mother was severely depressed for most of her life up until she died from breast cancer. Rose has had a few episodes of depression after her divorce and more recently since she entered the nursing home. I can understand why someone may become depressed once they make a nursing home their permanent residence, but it is even more prevalent in individuals with a history of depression. I am concerned that as Rose grows older and her physical health declines further, her depression may persist. According to, up to 70% of adults aged 65 and over who live in institutions experience significant depression.

Untreated depression in the older adult population can have serious consequences. This paper aims to provide insight into Leont’ev’s Activity Theory and its concept. Physical health outcomes, including mortality among older adults, have not been linked to activity levels. While a few individuals may benefit from inactivity, most find that engaging in activities such as hobbies, crafts, volunteer work, housework and home repairs, caring for pets, sharing life with family and friends, and being active outdoors contribute greatly to their overall well-being.

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Activity Theory of Aging. (2018, Feb 23). Retrieved from

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