Ecological theories of human development consider the complex interactions between humans and their changing social and physical environments. Every member of society experiences these interactions in a different manner, depending on factors such as the amount of resources available to them or the interconnectedness of their support system at birth. As people age and as the macrosystem itself changes in response to events, people within the system shift to occupy different positions in society. People’s psychological reactions to their evolving statuses reflect the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of experiences. At each juncture within people’s lives, their statuses are subject to norms and rules belonging to society.
Understood from the vantage of Bronfenbrenner’s ecolological systems approach, initial transactions in a person’s life are the result of direct interrelationships between the infant and members of the microsystem (church, family, peers, school, neighborhood, play area, and health services). Microsystems, in turn, are shaped by a host of higher-up systems, which are also acting on each other at the same time. When the children in Bronfenbrenner’s model mature into adulthood, they are likely to occupy new roles within the macrosystem. These acquired roles may be transient because familial roles, career placement, financial status and other factors may vary throughout people’s lifetimes. Age, however, is one factor that invariably affects people’s lives, and society – to a large part – determines the extent of that effect.
Deep-rooted in the mentality of members of a system are beliefs about which members are suited to which roles. If a society assigns a value to the knowledge gained through a lifetime of experience, then people in late adulthood and beyond will perceive themselves as vital. Alternatively, if a society chooses not to recognize that elders have an important contribution to make in society, then the elders of that society may internalize those beliefs and feel valueless.
In the United States, common stereotypes of the elderly are that they are poorly able to meet the physical and mental demands of performing routine tasks. However, as medical science improves, people are living into their hundreds and remaining active. In addition, various forms of martial arts are practiced to enhance balance, coordination, and flexibility, and cardiovascular exercise strengthens the heart, body, and elevates mood levels. Because of a heightened awareness of the positive effects of keeping a healthy diet and exercising regularly, in many cases, people can continue to function physically and mentally at high levels. An ecological theory of human development would recognize recent changes, such as increased longevity and improved functionality, as the catalyst for the development of new late adulthood roles and altered definitions of late adulthood.
Cognitive development throughout the lifespan, or fluid intelligence, is valued above accumulated stores of intelligence, or crystallized intelligence, in some ecological systems. In a system that seeks ways of applying the wisdom of age, mentors and apprentices benefit from the transference of knowledge and perspective. In agriculture-based communities, where apprenticeships are integral to the continuity of life, members view hastiness and rapid decision-making as immature qualities; whereas, forethought and the ability to absorb the totality of a situation are the attributes of old age. In certain Black African societies, elders in the community are regarded as founts of knowledge. In traditional Latin societies, it is believed that older members of society possess inner-strength and can pass that quality along to younger generations. Individuals in these societies depend on their elderly and base many of their personal, social, and job-related decisions on the utterances of elders in the community.
In technology-based societies, crystallized intelligence is undervalued because adaptation is seen as more important to the sustenance of economic development. Those who fall behind in terms of technological instrumentality and rapid response rate are perceived as slow instead of as thoughtful. Furthermore, the uniform sentence order and grammar of English restricts the range of expression available to many elderly people. In a macrosystem in which speed and the delivery are prized more than the content of the message, senior citizens and their contributions are marginalized. The effect is that society’s message to seniors – that they are slow and ineffectual – becomes an internalized belief of everyone in society.
In many other cultures, such as Arab ones, the treatment of aged people in society seems to be the reverse of how older people are treated in the U.S. In these countries, the religion and culture serve as the rational basis for assigning seniors authority in deciding on household matters. It is expected in traditional societies that the young provide care for and honor their aging family members. In societies with Confucian based ideologies, such as Korea, the hierarchy of respect is based on age, with the eldest members of society receiving the most esteem. The exosystem in these societies is tipped in the direction of considering the importance of elders and their influence. All microsystems, mesosystems, and individuals tap into this human resource because the macrosystems endorse the idea that the elderly in society are indispensable.
Microsystems in many countries are successful at integrating the services that seniors provide into the caregiving structure. In many Asian and African societies, grandparents live in the same house as parents and children. Whereas the commonly held belief in the U.S. is that grandparents’ excessive indulging of their grandchildren may negatively affect children’s personalities and achievement in school, it has been found that in China educated grandparents have a positive effect on their grandchildren’s academic performance. In the U.S., grandparents may play an important role in parenting children in single-parent headed homes. Additionally, parents look forward to becoming grandparents, and a study conducted by Brubaker showed that 80% of grandparents were happy with their grandparenting roles. Just as these eager parents delight in assuming new roles as grandparents in life, so are there many things to look forward to as one approaches late adulthood. Depending on the macrosystem one is part of aging can be perceived as a positive or negative prospect.
The extent to which a macrosystem views the importance and necessity of caring for aged ones can dictate the quality of life for seniors, particularly for those who are afflicted by poor physical health or forms dementia brought on and exacerbated by old age. In the US, middle-aged adults find themselves “sandwiched” between caring for their children and their parents. The financial and emotional burden put on these middle-aged adults further begs a solution to the need for a better system of caring for the elderly. The issues seem especially pressing in industrialized nations, where traditional ideas about caring for older family members are either nonexistent or eroding.
In China, a nation in the midst of industrialization, as rural-to-urban shift increases, parents and grandparents are being left behind. In Latin cultures, filial bonds and intergenerational teaching are perpetuated by a macrosystem that espouses religious belief and traditional norms. In countries trying to balance industrialization and tradition, managing care for aging populations presents a problem, especially in countries such as Italy and Japan, where the declining birthrate presents a challenge for this generation of youths
An individual’s microsystem system shapes the pattern of interactions to follow for the rest of that person’s life, Shifts in familial status, shifts in occupational status, issues related specifically to aging, external events, and the set of values and beliefs embodied by the macrosystem all contribute to the quality of people’s perceived well being. Senior citizens’ well-being is often related to the quality of their interactions within their microsystems. Depending on the structure of the macrosystem and sometimes on the individual’s accessibility to resources, social support systems may consist of children and grandchildren of the individual, other elderly members of the community, or community members of all ages who seek the guidance of elders.
Ecological systems theories provide a framework for identifying the elements of the system and within the individual that account for reasons why individuals behave and think the way they do. Shortcomings in the systems, such as with the treatment of elders, are apparent when macrosystems are compared side by side. This society’s values and beliefs will have to accommodate more positive associations with old age before the majority of elders can enjoy meaningful, productive, and satisfying lives.