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'Don't call me frail'

Published on 23 July 2015 11:01 PM

'Don't call me frail!' - New research shows that using the word ‘frailty' could be stopping older people accessing vital services.

According to new research commissioned by Age UK and the British Geriatrics Society, using the medical term ‘frailty' can provoke a strongly negative reaction from older people, because of its associations with loss of independence and end of life.

The report, Frailty: Language and Perceptions (PDF 776 KB) by leading research agency BritainThinks, reveals that older people prefer to describe their needs in more straightforward terms: they see themselves as starting to struggle with things, or being worried about their health, but not specifically as ‘frail'.

The biggest priority for the older people interviewed was staying independent, but they often saw ‘frailty' as an irreversible state, entered into at the very end of life and associated with severe physical and mental limitations.

This contrasts starkly with the clinical concept of frailty as understood by medical specialists, which is a condition which needs to be identified and diagnosed so that it may be managed with appropriate support. Medics point out that some symptoms of frailty may be reversible. Specialists such as geriatricians are thus aiming to spread understanding of frailty among the wider community of health care professionals.

Disturbingly, older people were felt to be so put off by the words ‘frail' and ‘frailty' that this might deter them from seeking appropriate support should they actually experience the symptoms of frailty. In many cases those interviewed described the moment they needed to ask for help as ‘a major turning point' in their sense of well-being, and a real threat to their independence.

The report highlights the vital importance of health professionals working with older people to signpost them to appropriate services. Other potential solutions recommended in the report include:

  • Avoiding the term ‘frailty' or ‘frail' when in dialogue with older people
  • Using language which promotes what can be achieved through a person's healthcare, rather than assuming nothing can be done.
  • Talking more about independence, enablement and resilience
  • Improving understanding of approaches like comprehensive geriatric assessment (CGA) as a way of identifying and planning for a wide range of needs
  • Raising awareness amongst health professionals of how best to support older people living with frailty, and finding a way to engage older people with this type of care.

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK said: '"Frailty" is all at once a medical term, an adjective, and a noun, but as the research shows for many older people it feels like a judgement.

'People described as living with frailty must be recognised as having unmet needs. We know that if they get the right sort of care the need for emergency help is minimised. This not only improves the person's health but saves the NHS money.

'Health and care services need to re-evaluate their use of the word ‘frailty'. It would be better to focus on the factors that may be underlying someone's frailty and find solutions that help. This should also be reflected in how all professionals communicate with people.

'Older people should be encouraged to recognise and respond to "trigger points" in their changing care needs. Crucially, there must be services available to meet these needs, whether from the NHS, local authority or voluntary sector.'

Speaking for the British Geriatrics Society, Dr Adam Gordon said: 'Frailty has been embraced as a concept by parts of the NHS in an attempt to signpost services which are known to deliver better health for older people in later life. These types of services, which are delivered by multidisciplinary teams and rely upon specific expertise in health problems which are common in later life, can help to slow the progression of disability and enable older people to participate in society more fully.

If the patients we are seeking to help are put off by the very use of the word frail, then perhaps we'll need to reconsider how we refer to such initiatives. The take home message here, though, has to be that no patient, no matter how old or dependent, is beyond help. We have to find the right words to help our patients and broader society recognise this.'



Notes to editors

Frailty as a clinical concept is a loss of physical and psychological reserves, which leads to an increased vulnerability to minor stressor events. The outcome of an apparently small change in health, such as a minor infection or the introduction of a new drug, can be disproportionately poor: this could mean never getting back to a pre-existing state of health or independence.

There are more than 5 million older people aged over 65 in England experiencing significant health problems, of whom 2.6 million live with multiple long term health conditions like diabetes, dementia and heart conditions. Figures released earlier this year by Age UK show that more than 250,000 people who would qualify for help in the home because of difficulty getting up and down stairs are getting no support, 500,000 who need help with washing get no support, and nearly 600,000 who require assistance with dressing are struggling alone.

British Geriatrics Society

The British Geriatrics Society is a professional association of doctors practising geriatric medicine, old age psychiatrists, general practitioners, nurses, therapists, scientists, GPs and others with a particular interest in the medical care of older people and in promoting better health in old age. It has over 3,000 members worldwide and is the only society in the UK offering specialist medical expertise in the wide range of health care needs of older people. Contact: Ed Gillett, Communications & PR Manager, British Geriatrics Society 0207 608 8572 -

Age UK

For media enquiries relating to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland please contact the appropriate national office: Age Scotland on 0131 668 8055, Age Cymru on 029 2043 1562 and Age NI on 028 9024 5729.

We work with our national partners, Age Scotland, Age Cymru and Age NI and our local Age UK partners in England (together the Age UK Family). We also work internationally for people in later life as a member of the DEC and with our sister charity Help Age International.

Age UK believes that everyone should have the opportunity to make the most of later life, whatever their circumstances. We provide free information, advice and support to over six million people; commercial products and services to over one million customers; and research and campaign on the issues that matter to people in later life. Our work focuses on five key areas: money matters, health and well being, home and care, work and training and leisure and lifestyle.

Age UK is a charitable company limited by guarantee and registered in England (registered charity number 1128267 and company number 6825798). Age Concern England and Help the Aged (both registered charities), and their trading and other associated companies merged on the 1st April 2009. Together they have formed the Age UK Group ("we"). Charitable services are offered through Age UK and commercial products are offered by the Charity's trading companies, which donate their net profits to Age UK (the Charity).

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Last updated: Oct 06 2017

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