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Understanding frailty

‘Frailty’ is a term that’s used a lot, but is often misunderstood. When used properly, it refers to a person’s mental and physical resilience, or their ability to bounce back and recover from events like illness and injury.

What is frailty?

The term frailty or ‘being frail’ is often used to describe a particular state of health often experienced by older people. But sometimes it’s used inaccurately.

If someone is living with frailty, it doesn’t mean they lack capacity or are incapable of living a full and independent life. When used properly, it actually describes someone's overall resilience and how this relates to their chance to recover quickly following health problems.

In practice being frail means a relatively ‘minor’ health problem, such as a urinary tract infection, can have a severe long term impact on someone’s health and wellbeing.

This is why it is so important that people living with frailty have access to well-planned, joined-up care to prevent problems arising in the first place – and a rapid, specialist response should anything go wrong.

Frailty is generally characterised by issues like reduced muscle strength and fatigue. Around 10% of people aged over 65 live with frailty. This figure rises to between 25% and a 50% for those aged over 85.

Frailty isn’t the same as living with multiple long-term health conditions. There’s often overlap, but equally someone living with frailty may have no other diagnosed health conditions.

Living with frailty

Someone living with frailty may need to adapt how they live their life, and find new ways to manage day to day tasks. This can be true for their family too.

Frailty can also profoundly challenge someone's sense of self and change how they are perceived and treated by others, including healthcare professionals.

People living with frailty are more likely to experience public and private services that are not geared to their needs. They can be particularly vulnerable to the consequences of poor quality healthcare and services that fail to connect.

Outcomes for people living with frailty

It's important that people living with frailty have access to proactive, joined-up care to maximise health and wellbeing and prevent problems arising in the first place. Equally important is access to rapid, specialist services in the event of a health crisis.

There's good evidence to support working with individual older people and their families to put in place care and support plans tailored to meet individual needs, based around people's own goals and preferences.

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Last updated: Jul 21 2020

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