Three weeks ago, I wrote a blog on the nature of vulnerability – both challenging the misuse of the word and also suggesting the need to develop a more positive view of vulnerability. With a degree of synchronicity and similitude, I have been having comparative conversations with clinicians and colleagues in the last few weeks over the concept of frailty.
Frailty has been a key concern for the care sector for many years. Over that time there has been considerable discussion about its definition, what it means both physiologically and psychologically and how relevant it was as a descriptor in the support and care of individuals. I was therefore delighted to read a piece in the last few weeks by the respected clinician David Oliver which confirmed both my own unease with the term and why it is important that we reconsider our views of frailty.
In that paper Oliver reminds us of the uncomfortable debate in spring 2020 in the midst of the first Covid wave, on the use of the Clinical Frailty Scale (CFS) as a tool ‘to triage, target, and potentially ration scarce intensive and high dependency care.’ With many others I was critical at the time of the use of such a tool as a proxy for individual and person-led clinical decisions and the dangers of age discrimination which might result.
It is important in any debate on frailty to recognise that it has positive dimensions to its usage. As Oliver states:
‘in over 75s registered with NHS practices, severe frailty as defined by an electronic frailty index is associated with far higher risk of hospital admission, death, or care home admission in the following 12 months. People with frailty have less functional reserve and are far more likely (with or without covid-19) to present with immobility, falls, confusion, or generalised failure to thrive, or to get stranded in hospital or experience acute loss of function. Those in care homes, or who have dementia or are receiving home care or post-acute rehabilitation, will often be frailer and older.’
As a general term, therefore, there are clear benefits in being able to use models which can be early predictors of the benefits of additional support and intervention. As a preventative assessment measure such frailty tools are invaluable in achieving both better outcomes for the individual person and in reducing the economic health costs for the rest of society brought about by unnecessary hospital admission.
But the term is not neutral and can be used sometimes with inconsistency and contradiction. Indeed frailty is a term and concept which as researchers like Archibald et al have shown is not widely understood by the general population and is negatively viewed as a descriptor by older people themselves. They argue in their research that the use of the term may actually serve to harm key public health messaging.
A critical dimension of the care and support of older people is to enable individuals to maximise independence either in their own home, in the community or in a care home. Most associations on frailty relate to a loss of independence predominantly due to challenges with mobility and a loss of control over one’s environment. Frailty clearly both at the popular level and clinically carries with it negative connotations.
There are a couple of points in this extensive debate which I want briefly to make in this blog.
The first is that at times there can be too great a stress upon frailty seen as physiological decline without a resultant emphasis upon psychological, emotional and environmental changes and challenges, and
Secondly, I wonder if it is time to collectively replace the concept of frailty with a more positive modelling based on how we should be enabled and assessed as ‘ageing well’?
Turning to the first issue. There is now a wide professional acceptance that frailty is not solely about physical decline, either of mobility or other functions. There is an appreciation that we need to have and adopt a holistic understanding of frailty. An individual’s circumstances and the constraints on their independence are a product of many factors, including their physical environment, their psychological well-being, the extent and degree of their relationships and social connection. Frailty therefore cannot simply be a score on a chart to take account of changes in someone’s physical health.
But when I speak to practitioners and to those older persons who access health and care services, such a holistic understanding of frailty seems frustratingly absent and missing. They complain about the dominant emphasis and focus on their physical health and a limited or absent appreciation of their psychological, social and relational well-being.
From my own experience I can remember my great aunt who was an astonishing woman still writing articles and letters when she was 94. She had a fall which resulted in a hip fracture and underwent very successful surgery. Her rehabilitation focussed on her physical return to health. The stress was upon addressing her frailty. But over a short period, she declined sharply, and it wasn’t the physiological decline – as I said surgery went well and she responded astonishingly well – but it was the impact psychologically that it had upon her and her confidence which those around her recognised as the major factor in her change. Yet nobody attended to that because all they could see was the physical decline and frailty and not the change in the person.
The person who has had a hip fracture at home because of isolation and loneliness and lack of social care support and ends up going into an acute hospital for a replacement – their intensive rehabilitation back in the community isn’t – should not be – simply about enabling them to get back on their feet, to mobilise, to be able to ‘look after themselves again’. If that is all we’re doing, we’re only attending to the physiological functional dis-ease. We’re not attending to that connectedness of the person who needs to be able to maintain relationship with neighbours and with their community, and nor are we attending to their mental health needs because that certainly, in my experience of frailty and falls, is what we often forget because we’re so focused on the physiological. We know about but often fail to respond to the sheer mental distress, trauma and psychological fatigue which occurs when somebody has a major fracture whether it happens in their 60s or in their 90s.
I think we are some considerable distance from a situation where there is a robust multi-disciplinary team awareness across health and social care of the multiple factors that contribute to the decline and change in the health story of an older individual.
Another really important recent study from Coker et al makes the same point of a gap between awareness of the need for a holistic understanding of frailty and what actually happens in practice. Summarising their research study, they state:
‘There was a shared narrative among participants that frailty is an umbrella term that encompasses interacting physical, mental health and psychological, social, environmental, and economic factors. However, various specialities emphasised the role of specific facets of the frailty umbrella. The assessment and management of frailty was said to require a holistic approach facilitated by interdisciplinary working. Participants voiced a need for interdisciplinary training on frailty, and frailty tools that facilitate peer-learning, a shared understanding of frailty, and consistent assessment of frailty within and across specialities.’
I could not agree more about the necessity to move beyond biomedical descriptions of frailty and to support older people in a more holistic manner utilising the professional skills of all social care and health care staff.
The second issue I raised above was the suggestion that perhaps we need to move beyond frailty descriptors and to develop a more positive modelling based on how we should be enabled and assessed as ‘ageing well’
The language we use in life and in our descriptions of how we value living are critical and there can be no doubt that concepts of frailty are negative, limiting and associated with decline and deterioration. Whilst ageing does indeed for all result in change and alteration and for some that includes elements of physical or psychological change, it does not always need to be perceived in a negative and diminishing manner. Why do we see such change as negative? Is it because our societal ideal is still a concept of humanity rooted in a cult of physical prowess, our vision of humanity one of the ‘whole and able’, and that inevitably ageing, and the change that accompanies it, is seen through a negative lens?
I think the continual impugning of negative association with frailty is preventing us from being positive about ageing. If frailty impacts almost inevitably for those who age then why should we see it as decline and deficit rather than as natural and normal, to be lived through rather than avoided?
As more and more of us live for longer and longer periods of time and increasingly with healthier older age, we really need to grow up in our attitudes about age and the extent to which we either on the one hand dismiss the benefits of older age or elevate them to a false authority. Neither is entirely accurate nor helpful.
Instead, we should, I would contend, be seeking to adopt a positive view of ageing and a model of care and support, both healthcare and social care support, which is oriented not on a negative paradigm such as frailty but on the positivity of ageing. This is after all the World Health Organisation’s Decade of Positive Ageing!
Frailty is the consequence of ageing for many of us and it will happen both physically and psychologically at different stages for different people. We have to own it and see it as one of the glorious realities of us all getting old which for many of our forebears was not a possibility.
Yet in descriptions of frailty and ageing the norm is on too many occasions a limited clinical view. This is the description of ageing I came across recently – it described it as ‘characterised by a complex and intraindividual process associated with nine major cellular and molecular hallmarks, namely, genomic instability, telomere attrition, epigenetic alterations, a loss of proteostasis, deregulated nutrient sensing, mitochondrial dysfunction, cellular senescence, stem cell exhaustion.’ Dictionaries available online!
To age has to be seen as the flourishing of our lives, despite the challenge of the passing years. So, it is time both to broaden our vision of ageing well and to re-consider whether frailty as a concept should be replaced by ageing. Or perhaps weathering?
The late Whithorn born poet Alastair Reid sums the changes brought about by ageing in a manner that for me captures its essence – I would rather weather with the time of age than decline on a clinical frailty scale any day!
I am old enough now for a tree
once planted, knee high, to have grown to be
twenty times me,
and to have seen babies marry, and heroes grow deaf –
but that’s enough meaning-of-life.
It’s living through time we ought to be connoisseurs of.
From wearing a face all this time, I am made aware
of the maps faces are, of the inside wear and tear.
I take to faces that have come far.
In my father’s carved face, the bright eye
He sometimes would look out of, seeing a long way
through all the tree-rings of his history.
I am awed by how things weather: an oak mantel
in the house in Spain, fingered to a sheen,
the marks of hands leaned into the lintel,
the tokens in the drawer I sometimes touch –
a crystal lived-in on a trip, the watch
my father’s wrist wore to a thin gold sandwich.
It is an equilibrium
which breasts the cresting seasons but still stays calm
and keeps warm. It deserves a good name.
Weathering. Patina, gloss and whorl.
The trunk of the almond tree, gnarled but still fruitful.
Weathering is what I would like to do well.
from Weathering: Poems and Translations (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978; Copyright © 1978 by Alastair Reid. All rights reserved)
This blog will next appear on the 14th August.