Frailty – nothing about us without us

In September 2016, Professor Martin Vernon, National Clinical Director for Older People and Integrated Care at NHS England stated why diagnosing frailty is important:

In the same month Professor David Oliver had this Acute Perspective published in the British Medical Journal. It attracted over twenty responses many of which, but not all, were supportive.

I submitted this response as I was not convinced that “frailty” was inherently any less likely to stigmatise our older generation:

A year later, Dr Steve Parry, the Vice President of the British Geriatrics Society (BGS) had this perspective  published on the British Geriatrics Society Blog , asking “when does a well-meaning medical fashion become a potentially destructive fad?” This perspective also attracted over twenty responses.

A week later, the former President of the British Geriatrics Society, Professor David Oliver argued why he was “fine with Frailty”:


Dr Shibley Rahman, an Academic in Frailty and Dementia and has outlined why he is of the view that such a model, based on deficits only, if applied to our older generation could cause harm. This article also attracted many responses.


In a recent Acute Perspective Professor Oliver outlined his concern that the British public may not have realistic expectations when it comes to frailty and “progressive dwindling”:

My understanding is that the term “progressive dwindling” was first used by George J. Romanes in this 1893 book:

This is the context in which the term is used:

The dictionary definition of “inutility” is: uselessness or a useless thing or person.


Healthcare Improvement Scotland has been concentrating on frailty as one of its National Improvement initiatives. This first started in April 2012 and so has developed significantly in the five years that have followed. NHS Scotland staff have been reminded to “THINK FRAILTY”. Up until now the focus has been on deficits and how to “screen” for these with “toolkits”.


Back in April 2016 Bergman and Karunananthan, McMaster University were of this view:

“Thus far, research on frailty has been heavily based on establishing associations between various definitions of frailty and poor health outcomes. A limited number of studies on the perspectives of older persons offer a very different characterization of frailty and the potential impact of labelling.

While several expert meetings over the past decade have called for a unified operational definition of frailty, varied definitions continue to abound, suggesting that researchers are still not ready to close the debate on what defines frailty. The integration of findings from the diverse perspectives, including those of the older persons themselves, is essential when considering the potential for a meaningful clinical tool.

Furthermore, studies examining the contribution of frailty in improving prediction of adverse health outcomes are needed in order to assess the potential utility of frailty as a prognostic tool. Despite the enthusiasm of clinicians and researchers to utilize frailty as a prognostic instrument, frailty will only be relevant if it can be empirically demonstrated either that frailty is reversible, or that its adverse outcomes are amenable to intervention.”


In a BBC Radio Scotland “Thought for the Day”, the broadcaster and writer Anna Magnusson recently considered the language that we use in relation to our older generation. I made this short film using her words and voice. I have shared it with Anna Magnusson and she wrote a kind personal response to me:

We are far more than our labels from omphalos

These words from an Edwin Morgan poem resonated with me as a description of the complexity of ageing:

The people best placed to assist in understanding the complexities of ageing and the language best used to describe it are surely the older generation themselves.

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