Living on the margin: understanding the experience of living and dying with frailty in old age

Soc Sci Med. 2012 Oct;75(8):1426-32. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.06.011. Epub 2012 Jul 4.


Within policy and practice there is an increasing interest in the care of frail elders. However understanding of the experience and challenges of living and dying with frailty in older age is currently undeveloped. Frailty is often used as a synonym for the increasing infirmities that accompany ageing and the slow dwindling dying trajectory of many elders. However, there is little empirical work on the experience of being frail to inform social gerontological perspectives and welfare provision. Through analysis of repeated in-depth interviews over 17 months (2006-2008) with 17 frail elders living at home in the U.K., key factors that shape elders' experience of being frail emerged. The study argues that the visible markers of functional limitations and the increasing social losses of old age bring finitude to the fore. To retain anchorage in this state of imbalance, frail elders work actively to develop and sustain connections to their physical environment, routines and social networks. This experience can be conceptualised as persistent liminality; a state of imbalance "betwixt and between" active living and clinically recognised dying. This paper highlights the precarious and often protracted dying trajectory of frail older people. Whilst it could be argued that developing into death in older age is part of a normal and successful course after a life long-lived, recognition of and support for older people deemed frail is lacking. Frail elders find themselves living in the margin between the Third and Fourth Age with little recognition of or support for the work of living and dying over time. This experience of frailty contests dominant cultural and welfare practices and policy frameworks that operate in binary modes: social or health; independent or dependent; living or dying.

MeSH terms

  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Aging / psychology
  • Female
  • Frail Elderly / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Independent Living*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Qualitative Research
  • United Kingdom