Making sense of frailty: an ethnographic study of the experience of older people living with complex health problems

Julie Kathryn Skilbeck (Lead Author), Antony Arthur, Jane Seymour

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Aim: To explore how older people with complex health problems experience frailty in their daily lives.

Background: A better understanding of the personal experience of frailty in the context of fluctuating ill-health has the potential to contribute to the development of personalised approaches to care planning and delivery.

Design: An ethnographic study of older people, living at home, receiving support from a community matron service in a large city in the North of England.

Methods: Up to six care encounters with each of ten older people, and their community matron, were observed at monthly intervals, over a period of time ranging from four to eleven months. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with the older participants in their own homes. Fieldwork took place over a four-year period. Data analysis was undertaken using the constant comparative method.

Findings: The experience of frailty was understood through the construction of four themes: Fluctuating ill-health and the disruption of daily living; Changes to the management of daily living; Frailty as fear, anxiety and uncertainty; Making sense of changes to health and daily living.

Conclusions: Older people work hard to shape and maintain daily routines in the context of complicated and enduring transitions in health and illness. However, they experience episodic moments of frailty, often articulated as uncertainty, where daily living becomes precarious and their resilience is threatened. Developing an understanding of the personal experiences of frail older people in the context of transition has the potential to inform nursing practice in person centred care.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12172
JournalInternational Journal of Older People Nursing
Issue number1
Early online date9 Oct 2017
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018

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