The emergence and utilisation of frailty in the United Kingdom: a contemporary biopolitical practice

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Frailty has recently emerged as a dominant concept against a backdrop of media and governmental narratives that frame the growing ageing population as an economic threat to the current configuration of health care in the United Kingdom (UK). Despite frailty's popularity amongst geriatricians and policy makers, the concept faces resistance from other health-care professionals and older people themselves. This paper draws on the Foucauldian idea of biopower; by suggesting that the contemporary emergence and utilisation of frailty represents a biopolitical practice a number or critical observations are made. First, despite biomedical experts acknowledging ambiguities in the definition of frailty, the concept is presented as a truth discourse. This is driven by the ability of frailty measurements to predict risk of costly adverse outcomes; the capability of frailty scores to enumerate complex needs; and the scientific legitimacy frailty affords to geriatric medicine. Consequently, frailty has become pervasive, knowable and measurable. Second, the routine delineation between frail and robust objectifies older people, and can be said to benefit those making the diagnosis over those being labelled frail, with the latter becoming disempowered. Last, studies show that frailty is associated with increasing wealth inequalities in the UK; however, experts’ suggested management of frailty shifts the focus of responsibility away from ideologically driven structural inequalities towards the frail older person, attempting to encourage individuals to modify lifestyle choices. This neglects the association between lifestyle opportunities and socio-economic deprivation, and the impact of long-term poverty on health. These observations, set against the contemporary political climate of economic austerity, cuts to public services and rationalisation of health resources, bring the urgency of a critical consideration of frailty to the fore.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)695–712
JournalAgeing and Society
Issue number4
Early online date8 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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  • Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute


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