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End-of-life care for frail older people
  1. Rowan H Harwood1 and
  2. Hannah Enguell2
  1. 1 School of Health Sciences, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
  2. 2 Healthcare of Older People, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, Nottingham, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Rowan H Harwood, School of Health Sciences, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2HA, UK; rowan.harwood{at}


Most people die when they are old, but predicting exactly when this will occur is unavoidably uncertain. The health of older people is challenged by multimorbidity, disability and frailty. Frailty is the tendency to crises or episodes of rapid deterioration. These are often functional or non-specific in nature, such as falls or delirium, and recovery is usually expected. Health-related problems can be defined in terms of distress and disability. Distress is as often mental as physical, especially for people with delirium and dementia. Problems can be addressed using the principles of supportive and palliative care, but there is rarely a simple solution. Most problems do not have a palliative drug treatment, and the propensity to adverse effects means that drugs must be used with caution. Geriatricians use a model called comprehensive geriatric assessment, including medical, functional, mental health, social and environmental dimensions, but also use a variety of other models, such as the acute medical model, person-centred care, rehabilitation, alongside palliative care. Features such as communication, family engagement and advance planning are common to them all. These approaches are often consistent with each other, but their commonalities are not always recognised. The emphasis should be on making the right decision at a given point in time, taking account of what treatment is likely to deliver benefit, treatment burden and what is wanted. Choices are often limited by what is available and feasible. Palliative care should be integrated with all medical care for frail older people.

  • comprehensive geriatric assessment
  • dementia
  • disability
  • multimorbidity
  • frail older people
  • decision making

Data availability statement

All data relevant to the study are included in the article

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Data availability statement

All data relevant to the study are included in the article

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  • Contributors RHH and HE are geriatricians with an interest in end-of-life care. This material is based on clinical, research and teaching experience with frail older people, discussions with families and colleagues, including patient and public involvement representatives, and literature reviewed for RHH’s inaugural lecture at the University of Nottingham in November 2018. He is the guarantor.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.