Is Frailty in Old Age Expected?

Frailty is used loosely to describe a range of conditions in older people, including general weakness, balance and cognitive impairment. It leads to inability to perform everyday self-care, home or community activities.

I once spent a beautiful and transformative two weeks in Peru.  One of the most powerful parts of the journey came near the end when I traveled to a small island in Lake Titicaca called Amantani.  A group greeted our boat, including men, women and children.  I lived among them long enough to get a sense of life there.  Their lives are based values of community and living in right relationship with oneself and community.  Their eyes radiated sweetness and joy. I was so moved by their generosity and their strong connection to nature.

I’m curious about what it’s like to grow old in different parts of the world.  It was immediately clear that old age does not equal frailty on Amantani.  Several elders helped to carry our gear from the boat to the house by tying a large cloth around the gear and hauling it up a path on their backs.  I DO mean up, too, as the terrain is hilly with elevation somewhere around 13,000 feet! We Americans had a hard time with that climb, but they clipped right along!

First of all, people there walk everywhere because there are no cars.  Old women herd sheep and prepare food simply in earthen ovens.  I asked our guide about the elders.  Those elders who have needs are cared for by families, as I assumed was the case.  But I was astonished when she said they just don’t have many debilitating diseases such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.  She said people there don’t expect to get sick in old age.

I wonder if some frailty in old age stems from “learned expectation." Is it a given that wellness will deteriorate? I understand that the answer is complex, but an idea worth pondering.  Please share your thoughts!

Ann Catlin, OTR, LMT: For twenty years, Ann led in the field of skilled touch in eldercare and hospice. She has nearly forty years’ clinical experience as an occupational and massage therapist. She created Age-u-cate’s Compassionate Touch program and serves as a Master Trainer and training consultant.