The Use of Figurative Language to Describe Frailty in Older Adults

Brian Buta, D. Leder, R. Miller, N. L. Schoenborn, A. R. Green, R. Varadhan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Introduction: Frailty affects 15% of non-institutionalized older adults in the United States, yet confusion remains in defining and, in turn, assessing frailty. Figurative language, such as metaphor, can help to explain difficult scientific concepts and to form new theories. We aimed to examine the use of figurative language to describe frailty and to identify themes in the way figurative expressions are used. Understanding how frailty is described figuratively may offer insights for developing useful communication approaches in research settings. Methods: We performed a comprehensive review of editorials in the scientific literature to explore figurative language used to describe frailty in older adults. We categorized themes among the figurative expressions, which may help to inform how to effectively communicate about frailty. Results: We found 24 editorials containing 32 figurative expressions. The figurative expressions conceptualized frailty in six ways: 1) a complex, multifaceted concept; 2) an important issue in health and medicine; 3) indicative of something that is failing or faulty; 4) indicative of fragility; 5) representative of vulnerable, ignored persons; and 6) an opportunity for self-awareness and reflection. Discussion: Our review highlights the heterogeneity in depictions of frailty, which is consonant with the lack of a standardized definition of frailty. We also found a novel aspect to the concept of frailty, which merits attention: frailty characterized as an opportunity for self-awareness and reflection. Figurative language, which often juxtaposes familiar with challenging, complex concepts, can offer insights on issues in frailty research and holds potential as a tool for researchers to improve communication about this important and debated medical condition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)127-133
Number of pages7
JournalThe Journal of frailty & aging
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2018


  • Frailty
  • health communication and language
  • review

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Physiology (medical)
  • Aging


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