Between Chronicity and Crisis: The Elusive Time of Frailty
Dr Elizabeth BarryZoom
This paper thinks about the experience of geriatric frailty and the ways in which it can elude critical and conceptual frameworks in medical humanities -- and medicine itself. Frailty is characterized by an uncertain future trajectory, fluctuating levels of capacity and wellbeing, and a new condition of risk--and implacably, underneath everything, what Kathleen Woodward has called the "decremental process of the subtraction of strengths". This also presents a challenge in terms of care, and those living with frailty often experience a bruising oscillation between perfunctory, task-based interactions and stark isolation. The context of Covid-19 -- an acknowledged but peripheral element in this paper – only compounds the challenges of the experience.
This bleak picture of advanced old age is not the full one; advanced old age can be a period of renewed intimacies, and equanimity can co-exist with fear or sadness. The experience is, in all its aspects, an elusive one to conceptualize and represent, often felt at once as chronicity and crisis. This paper turns to the practical phenomenology (Waugh) of literary writing to capture its rhythm and texture, investigating the depiction of frailty in the fiction and lifewriting of writers such as Proust, Colette, Beckett and Joan Didion.