Open Access Open Badges Debate

The ‘placement’ of people with profound impairments across the lifespan: re-thinking age criteria

Barbara E Gibson12*, Gillian King23, Shauna Kingsnorth23 and Patricia McKeever24

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Physical Therapy, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

2 Bloorview Research Institute, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, 160-500 University Avenue, Toronto, ON M5G 1 V7, Canada

3 Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University of Toronto, 150 Kilgour Road, Toronto, ON M4G 1R8, Canada

4 Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto, 150 Kilgour Road, Toronto, ON M4G 1R8, Canada

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BMC Medicine 2014, 12:83  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-12-83

Published: 21 May 2014



Advances in lifesaving technologies and treatments make it possible for children with profound physical and cognitive impairments to survive into adulthood. Questions regarding how and where they should live are discussed rarely and, when they are, primarily focus on safety and/or containing costs. Since models of long-term care provision are age-based, children who reside in institutions are ‘discharged’ to adult facilities when they reach an arbitrary age. Such transfers may not be in the best interests of these young people or their families. Our aim in this debate is to highlight why age is a problematic criterion for placement decisions, with the goal of stimulating further research and inquiry.


Transfers from pediatric to adult institutions are driven primarily by funding arrangements and underpinned by stage-based theories of human development. Arguments supporting such transfers point to the value of communal living with same age peers, and engagement in age-appropriate activities. These goals are questionable for individuals who are minimally interactive and/or where equally worthy interactions are feasible in intergenerational settings. Instead their accommodation needs might more closely align with palliative care principles of supporting individuals and families to enjoy what they bring to each other’s lives and minimize suffering. Innovative models of ‘vertical care’ and ‘lifetime homes’, which enable continuous flexible services across the lifespan, are discussed as examples of alternative approaches requiring further debate and research.


Entrenched funding and service models that require the transfer of profoundly impaired young people from pediatric to adult facilities need to be re-examined with considerations of best interests, needs, and preferences of individuals and their families. Questions of what constitutes a ‘good life’ for these individuals are tenacious and require further thought and research. Nevertheless, they need to be regarded as citizens of our human community deserving of a good life in whatever form that may take, in settings that enable them to flourish.

Complex care; Impairment; Long term care; Children and young people; Transitions; Life course; Disability; Chronic care; Home