Understanding vulnerability in adults

A vulnerable adult has the right to choose how to live and to be as independent as possible. This choice includes the right to make what others might see as unwise choices or errors of judgement, just as all adults do.

Adults also have a right to confidentiality, and the circumstances where choice and confidentiality can be overridden are much more limited than is the case when working with children. Therefore, we need to do our best to ensure that we treat vulnerable adults in our church and community with respect and dignity, seeking their consent wherever possible for sharing information about them, and making sure that we follow strict guidelines if we feel we have to share information without consent, to protect a vulnerable adult from significant harm.

Vulnerability can be temporary and short-term e.g. during a time of personal crisis, or it can be permanent or long-term e.g. where vulnerability arises from physical frailty. Old age is NOT, in itself, a marker of vulnerability, but some of the health problems that are more common in old age may make a person more vulnerable. Furthermore, vulnerability in one area of life does not necessarily mean a person is universally vulnerable: for example, a person whose physical frailty leads to a dependence upon others for physical care and mobility may still be competent in financial affairs and lead an active social life.

In the Diocese of Ely, we have not adopted a hard and fast definition of vulnerability. Instead, we encourage those who work with adults to be alert to the needs of each individual person and to the context in which they are working, with an understanding that vulnerability may occur.

Some of the factors that would generally be regarded to increase vulnerability include:

  • a sensory or physical disability or impairment;
  • a learning disability;
  • a physical illness;
  • chronic or acute mental ill health (including dementia);
  • addiction to alcohol or drugs;
  • physical and/or mental health issues;
  • physical, mental or emotional frailty (temporary or permanent) that leaves the person unable to protect him or herself from exploitation or harm
  • a permanent or temporary reduction in physical, mental or emotional capacity , brought about by life events such as bereavement or previous abuse or trauma.

Where a person is receiving support from services offered by the church, always consider whether or not that person could be seen as vulnerable.