“Things have a price and can be sold, but people have dignity; they are worth more than things and are above price….”
“In a frail human being, each one of us is invited to recognize the face of the Lord…”
Pope Francis spoke these words last year in his address to the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations. These statements bring to mind images of the many people I have met in my life who would be considered vulnerable: James, my proud 95-year-old neighbor and historian; Anne, a trusting 89-year-old widow for whom we gave rides to church; Tom, the 23-year-old man with Down syndrome and autism in my sacramental preparation class — he taught me more about recognizing Christ’s love than I could ever imagine. How incomplete my life and our world would be without these souls and the lessons they teach us.
How protective I would feel if someone threatened to harm them. I am sure we all have someone in our life like this.
As adults, most of us have experienced a time or situation where we felt and were vulnerable. Maybe we were completely dependent on others for transportation, meals, finances, decision-making or personal care. These times may have been after a surgery or injury or illness, but for many of us they were temporary.
When I experienced these moments, I certainly recall how much I was at the “mercy” of someone else not only to help me get through my daily routine, but to ensure my worth and dignity. It is important for us to recall these times so we can understand and empathize with our family and neighbors who may experience some form of vulnerability. It is our duty to protect the vulnerable and ensure their safety. In doing so, we protect their dignity and intrinsic worth.
But who are considered to be “vulnerable adults?”
According to the Alaska Division of Senior and Disability Services, Alaska law defines a vulnerable adult as a person 18 years of age or older who, “because of incapacity, mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, advanced age, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, fraud, confinement or disappearance, is unable to meet the person’s own needs or to seek help without assistance.”
We may not want to imagine the ways that a vulnerable adult can be harmed, but we must recognize that this exists and is terribly underreported. Vulnerable can be victims of abandonment, abuse, exploitation, neglect, self-neglect or undue influence. They may be verbally harassed and threatened and intimidated, emotionally, physically or sexually assaulted and taken advantage of financially. For many, a lack of self-reporting may be due to a fear of losing one’s home or independence.
The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) found that women experienced a higher rate of abuse than men, and that one in 10 adults experienced abuse, not including financial abuse.
One study estimated that only one in 14 cases of elder abuse ever comes to the attention of authorities. Another showed that 67 percent of 200 disabled adult women indicated that they experienced physical abuse, and 53 percent had experienced sexual abuse in their lifetime. The NCEA identified that this is an “increasing trend” in this country.
According to the NCEA, those who abuse the elderly or disabled are usually known to them and can be family members, or service providers.
Protecting vulnerable adults is part of the church’s mission of supporting safe environments. I encourage you to learn more about resources and how to protect our vulnerable adults by going to the State of Alaska Senior and Disability Services website at dhss.alaska.gov/dsds.
To report any concerns that a vulnerable adult may be abused or exploited, call the State of Alaska’s Division of Senior and Disability Services at 1-800-478-9996.
The writer is the director of the Office of Safe Environment for the Archdiocese of Anchorage. She can be reached at (907) 297-7736.