Identifying vulnerable older people and understanding the causes and consequences of their vulnerability is of human concern and an essential task of social policy. To date, vulnerability in old age has mainly been approached by identifying high risk groups, like the poor, childless, frail or isolated. Yet vulnerability is the outcome of complex interactions of discrete risks, namely of being exposed to a threat, of a threat materialising, and of lacking the defences or resources to deal with a threat. In this article, we review approaches to vulnerability in various disciplines in order to develop a systematic framework for approaching vulnerability. This framework distinguishes and examines the interactions among the domains of exposure, threats, coping capacities and outcomes. Drawing on European and Asian gerontological literature, we discuss what might be meant by these domains and their place in the understanding of vulnerability in old age. Two case studies are presented – one on homelessness in Britain, the other on familial care provision in Indonesia – to illustrate the ways in which specific vulnerabilities are created and distributed over the lifecourse.
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