Professionals address elder bullying

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By Brian Goslow

Three years ago, the marketing director of a small residential assisted living community in a western suburb of Boston contacted Marcia Frankel, clinical director of senior services for the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Greater Boston, to ask if she would come and talk to the staff about bullying that was going on at the facility.

The nation’s attention had recently been grabbed by the suicide of South Hadley teenager Phoebe Prince, who had emigrated here from Ireland and took her own life after being taunted and bullied at school, but Frankel hadn’t thought about bullying among seniors until that call.

“Afterward I started looking into bullying in the senior community and speaking with colleagues around the country and trying to develop some strategies for effectively intervening,” said Frankel. “I absolutely think this wouldn’t have gotten the attention it has if it hadn’t been for the concerns about teen bullying and with even younger children.”

According to the Administration on Aging, “Hundreds of thousands of older persons are abused, neglected and exploited (each year). In addition, elders throughout the United States lose an estimated $2.6 billion dollars or more annually due to elder financial abuse and exploitation. These are funds that could have been used to pay for basic needs such as housing, food and medical care.”

The abuse occurs in every demographic. “It’s still very early in being researched, but most people give figures of about 20 percent of elders encountering some level of bullying at some point in their life,” Frankel said.

Frankel created a PowerPoint presentation that is being adapted by organizations in Massachusetts and throughout the United States looking to address the issue. “Is it Bullying? Strategies for Assessing and Intervening with Older Adults” identifies bullying as a “type of aggressive behavior” in which “someone is trying to gain power over another person.” It can be verbal, physical or the act of isolating the individual from others.

A controlling spouse, relative or roommate who wasn’t physically abusive earlier may become so when the pair is older, living in close quarters and spending more time together.

“Now they’re in their late 70s, early 80s, and they’re together 24/7,” Frankel said. “It certainly can take its toll. Unfortunately, bullying can escalate and it can go from verbal bullying to actual physical instances of assault.”

Dealing with bullying becomes much more difficult if the “bully” is suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. They may say — or do — something for which it’s human nature to respond in kind. Frankel was called to assist at one senior facility where residents were insulting some younger staff members, which made for an uncomfortable climate for everyone there.

“The wait staff in assisted living are often high school students and some of them speak in a way that can be challenging for seniors who have hearing loss,” she said. Some residents called the teen workers stupid and said derogatory things about them. “The staff didn’t know how to respond to these elders who were scaring them,” explained Frankel.

Most health care and residential living facility staffers are instructed how to respond if confronted in this fashion. “Most of them have gotten pretty thick-skinned about responding and that is discussed with them,” Frankel said. “One of the things I try to make a big point about and that I think is crucial is that all bad behavior isn’t bullying and you have to differentiate when people are expressing things and are ‘disinhibited,’ as we say, because of dementia or other mental illnesses. It becomes very challenging when it’s somebody with Alzheimer’s who is not screening what they’re saying.”

Seniors are also known to bully each other. Frequently, abusive arguments break out at senior living facilities or senior centers over bingo, lunch or event seating. This form of bullying can cause someone to stop participating in activities, potentially leading them to withdraw socially, feel rejected, and become anxious and/or depressed and even suicidal.

Frankel has talked to administrators about people who take over and make what’s intended to be public space into their “private” space. “There are certain places people gather and those are heightened places where social bullying goes on,” she said. “Near the mailboxes is a very big area as are front lobbies and in nice weather, often where people sit outside on benches and chairs.”

As more administrators began to recognize that bullying was indeed going on at their facilities, they began to seek ways of addressing it. Jason R. Ebacher, assistant superintendant and director of training, staff development and TRIAD (a program in which seniors and law enforcement works together to address issues of concern) for the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, has been getting a growing number of requests to speak on the issue at senior centers in his region.

“One particular senior center called me and said they’d like me to give a talk because they need to put their foot down,” Ebacher said. The center staff had recognized that when they failed to intervene in aggressive situations, some had taken it as a sign that it was OK to act that way. “They had some seniors that were not going to the senior center anymore out of fear of being bullied or harassed by other seniors,” said Ebacher.

He said there’s a fine line between abuse and bullying. “A lot of times, I’ll get questions when I’m giving a talk like, ‘Geez, this has happened to me or this has happened to me’ and a lot of times it’s actually more of an abuse situation, whether it’s physical, emotional, mental — in those times, I say, if it’s an abuse situation, you contact the local law enforcement authorities and handle it that way. Or you contact your senior center or you let somebody know.”

Frankel said bullying is a form of abuse that involves an attempt to exert power/control over another person.

Instead of clearly defining the two, Ebacher preferred to give their differences:

•Violence (abuse) has generally been decreasing in America, bullying has not.

•Violence is against the law, while bullying generally isn’t unless it crosses the line into harassment or assault.

•Violence is generally seen as an unacceptable type of behavior; (while) more people accept bullying as a normal part of life.

Ebacher credits Frankel’s research and her “Is it Bullying” presentation as providing a guideline to address bullying issues. The main objectives of the program is to identify key characteristics of social bullying among older adults in a variety of settings; distinguish between bad behavior and bullying; and learning how bystanders can help reduce bullying behavior.

Bystanders sometimes remain silent when they see bullying, be it because “it’s none of my business,” they fear getting hurt or becoming the next victim or feel powerless to intervene and don’t know what to do. However, studies show getting involved makes a huge difference. When someone speaks up, the bullying stops 50 percent of the time, usually within 10 seconds.

During one of Ebacher’s talks, he overheard an older person bullying another older person. So he stopped talking and told the audience, “ ‘You know what? It’s all about respect. Have respect for your other elders that are in the senior centers and act like an adult.’ ”

He has found that if during his talks, an individual has repeat questions, they’re usually about the person’s own personal situation. He usually asks to speak to the person after the event. Oftentimes, he finds out the “bully” is a family member or person entrusted to look after a loved one whose physical or mental state is in decline. “It could be anybody. Anybody could be somebody’s power of attorney or somebody’s guardian. Unfortunately, the majority of times, it’s the immediate family, a loved one,” said Ebacher.

“Neglect is huge. Some of the seniors don’t have food in their house and the person that’s responsible for doing that is not going out and getting the things they need to live.” The worst level of abuse occurs when someone with the power of attorney is stealing money from a person.

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