Caring for Generations

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JF&CS Blog

Social Bullying
October 22, 2013
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Posted by Marsha Frankel

elder bullyingWhat does social bullying look like among older adults? Not so different than among adolescents, with the exception of cyber bullying. Most common are gossiping and spreading rumors about another elder, making critical comments within the victim’s hearing, or comments such as, “You can’t sit here. I’m saving the seat for a friend.” This type of behavior occurs in senior centers, in senior living communities, and wherever groups of seniors gather.

Since I last blogged about this topic more than two years ago, JF&CS has been busy seeking effective interventions to make a difference in the lives of older adults. Last spring’s incident of a 68-year-old bus monitor in upstate New York being bullied by 7th graders was posted on YouTube. It led to even more interest in the topic and questions about why the bus monitor did not speak up and why no one else intervened. We have been developing approaches to help staff and older adults speak up when social bullying occurs. We have presented to senior groups including the Essex County Triad and Newton JCC Seniors and received very positive responses. Participants particularly appreciated watching presenters demonstrate how to respond to bullies through role playing. Research is increasingly teaching us that bullying occurs in front of other people 85% of the time and stops more than half of the time if a witness speaks up. We also know that if someone supports the victim, even after the bullying, the harmful effects are lessened. This is as true for older adults as it is for children and adolescents.

Our work is supported in part by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health because they too realize the negative impact bullying has on the health of our older adults. Currently we are recommending a four-pronged intervention strategy:

  1. Organizations should have a zero tolerance policy and create a caring and respectful atmosphere with staff that have been trained and are supported to intervene.
  2. Bullies need consistent limits and to be encouraged to interact in more socially appropriate ways.
  3. Victims of bullying must be taught to respond assertively and be supported in getting help.
  4. Bystanders can be shown how to recognize bullying and how to safely intervene or get help.

This spring JF&CS staff will be presenting at the national conference of the American Society on Aging in San Diego on ways of empowering older adults to successfully reduce social bullying through being assertive, speaking up, and seeking help while emotionally supporting the victim.

Marsha FrankelMarsha Frankel, LICSW, is the Clinical Director of JF&CS Senior Services and the Director of Mental Health. She is a frequent presenter to lay and professional groups on topics ranging from social bullying to mental health issues.
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